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Joakim Noah gave it his all in Chicago, until he couldn't

Most of us know a genuine person when we meet one. There’s no guile, no agenda. Just authenticity.

Joakim Noah wanted to win. He wanted to improve as a basketball player. And he wanted Chicago to be a safer place. You could read that in every one of his battle cries, in every drop of sweat, in every grimace.

I don’t want this to sound like an elegy. Noah is not dead. But the past tense seems proper now that his season is over because of a shoulder injury that will require surgery and four to six months of rehab. His career as a Bull looks like it’s done.

That stinks, but it’s what happens when you’re almost 31 and the injuries start piling up. That’s sports.

If this is the end for Noah in Chicago, we’re left with memories of a 6-foot-11 center with the stamina of a long-distance runner and the heart of someone who cared, to excess. He saw losing as a personal affront. He saw teammates as brothers. Cliched stuff that also happened to be true.

He was the Bulls’ true leader. If the definition of a leader is someone who wants to take the deciding shot at the end of the game, then, no, Noah wasn’t a leader. His game wasn’t built for that. But if you broaden the definition to include the ability to inspire teammates to go farther, to make rookies feel special and to make an entire city want to follow him, then Noah was hands down the Bulls’ leader.

He got off to a very rocky start in Chicago, clashing with teammates and coaches. To get from there to here is an upset in the NBA, where egos rarely get smaller. But that’s what happened with Noah, who turned out to be one of the best team players in the city’s history.

If he does move to another team, you can bet his anti-violence initiative in Chicago won’t end. The city’s problems almost surely are bigger than those of wherever he’d take up residence, and there’s no way he’d turn his back on them.

It’s too bad it had to end like this, but if the final image is of him running off the court in pain, his left shoulder a mess, maybe it’s the right one. He gave it his all until he couldn’t.