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An NBA Birthday

10/20/2009

A couple of years ago, Gilbert Arenas famously threw himself a multimillion dollar birthday party.

The pictures and video (PG-13) from that party had some psychic effect on me. DJs, live music, red carpets, body paint ... this, clearly, is what NBA birthdays are like.

Yesterday was Joakim Noah's 24th birthday. The schedule granted him a game a stone's throw from New York, where he grew up.

Family and friends nearby, a young millionaire (and child of an international tennis and music star) who has established that he is not afraid to have fun. This was going to be big.

But in fact, it could not have been smaller.

You see, even though they don't play again until Friday, the Bulls were flying to Washington immediately after the game in New Jersey (in no small part to meet President Obama today).

So, instead of a big night in Manhattan, Joakim Noah's posse settled for watching him sit on the bench during the crucial stretch of a loss to a mediocre team. After hearing from Coach Del Negro, and getting changed, Noah and family gathered for a quiet ten minutes of present opening in section 114 of the nearly deserted Izod Center.

As the stadium crews mopped up the spilled popcorn and sticky soda spills, Noah, his parents, some friends and other relatives, including a flock of siblings right down to toddler age, handed around gift bags. 

NBA players have everything, except time. So this was the big party.

A belt. A coffee table book or two: One about Barack Obama, and another with black and white photography of  people with dreadlocks. Some funny and surprisingly great-looking for-fashion-only eyeglasses. A little bag that said something about underwear. Things, in other words, from nice New York City boutiques. Noah was making the Christmas faces: "Oh, great. I love this!" He put on one of the belts, wore the glasses the whole time, and carried the underwear bag to the bus with him. The books -- heavy to travel with -- went home with others.

His younger siblings looked on eagerly, with present-envy.

Nearby, Tim Thomas, Luol Deng, and John Salmons were also surrounded by various people they knew. Interspersed were a number of autograph seekers, many of whom were successful.

Thomas, then Salmons, and then Deng made their way back down into the bowels of the arena, though. The clock was ticking. A bus was waiting.

Matt, a childhood buddy of Noah's, has been hanging back, letting Noah have his time with his family. He watched Joakim say his familial goodbyes, and make his way towards the aisle.

Where was instantly surrounded by people who waited some time for an autograph or a photo.

"He's going to get fined for this, for sure."

From section 114, you could not see the Bulls' bus, likely loaded with every Bull but the birthday boy, but you could feel it.

Noah looked at the crowd knotted around him, and started signing with gusto. He likes to make people happy. He interacts with kids and babies. Working fast, he signed and signed and smiled and posed.

Eventually he started saying "I have to go" but then still didn't go. Another couple of pictures, a few more genuine looking smiles.

Matt himself had been waiting for a conversation with his Noah, but settled for a quick hug, before Noah, birthday over, rejoined the Bulls for a flight to the capital.