- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- The maturation process of Joakim Noah the basketball player didn't happen overnight. He didn't wake up the day after his close friend Luol Deng was traded last month and decide he had to be a better leader, although his teammates and coaches swear they can see a difference in the way the emotional center carries himself on and off the floor. To understand how Noah has gone from a scrappy "energy" player to a two-time All-Star center over the course of the past two seasons, step back in time and listen to the woman who knows him best -- his mother, Cecilia Rodhe.
She's the one who has watched him grow as a man, and as a basketball player, since being selected by the Chicago Bulls with the ninth pick in the 2007 NBA draft. She's the one who has lived all of his ups and downs with him, and she's the one who beamed with pride a little more than a year ago during an event for their Noah's Arc Foundation at the Major Adams Community Center in Chicago.
"When he first got here, I used to call him Scooby-Doo," Rodhe said at the time. "He was a kid. You had to rein him in. He's grown up during these five years incredibly. I'm so happy as a parent just to see how he's taken responsibility for his life and how he wants to proceed in his own life, and I think that has a lot to do with the discipline also of being an NBA player. It's very precise. And all that work, it requires an enormous amount of discipline and dedication, selflessness ... it's a dedication, passion, commitment, those are all good things if they go in the right direction."
There's no arguing that Noah has taken his career in the right direction since that time. As he enters Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Noah is in the middle of the best stretch of his professional career. He's averaging 11.5 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. In less than a week, he will head to New Orleans to participate in his second consecutive All-Star Game. On a team that has already lost Derrick Rose to another knee injury and Deng because of a trade to Cleveland, Noah has become the leader for a defiant group of players that hasn't given up on what many around the league still believe is a lost season.
His play and attitude have been embraced by a city that loves to cheer for a hard-working underdog. He embodies the values Chicago sees in itself. It doesn't hurt that Noah -- who was so wounded after Deng was traded that he didn't speak to the media for almost a week -- finally broke his silence and made a promise to his adopted hometown that continues to resonate.
"We just want to represent," he said. "We know this is a city that ... even when I come to the game, I see the guy selling the newspapers on the streets. [It's] cold outside -- when he sees me driving by, he's excited. You know what I mean? He's excited. He's like, 'All right. Let's go Bulls! Get it done tonight!' I feel like I play for that guy. Like when I look at the top of the arena, and I look up top and I see teams call timeout, and I see the guy who looks this big and he's up cheering up and down, jumping up and down, that's the guy I play for. To me, that's what this city represents. There's a lot of hardship in here, a lot of adversity in this city, and I feel like when I play basketball, I want people to be proud of their team."
So how did Noah get to this point? How did he become the most beloved player on one of the most famous basketball teams in the world -- in a city where some were convinced he would be a bust when the Bulls drafted him out of the University of Florida? No matter which important person in his life speaks, the message is usually the same. Noah's realization that he must put in even more hard work to make a difference on and off the floor finally clicked -- and it has propelled the 28-year-old to new heights in his career. He loves representing Chicago, and the city loves him back.
"I remember when he first came and we were driving around the city and he said, "Mom, these are some of the toughest people you'll ever meet, but they're really good people,'" Rodhe said. "And when the summer comes, they are so happy. He feels them. He says the winter's hard, it's long, it's cold, and you have to be resilient. This is the same as in Scandinavia. It's dark for 10 months of the year, and then in the summer you play. There's something here that ... I feel really happy here, too. When I come back to Chicago I feel like home. And this is his home. The fans are the best in the world. There's no fans like the Chicago fans. It's solid. And I think he's very happy here."
Noah has made it his personal mission this season to not let people forget this team. He knows people have counted these Bulls out since Rose and Deng disappeared from the floor, but he doesn't care. He takes great pride in playing for Chicago day in and day out. He readily admits that the work he does with his mom and his sister, Yelena, for his foundation has helped balance his life out.
