CHICAGO -- "Dreadlocks coming into the game! Dreadlocks, what you going to do?"
It was the Joakim Noah Show at the United Center on Saturday afternoon, but instead of thrilling a capacity crowd with his unique All-NBA game, the Chicago Bulls star was on the microphone playing hype man for a basketball game pitting the dreadlocked against the clean-headed, the undersized against the overweight, the South Side against the West Side.
On a muggy summer day, Noah's charity, the Noah's Arc Foundation, hosted its third annual "peace tournament," now called the "One City" basketball tournament, a simple event with a lofty goal: trying to unify a divided city and raise awareness of the violence that grips pockets of Chicago all year long, but particularly in the summer. The teams were made up of 18- to 24-year-old "at-risk" men from different parts of the city. These are men Noah wants to see return to their communities to "influence" younger kids in a positive way.
A 3-year-old boy was shot Friday. An 11-year-old girl was buried Saturday. Dozens shot every weekend. A city grows weary of constant gun violence.
But what can one man do?
Noah can't turn back the clock on housing discrimination and segregated urban planning. He can't attack poverty at its root causes without major help. He's rich, but not wealthy yet.
So he has a foundation that tries to give kids an alternative to "walking around the block and having nothing to do." He can write checks and cut commercials.
What Noah can also do is listen and reach out with arms that are even longer than he knows. Noah can do this, and he does do this.
Over the past couple years, along with anti-violence "interrupter" Cobe Williams, Noah, the 6-foot-11 son of a famous French tennis pro, the guy you might associate with a garish draft-day suit and on-court clapping, has traveled to the worst Chicago neighborhoods to listen to people he would never meet at Paris Club or Chicago Cut.
Noah has spent time in the South and West Sides, going to barbecues and dinners, listening to at-risk youth and young adults. As Williams said, when Noah goes to dinner on these missions, he doesn't eat. He focuses his eyes and opens his ears.
"This city has given me so much, it's hard to know what's really going on a couple blocks from here," on the West Side, Noah said. "The South Side is close. This is where I live. I live in Chicago now. I just want to do my best. I don't know all the answers. At the end of the day, I just want to go out there and help, because this is just as important to me as winning a championship."
And if you know how much Noah burns about winning a championship, then you realize how committed he is to being a symbol of change to parts of the city you won't see during those national TV broadcasts of Bulls games.
A couple years ago, I thought Derrick Rose could be that symbol, but as a cycle of physical rehabilitation has taken over Rose's life, it's clear that Noah is the man for the job.
Rose showed up Saturday, family in tow, and his presence surely meant a lot. Just by succeeding, the Englewood product is a role model to the kids of the city. Noah, an outsider who is big on inclusiveness, can be a voice.
"It's not about legacy, it's not about none of that," Noah said. "I don't care about that. It's about helping people. At the end of the day, that, to me, is bigger than basketball.
"Obviously we play on one of the biggest stages in the world; to be able to do things like this is important. Ever since I was a little kid, I always knew that it was always going to be bigger than basketball. Now we're here and this is only the beginning. This is so powerful to me. When I'm on the court, this is what gives me strength. This is on the back of my mind all the time."
On Saturday, Noah was serious as he talked about this mission with his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, who runs his foundation, looking on with pride.
But during the game, the 29-year-old was his usual boisterous self. The duality of Noah.
While Noah rocked the mic, giving the game his personal flavor, Rose "coached" the South Side team. (In truth, Bulls special assistant Randy Brown coached the South Side team, with Nazr Mohammed assisting, while Rose gave the bench his own imprimatur.) Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley, the pride of K-Town and Marshall High School, coached the West.
Beverley shares representation with Noah, and said he was happy to help with the event.
Noah will need Chicagoans such as Rose, Beverley and Mohammed to really make these kind of events reverberate.
"I put on for the city," Beverley said. "I was born and raised in some of the worst neighborhoods here, like some of these kids. I'm easy to relate to. I don't walk around with bodyguards. I'm not 7 feet. I'm cool with everybody. Everyone loves me. I put in hard work to get where I am now, it shows them that anything is possible."
Noah's charity debuted a public service announcement (which includes Rose) Friday, but this game was the centerpiece of his public works.
In the previous two years, it was held at the South Side Saint Sabina Church in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. Moving to the West Side United Center was a big deal.
"It's the most powerful thing to have it here at the United Center," Noah said. "This is neutral ground. Everyone loves the Chicago Bulls. To be able to have it here, is really special to me. I hope it's only the beginning."
Bulls public address announcer Tommy Edwards delivered the starting lineups, the players came out to the familiar Bulls introduction and the Luvabulls danced.
Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf skipped Frank Thomas' Hall of Fame induction to be at the event.
"Joakim, several months ago, he gave me a call on a Sunday morning, right after a road trip," Reinsdorf said. "I answered the phone and said, 'What are you calling me so early for?' He was all excited about this idea he had for today's game. For me it's really exciting whenever I see any of our players want to make a difference in the community. It really shows what kind of characters they are, and Joakim is one of the best."
No matter where this event goes, basketball and conversation can't be the final product of this outreach. I'd like to see Noah and Rose, not to mention their shoe company, adidas, try to build something substantial, a community center, a business. Something to create jobs and reverse the deterioration of the neighborhoods where the lucky ones leave and others can't escape.
But basketball is a start.
"I don't know the end result," Noah said. "I feel this is the right way and the right path."