Father Time appeared to arrive for Joakim Noah in the first half of 2017, and even the former Bulls legend doubted if he’d ever play again.
Noah, who was in Chicago on Wednesday for the third time as a visitor, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in February of that year, prematurely ending a disastrous first season in New York in which he averaged 5.0 points and 8.8 rebounds on the first year of a four-year, $72 million contract. One month later he was suspended 20 games for violating the league’s anti-drug policy after testing positive for a substance found commonly in over-the-counter supplements. One month after the suspension was announced Noah underwent surgery on a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
Year 2 in New York didn’t help matters. After serving his suspension Noah played just seven games in mop-up duty and reached a breaking point in January after he was sent home following a confrontation with head coach Jeff Hornacek. He was eventually waived in October prior to the start of the 2018 season, with the Knicks eating the final two years and $38 million on his contract.
At 32 years old and with 20,000 career minutes under his belt, the writing was on the wall. An unceremonious exit in Chicago under Fred Hoiberg, multiple surgeries, a suspension and a dismissal from his own team spelled the end of his career.
“Yeah, there was a time when I didn’t know if I was going to be able to keep playing,” Noah said Wednesday at the United Center. “There was definitely a time during that time that I didn’t want to play basketball anymore.”
But Noah wasn’t going to let that career, one he had built on overcoming adverse odds and toughing out difficult times, end on that note. During his exile in New York, Noah was seen working out and honing his craft, preparing for a return that many believed wouldn’t come. Once Tom Thibodeau reportedly had no interest in bringing Noah to the TimberBulls in Minnesota, it seemed unlikely Noah would latch on anywhere.
But the Grizzlies took a chance on Noah in early December, albeit on a veteran’s minimum contract and in a reserve role behind four-time All-Star Marc Gasol. And while Noah hasn’t been able to replicate the success he had in Chicago, he’s held his own. Over his last eight games Noah has averaged 8.8 points and 6.9 rebounds in 20.2 minutes, and on Saturday he turned back the clock with 19 points and 14 rebounds in a win over the Pelicans.
After playing his entire career under the bright lights of Chicago and New York, a more reserved Noah has found a spot to reclaim his career in Memphis. Just as humbling was his time away from the game.
“I just didn’t want to leave the game like that. I feel like I worked too hard my whole life to end it like that,” he said. “I hadn’t had peace on the court in years and I wasn’t enjoying playing basketball anymore and I’ve always been somebody who loved basketball, loved to compete, loved to be in the locker room with my teammates. So I wanted to find that again, and I worked my ass off to be in this position.”
Noah isn’t the first reclamation project to return healthy to Chicago this season. Last month a rejuvenated Derrick Rose brought his talents back to his hometown, slicing up the Bulls for 24 points and eight assists in 38 minutes.
Noah didn’t have the same outcome as Rose did – he had a respectable 8 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks in 20 minutes – but it was still refreshing to see another member of the 2010s Bulls back in the United Center. Though no longer chasing titles, guys like Noah, Rose, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng have found success post-Chicago, and Noah doesn’t feel like any of what those teams accomplished is lessened by the fact that it didn’t end in a parade down Michigan Avenue and a seventh ring.
“I don’t see it like that. There can only be one champ. I look back on those times, and those were really special times,” Noah said. “I know we’ve all gone through a lot. We all have our different journeys. Those guys are my brothers for life. I think that there’s even championship teams that don’t even have that kind of bond. It was a special bond. I’m just happy to see my old teammates doing well. To me, that’s almost as important as winning a championship.”
He's not the Sixth Man of the Year candidate Rose is and the man responsible for ending his championship runs, LeBron James, was just named to his 15th consecutive All-Star Game. Noah’s a shell of himself, but the very fact that he’s found his way back to the court after 2017 is perhaps just as unlikely and incredible as the accomplishments from Rose and James. Noah was named to two All-Star teams, won Defensive Player of the Year and was named First Team All-NBA in 2014. However, as his career ends he’s making sure it happens on the court, on his own terms.
“There’s always people saying or comparing to what it was, or ‘you’re not as good as you used to be,’ but that’s not what it is to me,” Noah said. “I have my kids, my daughter’s able to watch me play and my people are able to watch me play. I can end this thing on my note.”
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