"I think when you play for the Bulls, you have a responsibility," Noah said. "As a Bulls player, you have a responsibility to these kids. Chicago's a great place, and I think one of the things I love about Chicago the most is how much they love their sports. The thing about me as a basketball player is there's so many highs and lows that I think just being able to spend some time with the kids -- it just gives me stability. And it makes me happy to be able to do something for them."
Noah's ability to connect with people is what has helped spark his growth as a leader for his teammates as well. As much as he has tried to dismiss it over recent weeks, his teammates and coaches can see how he has adapted to becoming a better leader without Rose and Deng in the fold.
"A lot of growth," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Overall from the start of the season, I just think it's part of his experience, he's a little older now, and he knows there's more responsibility on his shoulders. It's not necessarily the vocal part -- it's more how he's practicing, how he's getting ready for our opponents, how he's conducting himself for the most part in games. He's really grown in that area a lot and it's a big plus for us. He's not perfect, no one is, but that, along with offensively making quicker decisions, have been his two biggest areas of improvement this year."
The changes in Noah's game, and the subtle changes in his basketball personality, aren't surprising to those within his inner-circle. They could see the way he was growing up recently, and they knew he had the rare ability to create a bond with almost anyone who crossed his path.
"I think whether he'd be in Chicago or elsewhere, I think it's his humble attitude and the way he is as a person; of just being very, very simple and to the point," Yelena said last year. "I think people love that in him. That he is a celebrity, a superstar, but he is completely himself in any situation. I think Chicago has recognized that in him. He's walking the streets, he can walk in here, on the South Side or anywhere, and people will talk to him, respect that in him."
That's one of the reasons why Noah is at ease in almost any situation he walks into. It has served him well during a tumultuous time for the Bulls franchise. The player fueled by emotion has channeled that into other areas of his game. The emotions don't always come out in the right way -- witness Noah's expletive-laced outburst after being ejected last Monday in Sacramento, something for which he quickly apologized but was fined $15,000 by the NBA. But most of the time, Noah has kept his words and actions in check, serving as a mentor and sounding board for his young teammates.
"It's been crazy," Bulls forward and close Noah friend Taj Gibson said of Noah's leadership transformation over the past few weeks. "As you saw in the Sacramento game, when he went down ... everybody was just looking around like, 'What can we really do now?' Because he's one of those vocal leaders, he's one of those energy guys that he's always a believer no matter what the circumstance. As long as you have a healthy and energetic Jo, you can win any kind of game. You can beat anybody.
"That's the kind of player he is and that's the kind of player he's been becoming. He's been really moving the ball. Once all the injuries happened I told him, 'You got to be that same monster you were last year.' As far as just distributing the ball, getting guys good looks. Dominate in the rebounds, scoring, he's been doing all those things, and he's only going to continue to do that."
Noah is also going to continue to grow as a person -- a fact that his mom is undoubtedly most proud of. Rodhe said she is "beyond proud" of both of her children, but she has to love the fact that her son, in the midst of all his personal success, has made a point to give back to a community -- and to a cause -- both believe in. His ability to make everyone around him feel good is what has pushed Noah to accomplish greater goals in his personal and professional life.
"He's doesn't create a boundary between him and another person," Yelena said. "Whether he's talking to Barack Obama or he's talking to a little kid on the South Side, I think he'll talk to them the exact same way, which I think is a great strength."
For his part, Noah still isn't sure exactly when or how he came to be so embraced by the city of Chicago, but, as is his custom, he's not spending any time worrying about it. He wants to enjoy the journey, and he wants to continue to build the foundation that has become very important to him. Most of all, he wants to make sure every time he's on the floor that people remember where he and his teammates come from.
"I've always been good with kids," he said, trying to explain one of the reasons why he's been adopted by the City of Broad Shoulders. "I'm a big kid. And I think that I kind of understand the city. They appreciate people who work hard, and when I play basketball, I try to represent the city every time I step onto the court. I'm from New York City, but I'm a Chicago representative."
12dMatt Walks, ESPN.com