Away from spotlight, Noah's passion shines through in community

Away from spotlight, Noah's passion shines through in community
March 11, 2014, 9:45 am
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As much fun as Joakim Noah had Sunday afternoon while the Bulls beat the Heat in overtime, the All-Star center might have had an even better time Saturday afternoon just blocks from the United Center.

After the Bulls’ practice Saturday at the Berto Center, Noah headed into the city for his Noah’s Arc Foundation’s second Peace Tournament at the Major Adams Community Center on Chicago’s West Side. Similar to the fall Peace Tournament held at St. Sabina Catholic Church on the South Side, the event brought together participants from different parts of the city in the name of peace in a city that’s been wracked by violence, albeit with less fanfare.

That’s the way Noah prefers it. He came into the small gym unannounced Saturday, without an entourage — though his famous father, Yannick, who attended both Friday’s loss to Memphis and Sunday’s win over Miami, was there; Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph came to the community center Thursday night to interact with kids — and proceeded to take over play-by-play by duties in his own unique fashion.

The best part of it was, while everyone in attendance was happy to see Noah, who was just as thrilled, it didn’t feel like a special guest appearance, a byproduct of his frequent visits to the facility.

“This is why we’re at Major Adams, to be really serious. Jo kept saying, ‘I go to all these events and it’s one and done, and I tell these kids to do well in school, but I don’t follow up. I can’t follow up. But I want to be in a place where I can watch kids grow and develop and build relationships with them and they know that I’m here to support them, and I’m here for them.’ So that’s sort of how Major Adams became our home. We do an art program every week. He’s known to stop in. This is a great place. It’s right near the United Center, which will soon be near the practice facility, and it’s a great environment, where he can just drop in when he can, and the kids have come to expect it. They get excited when he’s here, but they know he’ll be back, which I think is critical,” explained Shannon Pagels, executive director for the Noah’s Arc Foundation. “He wants to be authentic and genuine, and he’s just one of the guys with these kids here.

[PHOTOS: Joakim Noah's Peace Tournament]

“We’re here every week within our program. We run basketball programs here every week throughout the year. Last year we had a league, we had camps. We had a Peace Tournament last year, we had a girls’ Thanksgiving tournament. Just trying to mix it up on the basketball front,” she went on to say. “But Joakim was pretty inspired by what took place in the first Peace Tournament, a group of rival gangs getting together and calling a truce for peace for one single day, and we wanted to bring that here because this is really our home in Chicago. Major Adams is a great partner, and they allow us their space and to work with their kids and all that great stuff. But we wanted to do it a little differently.

“We wanted to include all of Chicago. So we got the West Side, which is here, involved and we got the South Side guys involved, too, from different neighborhoods out there. We got them together and it was kind of a bold move, we mixed the teams up, which isn’t always the most popular idea at first, but when you bring them all together and say, ‘Today, you’re an ambassador for peace and today you’re showing the city of Chicago that we’re working toward a better city and a more peaceful city,’ I think it really resonates with them and a lot of it is about building relationships. We want these guys, if they’re in a different part of town or just see people and say, ‘Hey, I played basketball with that guy. We’ve played together, he’s cool.’ We think that that’s that a great way to slow down the conflict.”

Cobe Williams, who was featured in the acclaimed documentary “The Interrupters,” a movie about trying to stem the tide of the violence in Chicago, was also an integral part of the day’s efforts. Williams, who works as a “violence interrupter” for the CeaseFire anti-violence program, became acquainted with Noah via social media after the player was inspired by the film’s message.

“He was just telling me how he wanted to give back to these kids and help get involved some type of way,” recounted Williams, whose job entails trying to reach out to those engaged in conflict as a mediator before violence occurs. “Me and Shannon, we sat down and did a lot of planning. But what people don’t know is me and Joakim have been going through the communities, meeting with these guys prior to this. Sitting down and having lunch with them, talking with them, going to the neighborhoods, getting to know these guys and that’s why I take my hat off to Joakim, because when we sit down and meet with these guys, he doesn’t do any talking. He just listens. He’s so sincere with them. He can’t be around all the time, he’s on the court. So most of the time, me and Shannon sit down meeting with these guys, trying to decide what we should do to make things better and bring some awareness.

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“Just over here, for me to bring some kids from the South Side over here, you couldn’t do stuff like that back in the day. Shannon definitely played a big part in keeping the sustainability here, keeping the foundation going in the center, where I could bring other guys here from different backgrounds and different parts of the city under one roof,” he continued. “Later, down the line, you might see him on the South Side, West Side. You might say, ‘Man, I remember you from that Peace Tournament.’ They might come in contact with each other, where they might have got into it with each other. So this gives them a lot of hope.

“The foundation, they’re right here in this area. It feels good because a lot of these kids have never been off the block, so when I tell them, ‘We’re going to go to the West Side to participate in the tournament,’ they’re all happy because it’s something different. We do the Peace Tournament on the South Side, but we do a lot of things that people just don’t know that we’re doing. Take them out to eat, went to the Berto Center a couple of times. Just doing different things and give them something else, and the good thing about all this, we’re not just reaching one particular neighborhood. We’re reaching the whole city, little by little.”

Mikey Davis, whose story was also depicted in “The Interrupters,” explained that Noah’s efforts mean a lot to him because of the All-Star center’s sincerity.

“I actually met Joakim through Cobe, through the Noah’s Arc Foundation, and it was actually a get-together through ‘The Interrupters’ movie. I played a small role in ‘The Interrupters’ movie, as far as my change, my dedication to doing different in these streets,” said Davis, who was shown being released from incarceration in the film and went on to turn his life around. “Off the court, he’s a wonderful guy. He’s always telling me to stay up, keep my head focused, do right by myself and family. He’s just an idol, man. At first, it was just seeing him as all basketball. But being able to interact with him on a one-on-one basis, being able to speak with him, hang out with him, he’s been nothing but inspiration. His spirits are high, and he helps people keep their hopes and spirits high.

