From antagonist to Bulls ambassador: Celebrating Joakim Noah

The former Bulls standout was named a team ambassador leading up to the game against the Knicks, then was celebrated on Joakim Noah Night. He talked about both honors like only Noah can.

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Former Bulls star Joakim Noah (center) acknowledges the crowd during a night in his honor at the United Center.

Former Bulls star Joakim Noah (center) acknowledges the crowd during a night in his honor at the United Center.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Joakim Noah always did things his way.

That’s how one goes from NBA antagonist to Bulls ambassador.

Nicknamed “Stick,’’ then “Stick Stickity’’ while growing up in New York, Noah began his athletic career in the shadow of his famous tennis-star father, Yannick, but emerged as a star in his own right for a Bulls franchise that gambled on him coming out of Florida.

They weren’t gambling on Noah on Thursday night. They were honoring him.

Not only was his nine-year career with the Bulls celebrated at the United Center on Joakim Noah Night, but the team announced in the afternoon that he had been named a Bulls ambassador.

“When Joakim played for the Bulls, you could see how much he cared about the kids and everything that’s going on in the city,” Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf said in a statement. “He still comes into town, and he still cares so much. People in Chicago realize that he was more than just a basketball player.

“He was someone who cared about the community, someone who was going to do his best to make a difference in this world, and he has. Joakim embodies every quality you’d want in a team ambassador. This is a natural next step for a former player with such a strong history of giving back to Chicago.’’

And more giving is on the way.

Noah met with the media before the Knicks-Bulls game, bucket hat on head, heart in hand, discussing his days with the Bulls and how much that time in Chicago meant to him.

“The energy of this place brought out a crazy side of me,’’ Noah said, reflecting on playing in front of the home crowd at the UC. “There were times playing in this building that I didn’t even feel my legs when I was running up and down the court. That’s how hyped I was. You can’t replicate those feelings in anything else in life.

“Even just driving on Ogden [Avenue] right now and making that left, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God!’ The feelings are hard to describe. I feel like it was really a blessing. To be able to have that for eight, nine years was really special.’’

During his time with the Bulls, Noah was a two-time All-Star and a three-time All-Defensive selection (first team in 2013 and 2014 and second team in 2011). He also was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2014.

In 572 regular-season games, he averaged 9.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, three assists, 1.41 blocks and 0.84 steals in 29.5 minutes. He made the playoffs seven times with the Bulls.

And while he never won a championship with the Bulls, he’s at peace with how his career ended.

“I really wanted to win a championship; that’s why I played the game,’’ Noah said. “I realized later on that I was chasing something that didn’t make sense anymore. The sacrifice that goes into being a champion, I didn’t feel it the same. When it went that way, I knew it was time to [retire].’’

Now his calling will be to mentor young people and players and spend more time in Chicago with his Noah’s Arc Foundation.

“I never really cared about [my legacy as a player],’’ Noah said. “That’s really not why I played the game. To me, it was being true to who I was. . . . I felt a lot of emotions in this game. I have a lot of experience, and hopefully I can share that with the younger generation and just be at peace.’’

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