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The Long, Winding Road of Loving and Hating Joakim Noah

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Joakim Noah after just ordering a cheeseburger (Getty Images)

Joakim Noah after just ordering a cheeseburger. (Getty Images)

Even though it seems like it would take very little, there’s a lot of thought that goes into hating someone you’ve never met.

Maybe you’re not a fan of his appearance. Maybe it’s the body language, the unnecessary swagger. Maybe he plays for a team you just don’t like. Maybe he’s too good. Maybe he’s not good enough for the amount of attention he gets.

With Joakim Noah, it all fits.

Noah only made it to the final 8 in Grantland’s 32-player “Most Hated College Basketball Player of the Last 30 Years” bracket, but that’s hardly an accurate assessment of the level of contempt for someone who was still years away from fulfilling his potential as the city of Cleveland’s favorite tourist.

Brook Lopez's reaction to having another shot blocked by Noah. (Getty Images)

Brook Lopez’s reaction to having another shot blocked by Noah. (Getty Images)

The difference between Noah and the Christian Laettners, Tyler Hansbroughs and J.J. Redicks of the world – all of whom were also among America’s least favorite 22-year-olds – is that Noah’s history of hostility has carried over to the next level. Laettner played 13 years in the NBA but was little more than a role player after his first five. Hansbrough isn’t good enough to inspire any sort of serious loathing. Redick has become a genuinely likable guy for the way he’s faced his petulance and transformed himself from a guy who was on his way to being out of the league in three years to a valuable sixth man.

Noah hasn’t changed his persona one bit, and after watching him score 24 points, grab 14 rebounds and block a quarter of Brook Lopez’s 20 shot attempts in the Bulls’ highly impressive Game 7 win Saturday, it’s clear these next four words – ones I never thought I’d say – are true.

That’s a good thing.

________________________________________________________________________________________

You remember the first time you saw that face. You remember being introduced to that scowl, the one with the patchy facial hair that lit up after he made a big play, causing those propeller arms to flail around in celebration.

It was easy to dismiss Noah as Florida’s energy guy at first, the big man who came in and blocked a shot or two, took a charge and occasionally swung momentum. Even when he was averaging 13 points, nearly eight rebounds, two blocks and a steal while helping the Gators win two national titles, it was hard to imagine he’d be more than a seventh or eighth man in the NBA.

Noah reacts to being told he won his money back for finishing last in his NCAA pool. (Getty Images)

Noah reacts to being told he won his money back for finishing last in his NCAA pool. (Getty Images)

Thing is, he did it with the swagger of Shaq. There was nothing Noah himself though he couldn’t do, and along with the hair and the teeth and the screaming and the winning, it was just too much. You didn’t hate those Florida teams for their dominance of college basketball as much as you hated Noah himself for his sense of seemingly undeserved entitlement. He wasn’t the engine that powered 68 wins in a two-year stretch – only one of which once the tourney began was decided by fewer than five points – but a necessary cog, the grit to complement the skill of Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green. At least that’s what would have been convenient to believe.

I had no specific reason to root against those Florida teams other than absolute despising Noah, wanting someone – ANYONE – to pop him in the face, send him back to the bench whimpering and to make absolutely certain that brash, cocky attitude would come back to bite him in the ass.

The Bulls took him ninth overall in the 2007 draft, a night you might remember for Noah’s attempt to be cast in a belated sequel to Dumb and Dumber. That’s a title that might eventually be used for Isiah Thomas’ memoirs, as the Noah pick only became possible after the Knicks’ brilliant president of basketball operations gave it away for Eddy Curry, who refused to take a DNA test over a heart problem. That’s not the outline for Wednesday’s episode of Maury – it’s true.

