In April, with his time with the Chicago Bulls winding down and his future uncertain, Joakim Noah visited some old friends, coaches and teachers at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn.
Befitting his status as one of the school’s more prominent alumni, Noah spoke at an assembly, addressing gun violence, which is among his more passionate causes. He was soon swarmed by students who asked about his impending free agency and whether he would sign with the New York Knicks.
“I don’t know!” Noah told them. “We’ll see!”
Later, Bill McNally, Noah’s former coach at Poly Prep, gave him a ride back to Manhattan. McNally was curious, too. It made an awful lot of sense — this idea that Noah might want to return home to join Carmelo Anthony and play for the Knicks, his favorite team growing up. McNally could sense that Noah was entertaining the possibilities.
“What do you think?” Noah asked his old coach.
As McNally’s Volvo rumbled along the Gowanus Expressway, the question hinted at something with promise, something real.
On Saturday night, in an otherwise nondescript preseason game against the Boston Celtics, Noah made his long-awaited debut for the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. In 19 minutes as the team’s starting center, he collected 5 points, 5 rebounds and an assist in a 119-107 loss.
It felt good, Noah said, to jump for rebounds, dive for loose balls and glare at the officials again.
“I haven’t played in a long time,” Noah said, acknowledging that he had to work through some nerves. “Just to play at the Garden, it was special.”
McNally, 49, scrounged up a ticket to watch from Section 113. Noah had missed the team’s first three preseason games with hamstring and ankle injuries — “knickknacks,” Noah called them — but he looked slim, quick and bouncy to McNally, a good sign considering everything that Noah had endured in recent seasons.
“I think if they stay healthy, they’re going to have good chemistry,” McNally said of the Knicks. “You’ve got the two, maybe three mega-teams, and then you look at everybody else in the NBA. So why not the Knicks? I just don’t see them folding up. Jo will never let that happen. He’ll treat a mid-February game in Minnesota like it’s Game 7 of the finals.”
That caveat — if they stay healthy — seems sure to trail the Knicks like a storm cloud for a while. Anthony has dealt with knee injuries. So, too, has Derrick Rose, who missed another game as he remained in Los Angeles to defend himself against rape allegations made by an ex-girlfriend in a civil trial.
Noah, meanwhile, is still trying to summon some of his old stamina after missing much of the past two seasons with knee and shoulder injuries. His hiccups at training camp clearly frustrated him.
“He’s kind of been bouncing off the walls,” coach Jeff Hornacek said.
Everyone has championed the virtues of caution, but the Knicks are banking on Noah, who has a four-year deal worth $72 million.
Even as Noah watched his teammates play without him in recent weeks, McNally saw evidence of what he described as Noah’s “special sauce” — his competitive drive, his infectious personality and his consistent support of younger teammates who are not necessarily long for the locker room.
“These cats aren’t even going to make the team, and Jo’s going up and down the bench,” McNally said. “Even back 100 years ago, when he played for me, he made you feel good about yourself. He made me feel good about myself.”
McNally added: “He just needs to get his DNA into the franchise. He’s a motivator in a way that’s fully acceptable for other players because he’s not going to come into your timeout, like, ‘I didn’t get the ball the last three times down the court.’ He’ll find a rebound. He’ll put his arm around your shoulders. I’ve never seen a guy take such joy in setting good screens.”
And then there are Noah’s roots. As much as Noah likes to claim that he is a citizen of the world, he identifies himself as a New Yorker. Before Saturday’s game, he relayed a special request to the Garden’s public-address announcer. Could he introduce Noah as hailing from Hell’s Kitchen? The crowd lapped it up.
“That was dope,” Noah said afterward.
He is the latest city kid to play for the Knicks, a small but charismatic group that includes Bernard King, Anthony Mason and Mark Jackson. Noah wore throwback jerseys and watched games at the Garden. He especially revered Patrick Ewing, who was friends with Noah’s father, Yannick, the former tennis player. According to one semi-apocryphal story relayed by McNally, Ewing presented young Joakim with his first basketball.
“I think he’s a kid living an absolute dream,” McNally said. “All these kids grow up in New York wanting to play for the Knicks. Well, one of them finally is.”