To many Chicago Bulls fans, the first vivid memory of Joakim Noah was the flamboyant suit and hair style he wore when the Bulls made him the ninth overall pick in 2007, but to Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, the first impression was much earlier.
"I still remember the first time I saw him play," Paxson said Tuesday on "The Carmen & Jurko Show" on ESPN 1000. "He was a freshman at Florida, it was in Madison Square Garden. It was early, might have been the preseason NIT in November. And I saw this freshman kid, changing ends of the floor, pressing, trapping and playing with an energy and an enthusiasm that you just don't see all the time. That was the one thing that stuck in my head from the very first time I saw him. He epitomizes what our group is about. The more you're around him, he's one of the most genuine people you're ever going to find.
"He cares so much about winning. When he talks about that and you hear him and you see him play, you know it's true. He's got the intangibles of a player that you want on your team. He's a winner. Regardless of what happens the rest of this year I think people understand how we feel about him and what we've seen of him over the years. And he's like a lot of players, guys come into this league young. I don't care what you say whether you're in college one year or two or three, they're still young people. All of a sudden they're thrown a lot of accountability, all these things, and it's tough. Young people mature at different times, in different ways, but he's truly a guy that cares. When you talk about the care factor of winning, he's up there with the best in the league."
Noah has emerged as the heart and soul of a banged-up Bulls team that surprised the Brooklyn Nets in the first round and took a 1-0 lead over the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals on Monday.
"Proud is the right word, without a doubt," Paxson said. "Proud of our resolve through all of this adversity. And again, having been in these situations before, it's one game of a playoff series. Miami is the best team in the league and this is ... who knows where this is going to go. But it's one of the great things about sports, when you have unexpected stories that people embrace and right now we're showing a determination and that word resolve that has been terrific to watch.
"These guys really like one another, like playing together, it's been a fun group. And they don't back down. They have a lot of fight in them. It's fun to watch."