CHICAGO – Joakim Noah, rocked by the Chicago Bulls’ trade of teammate Luol Deng more than the rest, needed a minute, as they say, to collect his thoughts. He needed more than 7,000 minutes as it turned out, putting off the inquiring minds and prying eyes for five days and eight possible media sessions in the aftermath of Monday’s late-night, team-jolting transaction.
Finally, near the end Saturday night, Noah shared his feelings. One of the league’s most emotional players spoke softly, sometimes haltingly. This wasn’t just about basketball.
“The trade definitely hurt. But we’ve got to move on,” Noah said, sitting at his dressing stall after the Bulls’ 103-97 victory over Charlotte at United Center. “I feel confident in this team. We’re working really hard. A lot of people say this is a business and all that. This game is more than a business to me. I put everything I got into this. So … I feel like Lu is the same way, so it was hard for me to digest. That’s just my perspective.
“Everybody has a job. I’m not mad at anybody. I’m not mad at the organization or anything like that. It’s just, my brother’s not here no more.
“I just needed a little bit of time to digest that.”
The passion Noah brings to his “job” separates him from some of the league’s clock-punchers. The meaning he finds in its essence, the bonds and the friendships, are dialed up for the Bulls center a little more than most. Lots of players accept, grudgingly or not, the “it’s a business” outlook because it offers a shred of Kevlar when dealings, like this one, turn rough.
Noah works without a vest.
“We’re just going to go out there and give it everything we’ve got. There’s no tanking. There’s no … None of that,” he said, with a little defiance. “We’re going to go out there and give 150 percent and when people say ‘Chicago Bulls,’ I want people in Chicago to be proud of that. Even if there’s four guys hurt, guys are hurting, no matter who’s out…”
The Bulls (17-18) won for the fifth consecutive time and have taken eight of 10, creeping up on the No. 4 seed in the East. They’re winning with the likes of D.J. Augustin and Tony Snell where Derrick Rose and Deng used to be, with Mike Dunleavy taking on Deng’s starting role and a 10-day pickup like Cartier Martin chipping in 11 points and 26 minutes barely 24 hours after his arrival.
Noah scored 19 points with 14 rebounds, a human Taser again with the energy zap, orchestrating the Bulls’ attack out top like he had tuxedo tails and a baton. In his last six games, Noah has averaged 12.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.7 assists. The three since Deng was sent packing to Cleveland? No dip whatsoever.
“All this adversity just makes me stronger,” Noah said. “It just makes me stronger as a person and as a player. I’ve never been so hungry. We’ve been through a lot. Derrick’s injury was really hard. Lu not being here is really hard. But we’re going to go out there. Like I said, there’s no tank in this team, and we’re going to go out there and really make this city proud.”
Some of the bigger-picture stuff, like coach Tom Thibodeau‘s strategic adjustments, management’s grand plan and how the changes in the team might impact Noah’s vision, he wasn’t ready to tackle. Asked, for instance, if he felt the Bulls’ front office still was trying to win, he said: “Yep. Yep. I think so. I don’t have to be happy with the decision that they made. Everybody has a job to do. … I wanted him to stay but I’ve got to live with it.”
Does he understand why Deng, who will be a free agent this summer, was dealt once he turned down a reported three-year, $30 million extension offer, the triggered pulled now rather than losing him for nothing in the summer?
“Uh, it’s hard to say. Because at the end of the day, that’s my brother,” Noah said. “He’s not here anymore. That’s how I see it. They see the game differently. They’re not out there on the court. They’re not out there on the plane. They don’t know how much Lu meant to me personally.”
Looking beyond this season, with the uncertainty over Rose’s health and level of play, Deng’s absence, amnesty speculation about forward Carlos Boozer and the slamming of this group’s window as a contender, was Noah getting a sense of their sudden new world?
“I’m not there. I’m not there,” he said. “That’s not my job. All I can do is help this team stay focused on the next day, the task at hand. Be out there on the court. Be a good leader. Keep everybody’s energy levels high.”
But then, just in case management had some lottery dreams, more crafty maneuvers and added overhauls in mind, Noah threw up a deft block. He essentially offered up his mission statement on Chicago basketball. No advanced analytics or clinical assessment of “expiring assets” welcome, thank you.
“This is a city that, when I come to the game, I see the guy selling newspapers on the street, it’s cold outside,” Noah said. “When he sees me driving by, he’s excited. You know what I mean? He’s excited, he’s like, ‘Let’s go Bulls, get it done tonight!’ I feel like I play for that guy.
“When I look at the top of the arena and Thibs is about to call timeout, I look up top and see a guy who looks this big [tiny], and he’s up cheering, jumping up and down, that’s the guy I play for.
“That’s what the city represents. There’s a lot of hardship here, a lot of adversity in this city. And I feel like whenever I play basketball, I want people to be proud of their team.”