Saturday, September 10, 2011
Noah adjusting well to international play
By Mark Woods Special to ESPN.com
In his first EuroBasket, Joakim Noah has helped France to a perfect record through seven games.
VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Standing on the edge of the court as a practice drill unfolds, Kevin Seraphin watches his teammate hurl himself upward for the rebound with the same level of intensity he showed in the heat of last season's Eastern Conference finals.
Joakim Noah, whether on duty for the Chicago Bulls or France, just doesn't coast, a trait that others are quick to notice.
"You cannot teach what he does," said Seraphin, who will head into his sophomore campaign with the Washington Wizards when the lockout ends. "How he rebounds. How he hustles. I learn by just watching him and being around him."
Noah too has been learning in Lithuania, where for the first time he's worn the jersey of his father's homeland in international play. Through seven games at EuroBasket 2011, he's averaging 9.6 points and a team-high 8 rebounds for a French team that will go into the quarterfinals with a perfect record if it defeats Spain on Sunday in its last game of the second round.
But he's had to make adjustments, coping with new rules and officiating that permits a more physical style of play. "What happens in the NBA and here," Noah said, "is completely different."
Like eating meals as a team. Or going out as a team. "We do everything together," he said. In the past, France had talent but not always unity. This summer, a sense of purpose has drawn the roster together and the effects can be seen on the court.
"I'm loving it," Noah said. "It's exciting to win the games. We're playing well. This is a great team. We stick together."
Even though France is sequestered in a hotel outside of the capital city, Vilnius, with 10 of the other 11 surviving teams, the fervor for basketball in the host country has not passed Noah by.
If he was not entirely sure what to expect on his travels, then the reality has not disappointed. Fans loiter on a daily basis outside the competition's practice gym for a glimpse of the players. In the center of the city, there are a number of large screens where fans -- unable to get tickets for the sold-out games -- gather in huge numbers to watch.
"This is unbelievable," Noah said. "It's a very small country but it is unbelievable the talent they have. The population is 3 million. That's smaller than Chicago. But you can tell how much passion people have for the game. It's like a religion out here."
That, and France's stellar play, has more than vindicated his decision to exchange an extended vacation in Florida for a long summer road trip.
"I feel very privileged to be able to play basketball like this," he said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I feel I'd be playing on the biggest stages in the world. The first time I landed in Lithuania, I saw this country with forests everywhere. Here we are in a beautiful arena. You can't complain too much."
What would make the experience perfect is to accomplish something his father never did as an active player: secure a trophy for France. In his tennis career, Yannick, now 51 years old, won the French Open for himself. But it was only when he retired, and became the team's captain, that he delivered the Davis Cup to a grateful nation.
His eldest son was just 6 years old then but the memories stuck. "My father was someone who worked very hard and as a child, I watched him train and saw the sacrifices he had to make to be a champion," Noah said. "These are the things I grew up seeing, what he had to do. So I understand that, to thrive in these kinds of environments, you have to train very hard."
Les Bleus will have to continue to push themselves Sunday against the defending European champions, Spain. Both teams are already assured a spot in the last eight of the competition, but the winner will take momentum into the knockout stages held in the city of Kaunas.
Noah knows that it could, quite possibly, be a rehearsal for the EuroBasket final next Sunday.
"We're expecting a very good basketball match," he said. "They beat us very handily three weeks ago. But we're a different team right now. We're playing better basketball. So we'll see."
Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, UK, whose work appears regularly in British publications.