Superlatives are difficult to keep under control as this piece about Joakim Noah begins. It’s an old but familiar sensation; few Chicago athletes have ever made the city’s fans feel more fire beneath the kindling of the stories they tell themselves, about who and how they are. In the 21st century, no one has really come close. Six years into his career and one into mine as a sportswriter, Noah was so great that he tricked me into thinking that the line of work would always have such giving, inspiring subjects to chronicle. He took a team whose essence was defined by tragically lowered expectations and transformed them into something insanely memorable. And in doing so, he taught many that there are much, much cooler things in sports than winning championships.
The 2012-13 and 2013-14 NBA seasons were sandwiched between a spate of campaigns in which Noah’s Bulls were spoken of as title contenders. No one really talks about that now, and they shouldn’t—in reality, there was no getting past LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Between that group and his Cavs and Lakers teams, the world’s still-best player went to the Finals nine out of ten times in the past decade, and he was eight-for-eight when he played in the East. But as a result of the then ongoing definition of James’ greatness, and as a course of NBA media needing more things to talk about, the Bulls were tossed into the discourse as one of those teams That Could, and this surely made fans twinge with a kind of hope they thought had died with Michael Jordan’s departure in 1998.
It turns out this sort of hope, though, is not all that fun. We didn’t know this in the 90’s, because there was no losing with that team—the hope never betrayed you, always fulfilled you. But that cycle of feeling, much like Jordan and now James, is not reality. There is no aspiring towards Jordan’s blend of strange, ethereal anti-gravity powers and uncanny sharkism; or towards James’ being the platonic form that Marvel animators seek in vain to replicate. In the two seasons that Joakim Noah put the Bulls on his back there were, to the contrary, things taught and felt about real human striving that none of the modern game’s very best players could ever impart. The closest we’ve come to something similar since was, ironically, in what Noah’s old teammate Jimmy Butler just did with the contemporary Heat against James’ Lakers in the 2020 NBA Finals: not winning, but more importantly managing to chisel an indelible shape into an unscalable mountain that nobody thought could possibly go there. He spit into the face of Mount Rushmore and his saliva burned the rock.
This is the kind of thing that, when you are on the winning side—convincingly so, even—makes you pause and wonder if you’d rather be over there; a rustle of the bones I very occasionally knew sitting back watching Jordan and Scottie Pippen wreck the league as I grew up. Two times come to mind: in series against the Indiana Pacers in 1998, and for much of the 1996 Finals against the Seattle SuperSonics, I felt my team’s conquest had been etched so thoroughly over with the imprint of the enemy’s identity that I dreamed of being them instead. The broader basketball imagination, reductively #ringz-obsessed, does not often remember how things went down in this way, but myself and many others who have lived too much in the sport to still think only of formalized gold, we have definitely come to this particular place.
And in Noah, those of us in Chicago watching the game for this kind of insurgent anti-Goliath defiance found our ultimate hero. It started in 2009, when in his second year the Bulls made beautiful noise in an unwinnable first-round playoff series against the returning champion Boston Celtics. This was when Noah, already an NCAA legend on the floor and off it for his singular wiggliness, became himself as a professional: stealing the ball from Paul Pierce, and then running the length of the floor not quite quickly enough to escape Pierce’s plodding transitional defense. His long hair bounced melodically all the way, and then, despite getting chased down by a pretty slow guy and despite not having much lift in his jump, he dunked it for an and-1. The play sent the series to seven games, after three overtimes in Game 6 of what still stands as the playoff match-up with the most overtime sessions ever. Noah looked up to the United Center ceiling and screamed in harmony with the fans after the play.
And in that play, and scream, a precedent was most assuredly set. The art of wearing you out was a specialty of Noah’s and of his teams, and he alone emerged as an auteur at the act of howling and dancing in ways that would make such hard-won trench warfare victories incredibly difficult to forget. He was, and remains, the greatest celebrator the game has seen, pouring myriad hilarious, impassioned chest-beats, finger wags, and grunts into the blank spaces of the action. This is one of the reasons the fans of every other team hated him—but in a pro wrestling kind of way. Everyone respected what he did on the floor, and everyone ultimately loved basketball more for the theatricality that he brought to it (even, I would argue, the gaudy woman in Miami who once saw him off the floor with a nationally noticed middle finger).
Following 2009 and an inconspicuous 2010, the Bulls played through two of those aforementioned title contention seasons, only to be shut out twice—first by the brick wall of LeBron that Rose kept failingly trying to drive straight through, and then by Rose’s leg giving out on him at the very worst time. It was then that Noah, in 2013 and 2014, wrote the opus of modern Bulls basketball. By becoming a point center, an undyingly creative high-post nexus who foreshadowed the rise of Nikola Jokic, Noah figured out a way to supplement his runs-as-much-as-a-shooting-guard big man work ethic on defense and the glass to become one of the most valuable players in the league. Game after game, he outplayed bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic men, made cuckolds of them with the relentless force of his will.
It was a peak too staggering to maintain. Noah’s extraordinary run was quite literally out-of-body, and as such accelerated the severity of a career-long foot injury he had always admirably played through. And when the Bulls signed Pau Gasol in the summer of 2014, it also created a logjam in the front court that reduced his role—they were no longer so profoundly reliant on him, and a better team for it, but left an infinitely smaller mark. The poetic Joakim Noah spectacle that still defines this era of the franchise was over. And five more injury-riddled seasons later, Noah is retiring. Few will remember what happened in his career after he left Chicago—a bad stint in New York, and two brief ones in Memphis and with the Clippers. The utterance of his name, now and for many years forward, will instead evoke in many a fan the feeling that, actually, because of what he did in Chicago, wonderful things that didn’t previously seem possible now do.