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Bulls’ Noah works hard, even while having fun

Published: Monday, Feb. 18, 2013 9:28 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — HOUSTON — Joakim Noah is tired.

On this All-Star weekend Saturday alone, he has made a community service appearance, addressed reporters from many of the 46 countries represented here, practiced, attended a players’ association meeting, signed autographs at a promotional appearance and hosted the roughly 30 family members and friends he invited to share his weekend.

The Bulls’ center is walking down a hotel hallway wearing Bermuda shorts, a casual black dress shirt and flip flops, headed to one more media obligation for NBA Entertainment. Suddenly, an elevator opens and several French-speaking fans and friends pop out, embracing their countryman.

Noah converses with them in their native language, offering one last “Merci” as he hugs them goodbye. He sighs, then gathers himself for the final interview.

“Gotta give it up for those who helped me get here,” he says, to no one in particular.

From the moment Noah flooded Twitter with raw, genuine thanks and emotion on the Jan. 24 night coaches voted him into his first All-Star Game through this weekend, Noah has savored and shared this experience. That’s because he wasn’t sure playing in Sunday’s game ever would happen. And he knows it did because of the hard work he put in, which was demanded by those who believed most in him.

“I always told anyone who would listen he would be an NBA All-Star one day,” Tyrone Green says. “I knew because of his work ethic.”

Green is one of Noah’s earliest mentors, the longtime New York youth coach who let Noah live with him in the summers while his father, Yannick, played professional tennis in France and his mother and sister visited family abroad. Green hung the nickname “Sticks” on Noah because of his frail frame.

Noah has talked consistently about how Green toughened him up. From pickup games in Green’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn to drills Green ran to the point they would miss the last bus home and walk, they worked.

To this day, Noah still calls him Mr. Green. His attendance here this weekend was mandatory.

“Me and Jo have a special relationship,” Green says from a local hotel. “He’s like the son I never had. I love him so much and am so proud of him. He has earned everything he got.”

From Yannick, Noah saw first-hand the discipline it took to be a pro athlete. They would go for early-morning jogs through the streets of Paris and play pickup games, with Yannick winning and then taking basketballs away because Joakim was such a sore loser.

But this competitiveness also looked familiar.

“I learned a lot from my father,” Joakim Noah says. “I’m very lucky to have a father who was a professional athlete. Throughout my journey in basketball, I always have someone to talk to in my father. I know how hard he had to work as an athlete. I don’t think I would be in this position right now if it wasn’t for the way he taught me how to work.

“He played with a lot of fire. He was somebody who didn’t have a good backhand, didn’t have a good forehand, had a weird, unorthodox style when he played tennis. People kind of say the same about me. I’m proud about that.”

Yannick arrived here on Saturday. Joakim had joked on Friday he told his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, to stay in Hawaii because “this is going to be a boys’ trip.” Joakim also spoke eloquently about the impact of Florida’s Billy Donovan, who couldn’t attend because of his coaching commitments.

“It’s always more than just basketball with him,” Noah says of Donovan. “He’s someone who works really hard. But he understands me as a person and as a player. That’s why I go back every summer and spend time there.”

The joy those who know Noah feel for his All-Star ascension is palpable. Think of all the touchstone moments Noah has experienced during his six seasons with the Bulls. The seersucker suit, bow tie and wild, frizzy hair on NBA draft night in 2007. The shocking team-ordered suspension for an incident with assistant coach Ron Adams during an inconsistent rookie season. The steal, full-court drive, dunk and foul out of Paul Pierce during the epic, seven-game playoff series against the Celtics in 2009. Standing up to LeBron James and Kevin Garnett. Alienating the entire cities of Cleveland and Philadelphia with critical comments. Calling the Miami Heat “Hollywood as hell.”

And on and on and on.

“I love Jo,” Luol Deng said. “That’s my teammate and my buddy. He drives me crazy sometimes, but I’m so happy for him. Everything he does is about the team. A lot of times, he’ll take the heat or attract attention on purpose to help us out and because he thrives on that. He’s a true leader.”

Back at the hotel, Noah enters the interview room for NBA Entertainment. He slumps down and talks in soft, tired tones, offering mostly tame answers. All-Star events will be broadcast in 215 countries and in 47 languages and NBA-TV and NBA.com are airing more than 140 hours of All-Star coverage.

That makes the moment Noah finally perks up all the more hilarious. He is asked if he has any pregame rituals. Noah sits up in his chair, stares into the camera and smiles.

“I sacrifice a live chicken before every game,” he says.

Laughter is stifled. The interview ends. Noah hikes up his shorts and shuffles off in his flip-flops, slapping an acquaintance on the back.

“That was pretty good, huh?” he says.

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