As much as his family, which was sitting in the front row at Monday’s press conference, means to Joakim Noah, it was only fitting that he dedicated his NBA Defensive Player of the Year award to the man who gave him his basketball foundation, long before anybody else even had an inkling that a skinny teenager from France would develop into a superstar.
“This award goes to somebody who I’ll never forget, somebody who just passed, who meant so much to me, who believed in me,” the All-Star center said. “Mr. Green, I love you and I appreciate you, and I know you’re smiling down right now, really proud, so this award goes to you.”
Tyrone Green, Noah’s mentor and former coach, passed away last week, prompting him to miss a day of practice to travel to New York City. Noah discussed how he first got connected to Green and what the man meant to him.
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“My mom was actually going through the Yellow Pages in New York City, in Hell’s Kitchen. We moved from France to New York when I was 13 and we went to the PAL a couple blocks from my house, and we met him right away. He was talking about, ‘Taking it to the next level. ‘I coached Lamar Odom, I coached Chamique Holdsclaw.’ I was like, ‘This guy’s talking a lot of trash.’ And he just always believed in me at a young age and he would always tell me, ‘If you want to get better, you’ve got to stay with me in the summer.’ While my mother and my sister would leave and travel in the summertime, he would always tell me that he could take me to the next level if I would stay with him. That’s a sacrifice I had to make to get to this level. So I stayed on his couch, became the ballboy at ABCD,” Noah recounted. “But those are the sacrifices that I made and they were all for Mr. Green, and I know that I wouldn’t be in this position right now if it wasn’t for him. it was bigger than that. He was really like another father figure to me. It’s hard to talk about because there’s so much going on right now. But that was my guy. I love him.”
The center’s famous father, former tennis star Yannick Noah, remembered Green’s impact on his son, when even he wasn’t sure the All-Star’s goal of reaching the NBA was feasible.
“I never thought he was going to go that far, to tell you the truth. He impresses me. He impresses all of us. We’re so happy for him as a family. As he said before, Mr. Green one day told me — we were watching a game. He was 15 or 16 years old — and Mr. Green told me, ‘I’ll get him there. We’ll get him there.’ I said, ‘Where are you going to get him? To the next tournament? To the ABCD camp or something?’ And he said, ‘No, we’re going to get him there, to the NBA.’ I never believed in that, even though I knew it was Joakim’s dream. So yes, I always very surprised. Everything that happens to him, I was always surprised. I was always surprised at the way he’s working every day. I don’t get used to it. Maybe some parents, other parents—I don’t get used to it. Every time he gets introduced at United Center, I just can’t believe it,” the athlete-turned-musician explained. “Because he was too skinny, couldn’t shoot, couldn’t jump, couldn’t do a lot of things. The only thing I knew he had was his drive. That was unbelievable. We would take him to games, he would play like two minutes and come back, and he would be all excited because he had a rebound. That was amazing and the funny thing is he’s still like that. He’s still exciting about a play, about winning, about his teammates. He’s still excited about playing basketball.
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“When things like this happen, I just don’t believe it’s true. It was a long road. It’s been a long year. It’s been a lot of work, a lot of pain, a lot of practice, a lot of sweat, a lot of worries,” he continued. “Tough, very tough year. Very tough week and he’s still standing.”
Noah thanked his mother, artist Cecilia Rodhe — “I’m sorry for all the hard times I put you through; single mom in New York City, it’s not easy” — and his sisters (“all beautiful little hippies”), but also shed some light on how his father’s background as an athlete helped shape him.
“My parents divorced when I was really young, but Dad, I just want to tell you, man: You’ve always been there for me and I appreciate you so much, man. All the work ethic, it all comes from you,” Noah said. “I just want to win, but when I look back on it, I think it just came from watching my father work, the way he trained as a tennis player and subconsciously I think that just taught me work ethic. My father would always tell me to jump rope and I don’t think a lot of big men are out there jumping rope. Sometimes I would go running with him. He would go on jogs and I was 10 years old. I would take my bike and as I got older, I would run with him, before school, after school. We would jog a lot and we would always sprint at the end of the jog. My relationship with my dad is working out because he knew my dream was to be a basketball player and he had that experience of being an athlete.
“So yeah, switching out on the perimeter, all those things, it’s not something that I thought about as a kid, but I think that those all things, all that work that I put in as a kid, it helped.”
The elder Noah expressed similar pride in his son’s accomplishments.
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“We shared a lot. He’s my son, so we shared everything. I told him about stories when I was winning, tried to make him forget about the times when I was losing. Trying to make him enjoy winning, but most of all, give his best because I always told him he’s allowed to lose. But he’s not allowed to not give his best and he understood that very early, and he put it to, as he says, the next level. Sports were always very important in our family — my dad, my mom, Joakim’s mom — we always encouraged our kids to play sports and we encouraged them to do the best they can. And it’s great because now he’s the oldest of all the crew, so he’s a good example. So I’m happy about it,” the 1983 French Open champion said. “We talk. You know, a father always wants to try to talk to the kids. But he matured very fast. He had a life where he traveled a lot and he had a lot of experiences. So that gives him a good vision and a certain perspective. But we love to talk, we love to exchange. He teaches me some things. I teach him, too. So exchange.
“Of course I’m happy that he is at this stage, to be able to be recognized. But most of all, I’m really proud of who he is off the court and he’s using his strength that he has on the court to be a decent, good human being,” he added. “I like his involvement with the charities. I like the way he treats people. He never forgets how hard it was for him to get there. So many of us are tempted to forget where we come from as soon as we as we value success and I like the fact that he always keeps his feet on the ground, always stays humble, always stays working. So I’m very happy about that.”