DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Joakim Noah could do no wrong in Tyrone Green's eyes.
Green, Noah's beloved mentor who died earlier this week, knew his prized pupil wasn't perfect all the time -- but he loved him. He always saw the good in Noah's heart and defended him when people doubted the lanky big man running up and down the court.
After spending the day with Green while writing a feature on Noah in the summer of 2010, and subsequently seeing him periodically throughout the years, it was easy to see that the love between the two men never waned. Green believed in Noah when few others did and referred to him as the "the son I never had."
"I sometimes feel like crying," Green said at the time, while describing how proud he was of Noah. "I wish my wife was here to see that, too. I'm so proud of him. My chest is out as big as the Empire State Building. That's how big my chest is."
Noah felt the same about the man he always referred to as "Mr. Green."
He trusted him. That trust was built up over a number of years while Noah lived with Green and tried to make a name for himself on the tough New York City basketball circuit.
"I've never seen a kid work so hard in my life," Green said. "Everybody used to laugh at Jo. At one time, I had him, Charlie Villanueva. We had one of the best teams in the country. The Long Island Panthers, a real big program. We had Lamar Odom, Speedy Claxton, and they used to laugh at Jo, and I said, 'This is the kid.'
"I knew since Jo was 13 that he was going to go to the NBA, and I told his father and his mother that, and they laughed at me. I said, 'This guy's going to be an NBA player because [of] the passion he has for the game and he can motivate.' He motivates kids now. Everybody [says] 'I want to be like Jo.' He's the type of kid that could go in a room and everybody stops and listens to what he says."
Whenever Green entered a room, it was Noah who always stopped to listen.
He always wanted to make Green proud.
For as much pride as Green took in Noah's maturation and development, Noah took as much pride, if not more, in the fact that he was able to live up to being the player Green always thought he could be. As the years wore on, Green grew to love Noah even more because he saw some of himself and his own personality when Noah was playing.
"He wants to win," Green said. "And he don't care. When they hate him he plays better and better and better. He wants them to hate him. That's why he laughs everything off. He doesn't care. Jo does his own thing, and he doesn't care who likes him. He's like me. If I feel something's wrong, I'm not going to keep it [in]. I'm going to tell you how I feel about it, and that's why I think I get along with people and kids of the world. I'm not going to say you're a superstar, and Jo will tell you -- I have never told Jo he was a good ball player. Never. He's the type of kid that, he don't need nobody to praise him. He's going to do what he has to do and that's it."
It was a tough-love approach that Noah thrived under, and it was Noah's determination that made Green push him even more. Over the years, Noah has done a better job of keeping his emotions in check, but Green was always reminding him that some things were better left unsaid on the court.
"Like I told him a couple months ago, I learned in my older years, keep your mouth quiet sometimes," Green said at the time. "Because it gets you in trouble. My mother used to always tell me that. You can't say [everything that comes to mind]. You can't do that, but he still does it. So he'll be like me. I hope he learns quicker than I did. It took me 55 years. I just started being cool for the last five years. I keep my mouth [shut]. I listen now. I don't say nothing to nobody. It could hurt you."
Noah had to be remembering some of Green's words as he dribbled basketballs up and down the court on the far end of the Berto Center on Saturday afternoon. The emotional big man will be playing with a heavy heart heading into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Sunday night, but those close to him know that Green's passing will only motivate him even more to be great.
The thing about Green is that as proud as he was of Noah the basketball player, he was even more proud of the man who Noah was becoming. He always believed Noah would have just as big of an impact off the floor as he did on it.
"He could be an ambassador," Green said. "That's down the line. Maybe even politics. He likes to always argue about stuff and debate. He'd probably be an assemblyman. Yeah, he could be good at that."
What about becoming president?
"Why not?" Green said. You got [Barack] Obama there. He's got the swag. Jo has everything. He has the looks that's what I should tell him to do next time."
When reminded of Green's words a few weeks ago after a game, Noah smiled and shook his head.
"Don't listen to everything Mr. Green says," he said.
"You did," I said.
"I did," he said, as an even bigger grin spread across his face.
In reality, Noah always listened to everything Green said. It's one of the reasons he has become one of the best players in the NBA.
It's also one of the reasons he'll be able to continue playing while so many emotions run through his head on Sunday. Green might be gone, but Noah is never going to forget all that he taught him.