Noah asks David Stern if he'd prefer to be Harry or Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber II. (NBA.com)

Noah asks David Stern if he’d prefer to be Harry or Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber II. (NBA.com)

It wasn’t a popular pick at the time. Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey didn’t have kind things to say – he would have preferred a guy who’s currently playing in Israel – and after one season, he seemed to be justified. The Bulls went from a 49-33 team that made it to the second round of the playoffs to a 33-49 team that got Scott Skiles fired along the way. Noah was benched thanks to a unanimous vote BY HIS TEAMMATES after he confronted an assistant coach in practice. He was late to practice numerous times and at season’s end was arrested in Gainesville on a charge of – hold your shock to the end of the sentence – possession of marijuana.

As a Cavaliers fan, I now had a vested interest in hating Noah, who was nothing more than a pest at the time Cleveland and Chicago met in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. That Bulls team had no business hanging with LeBron in a playoff series, but that wasn’t for a lack of effort from Noah, who after getting his digs in at vacationing in Northeast Ohio averaged 15 points and 13 rebounds. It was clear that Noah was becoming something more than a role player, a defensive force who learned enough of a mid-range game to be effective at more than just getting putbacks on the offensive end.

This season, with Derrick Rose out and no point guard he trusted enough to consistently initiate the offense, Tom Thibodeau often funneled things through Noah. Always an underrated passer, Noah was the only player in the NBA in 2012-13 to average 11 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks. He’s one of only three players to hit those marks since 1980, with Chris Webber and Kevin Garnett the others.

He made his first All-Star game and finished fourth in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, but Noah was hardly a different guy. He still got ejected for getting into it with Tyson Chandler in a December game against the Knicks and called out Garnett for being a cheap-shot artist a month later.

“He’s a dirty player, man,” Noah said of Garnett. “He’s a dirty player. That’s messed up, man … I’m hurting right now because of an elbow he threw. It’s unbelievable. He’s a dirty player. It’s one thing to be competitive and compete and all that, but don’t be a dirty player. He’s a dirty player.”

Noah’s maturity had to change but the edge could never leave. His drive to win certainly didn’t. The Bulls have been inflicted with everything short of the Ebola virus in the past month and could have packed in this season long ago. No one would have blamed them. There’s a reason Derrick Rose isn’t coming back until training camp, and it’s that Chicago doesn’t have a roster good enough to win an NBA title.

Just don’t tell Noah that. He’s been battling plantar fasciitis since February for what seems like the 347th time in his career (I’ve had it. You can’t walk) and was barely able to move in the first three games of the Bulls’ first-round series with Brooklyn. His team lost games 5 and 6 after that stunning triple-overtime win, Luol Deng had a spinal tap, Kirk Hinrich had the calf of an 85-year-old and there was one more chance for the Bulls to cash in their chips and look forward to 2013-14.

Noah tries to follow the Dunkin' Donuts race on the scoreboard at the United Center. (Getty Images)

Noah tries to follow the Dunkin’ Donuts race on the scoreboard at the United Center. (Getty Images)

Noah wouldn’t let it happen, playing the best game of his NBA career on the road in Game 7. Four blocks in the third when the Nets were starting to come back, eight rebounds in the fourth when the Bulls were trying to hang on. For a man whose mobility was so limited that he lost a crucial jump ball to Deron Williams in Game 6, it was as impressive a performance as it gets.

I don’t hate Joakim Noah any more. Maybe some of that has to do with the fact that he’s gone from being Billy Donovan’s most pompous brat on a team that never lost to an underdog on a team no one’s given a chance to win. The Rose-less Bulls have no business giving Miami a series – losing in five sounds about right (Spurs over Warriors in 5 as well) – but it won’t feel like a short series to the Heat. They’ll work for every shot, earn every point and get punished on every ball screen and box out.

At some point in the series, Noah will make a tide-turning block on Dwyane Wade or score and draw a foul on Chris Bosh. He’ll hoot. He’ll holler. He’ll scream and preen and act like he just won an NBA title.

It might make you roll your eyes and shake your head, but I’ll just laugh.

He’s earned it.

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