Champions of Community: Joakim Noah Giving Back to Chicago
2 years ago
In honor of the upcoming Chicago Bulls Charities gala, Joakim Noah talks giving back.
If you’ve only seen Joakim Noah on the basketball court, you might have the wrong idea about him. He’s known for his intensity during games — wild gesticulations, flips of his long, curly hair, frustrated shouts.
Off the court, though, the 6-foot-11 Chicago Bulls center, 30, speaks slowly, thoughtfully. He talks about blessings, of escaping the craziness of the city, of finding his center in the off-season.
In fact, he didn’t spend these last few months in the way you might imagine — though he stayed in shape, he was focused as much on mental preparation as physical.
“It was a tough end of the year last year,” he says, referring to the Bulls’ Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. “I wanted to come in focused and prepared for this year, so I did a lot of yoga, and I just went to bed early. … I [had] a lot of time to myself.”
But Noah also gives time to causes he supports, especially since founding Noah’s Arc Foundation with his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, in 2010. This summer, they launched a public service announcement for their #RockYourDrop campaign — a sculptural necklace designed by Rodhe that raises awareness and funds for non-violence initiatives and youth organizations — starring athletes and celebs like Spike Lee and David Eigenberg.
“Ever since I was a little kid, it was always my dream to be a basketball player — and it was always my dream to have a foundation, as well,” Noah says, citing the influence of his father, French tennis phenom Yannick Noah, who also started a foundation for children in France. “I think it’s just the way I was raised, and to be able to have a foundation with my mother here in Chicago, it’s a blessing. … Chicago’s a great place — it’s a place that’s given me a lot — [but] the violence is out of control here. It’s important to be socially aware, and give back the best way we can, even if it’s just with after-school programs.”
Chicago’s a great place — it’s a place that’s given me a lot — [but] the violence is out of control here. It’s important to be socially aware, and give back the best way we can.
Noah, of course, is being humble: Through his work with his own foundation and Chicago Bull Charities programs — which focus on education, health and wellness and violence prevention — the basketball star has made a significant impact. Noah’s Arc Foundation engages 1,100 students in Chicago and New York in sports and the arts; Youth Guidance, an organization being honored at the gala in October, which Noah has been involved with since 2012, serves over 7,000 students across Chicago.
“[The people involved with] Youth Guidance and programs like that, they’re the real heroes of the city,” Noah says, shifting the “hero” label off of professional athletes — so often associated with that word — and onto public servants and volunteers. “Those people are with the at-risk youth everyday and helping them. … I just want to show all these programs as much support as I can, and the Bulls do as well.”
It makes sense that his goals are aligned with the team’s. He’s spent his entire eight-year career with the Bulls — but he’s returning from his summer sabbatical to some positive changes.
“Derrick just got back” — that’s Rose, the Bulls’ star point guard, who has missed huge portions of the last three seasons due to back-to-back injuries — “and we’ve got new leadership,” Noah says. The Bulls coach since 2010, Tom Thibodeau, was replaced this year with Fred Hoiberg. “It just feels brand new. … We’re excited for a year full of good energy [and] blessings” — that word again — “and the goal is always to win a championship.”
Success off the court is more difficult to measure. There are stats that show tangible progress — a 2012 University of Chicago study showed that Youth Guidance’s Becoming A Man dropout and violence prevention program reduced violent crime arrests by 44 percent and increased future graduation rates by 10 to 23 percent — but the efforts are ongoing. And there hasn’t been a singular moment when Noah realized his work was making a difference.
“I don’t think it’s for me to say,” he admits. “I think it’s more for the kids to say. But I see it every time I go out; I see positive energy all the time. … Now that we’re five years in with [Noah’s Arc Foundation], I can see some of the guys who were there from the beginning, how they’ve changed. Now instead of playing in the games, they’re coaching, and I see the way they’re mentoring the younger generation, and that’s a beautiful thing.”