With a goofy grin as identifiable as his man bun, Joakim Noah hugged his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, after carrying the Bulls on a gimpy foot to a Game 7 victory over the Nets in Brooklyn during the 2013 NBA playoffs.
"I love you, Mommy!" Noah said after unleashing a primal scream that echoed inside the Barclays Center.
No game defined what Noah meant to the Bulls more than that one, an all-or-nothing gut check on the road without Derrick Rose, Luol Deng or Kirk Hinrich. Noah boldly guaranteed the Bulls would win and then backed it up with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks in a performance he vowed to remember "the rest of my life."
True Bulls fans always will feel the same way about Noah's dunk against the Celtics in a Game 6, triple-overtime victory in the 2009 NBA playoffs, the most indelible singular play of his career. After a steal, Noah dribbled the length of the court and dunked over Paul Pierce for an emphatic statement that said everything about his uncommon intensity and the heart that beat beneath the Bulls jersey.
The memories came flooding back over the weekend after the Bulls announced Noah would miss four to six months after shoulder surgery.
Noah's pending free-agency inevitably also forces everyone to consider the Bulls moving on from No. 13, one of the more authentic, emotionally invested athletes in franchise history.
The Bulls without Noah is like a Chicago winter without a sub-zero wind-chill; tough but without its characteristic bite. Even coming off the bench in an uncomfortable role this season, even looking like a shell of the player who just two years ago was an All-NBA center, Noah supplied the Bulls an indomitable spirit they cannot replace. Not now. Not ever.
What Rick Mahorn and Dennis Rodman were to the Pistons "Bad Boys," Noah always was to the Bulls since he arrived by way of the University of Florida in that ugly pinstriped seersucker suit on draft night in 2007. Sporting such a flashy outfit suggested Noah would offer style over substance but, nine seasons later, nothing was further from the truth. Noah persevered through coaching changes and roster upheaval and, after steady maturation, eventually his attitude becoming the most consistent thing about Bulls basketball.
He accepted a reserve role for new coach Fred Hoiberg more selflessly than many in an ego-driven league ever could. He defended the reputations of moody teammates such as Rose and Jimmy Butler as aggressively as he did big men in the paint, the consummate leader who never felt the need to announce he is. Nobody in the locker room cared more about winning, nobody disguised injury as pain with less complaint and nobody on the city's sports landscape epitomizes the rugged no-excuses, all-in approach fans appreciate better than Noah.
In a perfect world, the Bulls and Noah use his time off to hammer out a short-term contract extension. In reality, the league's spike in television revenue figures to make this a good summer for a veteran center to hit the open market.
Wherever Noah lands, if he indeed leaves, Chicago's loss will be his next community's gain. It says everything that the St. Sabina congregation and the Rev. Michael Pfleger want Noah to stay as much as Bulls teammates and fans. For the past several years, Noah has volunteered his time for events aimed at raising awareness and reducing gang violence on too many city streets. When Noah accepted the NBA Cares Community Assist award last March at the United Center, he looked as proud as if he were hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
The honor recognized Noah's powerful nine-minute mini-documentary addressing Chicago's senseless shooting deaths and praised Noah's anti-violence agenda symbolized by a necklace designed like a teardrop. Rock the Drop became a thing because of his inspiration. Because someone raised in France and New York City always acted off the court like a guy who grew up in one of Chicago's worst neighborhoods. Nobody can replace that commitment. Every athlete can emulate it. We all would miss it.
Around here, everybody can agree that Noah always represented what was best about Chicago sports.
— Chicago Tribune (TNS)