BY ARGIE GRIGORAKOS
Leader can be defined in many different ways when it comes to team sports. It may be the person who gathers the best statistics. It can be the athlete who leads by example, or it can be the player who picks up his teammates when the most adverse circumstances present themselves. Many say, you see the real character of an individual when they are faced with the most difficult circumstances. In sports, injuries can plague a team for numerous seasons, and leave a wounded player in a very dark place. The way teammates rally around adversity and hardships is the most telling.
In the 2012 NBA playoffs the sports world saw an incredible athlete crumble to the ground ailing in great pain, creating a cold breeze throughout the Windy city. In a matter of seconds Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls tore his ACL, and Chicago fans were left feeling despair for a young athlete who is a great leader in his own right. As panic and shock spread throughout the arena, it may have not even been noticed, as DRose was grabbing onto his knee in great pain, who quickly sprinted to his side as play had stopped on the other end of the basketball court. It was the player who would lead the Chicago Bulls for the next 2 years, Joakim Noah. The single act may have illustrated best what awaited the Bulls as the next few years would unfold. Noah watched his teammate, friend and brother limp into the dark hallway disappearing and never returning that afternoon. From that point forward everything would change. After extensive rehab, Derrick Rose would return for the start of the 2014 NBA season, but it was short lived as he tore his meniscus in his right knee in the tenth game of the season. Pooh would be declared out for the remainder of the campaign.
The league would continue to move on, and Derrick’s teammates would have to carry on. More bad news would eventually come in the form of one of the longest tenure Bulls being traded for financial flexibility, Luol Deng. With the trade of Deng to Cleveland, the Chicago Bulls officially became a team in transition, as two of their leaders were no longer taking the hardwood floor with the rest of the roster. The public perception would be that the team would rebuild and look for help in the lottery. However, Joakim Noah wasn’t signing off on that. Rewinding back to the 2013 NBA playoffs, Noah’s will and determination was on full display when he led the Bulls to a 99-93 clinching series win on the road. In game 7, the Florida Gator was able to tally 24 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists in the narrow victory. The most impressive detail of his play was he did it while battling a severe case of plantar fasciitis. He guaranteed the victory going into the game, and backed up his words with a game for the ages. He took the responsibility by making his bold prediction and performed under stressful circumstances. Like a great leader should do, he ultimately took the pressure of his teammates. Through his inspirational play, and showing his high tolerance of pain, Joakim Noah led the Bulls to the victory. That spring evening only showed a glimpse of what the next 12 months would bring.
As the calendar year flipped to 2014, so did the play of the Chicago Bulls. They started the season 12-18 and Tom Thibodeau’s team was desperately looking for answers. The confidence of the Chicago Bulls was shaken, but it was never destroyed. Joakim Noah made sure of that. He had gone on record to publicly state that he plays for the average fan, and tanking games would do a disservice to the city of Chicago and its players. Something had to change, sacrifices had to be made, and number 13 would be at the center of it all. The coaching staff looked to tweak their offence to allow more ball movement and passing. The orchestrator of this new offense would be Joakim Noah. He was always a great defender. He always had a knack to rebound in traffic, rotate countless times in one defensive sequence, and block shots coming from the weak side. However, with changes to the roster due to injuries and trades, Tom Thibodeau would ask Joakim to focus on something else as well, offense.
In the history of the game, very few players who played the center position were asked to be the distributer in the offense, and now Joakim Noah would join the selective group. Great names, like Chamberlain, Divac and Sabonis were great passers that were used in the high and low post to create ball movement seeking cutters and open shooters, and now Joakim Noah would be asked to do the same. He would become the focal point in the offense, essentially becoming the “point center”. For the first time in his career, Noah’s team was asking him to do something that he was not accustomed to do. He would perform the role beautifully.
Many athletes in sports say they will do anything to win, but very few would step out of their comfort zone for the success of the team. Noah did not just accept the new role, he embraced it. He didn’t run away from the difficult task, he faced it head on, and was successful in performing it. He would facilitate the offense in the half court set at the top of the key, and also at times lead the fast break after gathering the defensive rebound. Noah went from doing everything on defense, to now doing everything on offense. He did not just evolve as a basketball player as the season went on, but he also revolutionized the center position.
Historically, very few players at his position did what Joakim was doing. The most surprising and important thing that was happening as the season was unfolding, was that the team was winning. Coach Thibbs stumbled across a formula that was working, and the confidence of the team was growing. At the fore front of the team’s success was Joakim Noah. In a game against the New York Knicks, he posted 14 assists, the most by a starting center since Sam Lacey in 1978-79. He also joined Hakeeem Olajuwon, Pau Gasol and Vlade Divac as the only centers to produce at least 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 12 assists in a single game. He would tally 4 triple doubles in the season, and rank second in the category for the NBA. Joakim Noah was having success only hall of fame players experienced.
Chicago Fans were realizing that they were witnessing something very special. Night in and night out Joakim was hearing “MVP” chants which was much deserving, but like any leader would do he dismissed the praise and said there was only one MVP on the team, Derrick Rose. Joakim Noah would go on to average 12.6 points per game, 11.3 rebounds per game, and 5.2 assists per game. All sensational numbers. He would go on to break Tom Boerwinkle’s franchise record for most assists by a center. The Bulls had a 36-16 record in their last 52 games, which was surprising, considering that the national media had projection them in the draft lottery a few months before. Ultimately, Joakim Noah would complete his story book season by winning the defensive player of the year. Individual accolades are wonderful, but what drives a player like Joakim Noah are championships. Noah has cemented himself as a cornerstone of the Bulls franchise, and the true leader of the team. 20 years from now when fans debate the great leaders of the Association, someone can say, “I NO-AH guy”.