Photo Credit: Rob Mercier via Flickr
Joakim Noah saw two roads diverged in a yellow wood, pushed Robert Frost’s head into a hole in the tree trunk, used his shoulders as a ladder to climb up to the top and swung from branch to branch in his pursuit of success.
It’s undeniable. The man is noticeably wonky. Really, Noah’s unconventional by definition: A Frenchman from Brooklyn gifted with more speed and agility than anything you’d associate with an NBA center. When he’s not posterizing small forwards and draining his signature spiralling jumper, he can be found trapping your favourite point guard at halfcourt, recovering in time to box out and sprinting— in his robotic unorthodox gait —past the competition in what feels like one elongated motion.
Of course, you know all this. You’ve seen it. You’ve even felt it; that uncomfortable yet satisfying dissonance of watching Noah dominate a game with what appears to be ten parts effort and a smidgen of violence can be tough to digest. For Noah himself, the screaming, the constant seemingly-deranged movement, the reflexive bantering; being one with, no, exceeding the perpetual motion of an NBA game must feel bewilderingly cathartic.
From trying to win the United Center crowd free Big Macs at the end of a fourth quarter win to his infamous “Stick stickity” Twitter bio, Noah has all the makings of a prototypical stoner, except that his on-court style perpetuates the opposite of perceived stoner culture: an interminable motor, unparalleled effort and hiding under the ruffled surface, piles of skill and understanding. Noah himself feels like a living paradox, like a somewhat graceful version of some ungraceful species.
His defense, grit and [insert sports cliche of your choice about players that appear to be trying really hard] feel quintessentially Bullsian, or Thibsian if you prefer, and in some ways mirror the styles of fellow try-hard’s like Kenneth Faried and Anderson Varejão. Noah’s style doesn’t break much ground. There are players who’ve made careers out of creating cacophony from nothing through what appears to be the pure exercise of mind and body, all the while obstinately staying true to their quirky, not-so-NBA-moulded selves. The difference between him and every other wayward athlete that pulls no punches and is on a relentless pursuit to be himself? Noah’s an All-Star defensive center that you can run your offense through for stretches. And when these gangly figures tried to make improvements, they didn’t do so as defiantly. They attempted to develop real jump shots, not improper twisty flings. But hey, it goes in. That’s Noah in a nutshell: weirdness that works.
His odd techniques make it easy to write Noah off as a clown. But even if this were the case, Noah’s particular brand of buffoonery is what makes him so compelling. Like I said, other big men have toed the line of recklessness and chaos. But Noah’s steadfast dedication to carving his own path has invented a form of scrappiness as high basketball art. That’s not to say Noah is exceedingly careless, nor do I mean to downplay his talent. That’s an old story: Joakim Noah is all heart, hustle and toughness. Except he’s so much more than that.
Rather, Noah’s genius hinges on cautious balance. He doesn’t swerve out of control anymore. He crisscrosses through the lane and is at the mantle of transition attacks but he doesn’t move any faster than he knows to be good for him. He doesn’t just stumble into ‘easy baskets’. Noah doesn’t live to simply capitalize off mistakes, he creates and exploits them. Without careful calculation, he’d be stifled by foul trouble at every turn. Far from a bundle of manic movement, Noah carries an innate awareness on both sides of the court; one that allows him to pass with certitude and accuracy, anchor a Thibodeau defense and figure out just where on the floor he should be leading the chaos his nature inescapably creates. In this way too, the tornado-like motion of his jumper is just a reinforcement of Noah’s unequivocal bond with himself.
In truth, Joakim’s game takes more sophistication, talent and hard work than most of us will muster in our lives. The process has been taxing, demanding, and ultimately ongoing. Still, this is a man who wakes up in the morning and is at his best when he’s the most conspicuous, precise version of himself. In essence, he does what he loves and he does it the way he loves to do it. Go on Jo, clap perplexingly at Mario Chalmers. I’ve missed that brilliance since May.