“On a regular basis. Joakim, he doesn’t want anything to do with any media because everything he does comes from the heart. He’s real up front with it. He’ll tell you, ‘I don’t want people to think that I’m doing this for media. I don’t want any media. No media has to be there when I come to this. I’m doing this for you all. I’m giving back to the youth in Chicago. Everything I do is real. I don’t want anybody to think it’s anything other than that,’” he added. “I can tell he goes out there every night, every night he plays, I can tell that he’s thinking about us, man. He’s playing for us. He’s playing for the youth of Chicago, this city as a whole, and it’s making an impact on him. Then, he comes out by will, whether he’s banged up. He still makes his way out to the streets, to talk to the guys and girls. Whatever he can do.

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"Now, not only do you have a guy that’s made it — and he’ll tell you in an instant, ‘I haven’t been through that life. But I want to get more involved. I want you all to show me, show me how I can help you all.’ He always says, ‘Just show me how I can help you all.’ Me personally, how it’s impacted me and how it’s helped me, because now every day, I go out thinking, ‘If I do this or do that in these streets, it’s not only going to affect Joakim on the court, it’s going to affect him off the court.’ Now he’s feeling like he just lost somebody and he let me down. So just being able to keep hope every day. Even if I am down, I’m able to get in contact with him and speak to him, and he just tells me to keep my head up. Just somebody of that stature to come to me when you’re at your lowest is like the best feeling in the world.”

While the tournament went off without a hitch, the approach taken by the Noah’s Arc Foundation was a unique one. Four groups from different parts of the city — two from the West Side and two from the South Side — arrived at Major Adams, expecting to play with their friends, but instead, each team was comprised of a mix of players from different neighborhoods.

To Noah himself, that might have been the most rewarding part of the day, getting to see youth that were strangers and potentially enemies have fun as a whole.

“It gives me so much strength, man, to be able to do that and just to see everybody having a good time. To me, that’s what it’s all about,” he told “Seeing the kids in the city competing against each other. Mixing the teams up, people from different neighborhoods. Not really knowing each other, but competing hard, in the name of peace.”

Noah doesn’t claim to be any savior and honestly, would rather have his efforts go under the radar, without any media fanfare. But even with the rigors of an NBA schedule, the fact that he takes the time to show up in the community goes a long way.

“He really takes kids under his wing. Part of the great thing, which I mentioned before, is that he’s developed relationships with specific kids here and they know they can reach out to him. They can come to him with problems. We took a group of kids to a Bulls game not too long ago, and one of them came over and said, ‘I’ve got to talk to Joakim. I’m having a problem, and I just need to tell him. I feel like I need to be honest with him.’ And that’s the type of relationship that’s instilled here, and he’s easy to talk to and he wants to listen. I think listening is something that’s so unique to Joakim. In particular, he just says, ‘I’m not here to preach, I didn’t come from this background, but I want to help and I want to listen to your problems,’” Pagels said. “For the future, we just want to continue to impact more kids. We love being through different parts of the city, casting a wider net, just reaching as many kids as we can. He’s got a real unique opportunity. He’s got a really powerful, genuine, authentic voice, and I think that resonates with a lot of kids in Chicago.”

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Williams added: “The good thing about him — why I respect him so much — is he doesn’t make any promises to anybody. He tries to help them help themselves, but I think what’s important is spending that time with them when he isn’t playing at the United Center or on the road. That follow-up is important, and Joakim and the foundation donate tickets, and kids come to the game, and sometimes, when he has some free time, still goes through the community. A lot of the time — since Joakim’s not around, because he’s got to do what he’s got to do — me and Shannon do a lot of follow-up with these guys, see what’s going on, what can do we do? Something different, though. So what Shannon’s been doing at the foundation, we’ve been doing peace-circle training with these guys, mediation training and just doing a lot of things with the youth, just to show them, ‘You’re not alone; we all grieve and go through things.’

“I think what’s most important is that time with them. You don’t really see an NBA player come around and spend time with these guys. He sits on the grass with these young kids. He just sits there and listens to them. So it’s all sincere. I’ve been seeing a lot of positive things. Some of them are back in school. I’m not saying all of them are 100 percent changed, but what I see him doing — me doing ‘The Interrupters’ is one piece — but him bringing something else, he inspires them. They’re just so enthused, like, ‘Man, is this real?’” he continued. “Right now, a lot of these young kids, they come from broken homes and they need a man, mentor, to let them know that, ‘You can do better. You can do this, and you can do that.’ I’m going to tell you this, and this is the honest-to-God truth: Joakim called me last week and he said, ‘Cobe, I need you. Come meet me at the game. I’m going to leave you a ticket, and I’m going to leave this young kid a ticket.’ The young kid, Joakim’s got a great relationship with him — 18 years old — he needs a mentor. Joakim said, ‘I’ve got the perfect guy for you. Cobe, he’s a mentor.’”

Noah understands that a day like Saturday is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to changing the culture of violence that persists in Chicago, but showing that there are alternatives and perhaps most significantly, providing a respite, even in bits and pieces, to a stark reality, is meaningful.

“I don’t know what the answer to what a lot of the questions are, but I just think that it’s important to be involved. I learn from it, and it just gives me strength. I want to do more for the city. I want to do more for the kids,” he explained. “Sometimes it’s just giving people the opportunity to do something. Just an opportunity to stay off the block, play basketball, have a good time for the day. They appreciate it. They know that I’m not doing it for publicity or I don’t have any cameras there or anything like that. It’s just love.”