HOUSTON -- Joakim Noah did not want to waste a second of his first All-Star experience.
He was the first player out on the floor Sunday night, happily bouncing onto the Toyota Center court, soaking his superstar surroundings in.
As he got ready to start practicing some jumpers, Noah almost stopped dead in his tracks as he recognized a familiar face sitting in a courtside seat, Bill Russell. The basketball legend got up from his chair to offer the Bulls' heart and soul some words of encouragement that seemed to set the tone for Noah's entire night.
The emotional center made it a point to play the All-Star Game differently than almost every player, to play the game the way he plays every game he enters no matter what the stakes. Noah didn't view the All-Star Game as some sort of glorified dunk contest with no defense. He played the game to win.
His intensity -- and defense -- were noticeable from the time he and Bulls teammate Luol Deng entered the game for the first time with 3:53 left in the first quarter.
"What else am I going to do?" Noah said after it was over.
The man has a point. After spending a career making a name for himself by playing all-out, all the time, Noah didn't want to change just because of his surroundings. He stayed true to his core and tried to play with the type of edge he always talks about.
"Jo played his game," Deng said. "He just played like how Jo plays. It was good, man. He was having fun. He got to know the guys a little bit and they got to know what Joakim is like, which was fun."
That was the emotion Noah was going for on Sunday night. The curly-haired 7-footer who had been doubted so often during his career wanted to leave an imprint on a game that usually doesn't have one at all. The self-dubbed “energy player” didn't know any other way to play.
"I enjoyed every minute on the court and I had a lot of fun," Noah said. "I haven't slept in three days, man. I had all my best friends; there's not one of my friends who isn't here. I got my pops [Yannick] here. I'm looking up, he's smiling and proud. It just really means everything. I just felt like I might as well go out there and just give it everything I got. I can't half-ass it because otherwise I would really look like [much]."
Noah didn't disappoint himself or those around him, scoring eight points and grabbing 10 rebounds in 16 minutes. Not only did Noah leave an impression on those around him, he also strengthened an already strong relationship with Deng in the process. The Bulls teammates had a great time being on the floor together and acknowledged they spent time talking about getting the winner's share of the All-Star purse during the game. The no-nonsense, no-frills players made themselves and their organization proud.
"It was great," Noah said of playing with Deng. "I really feel proud to be a part of the Bulls and to have teammates like Lu. He's an ambassador for he's probably the face of NBA Africa. He's an ambassador out there just doing a lot of great things for the kids. And he's a lot more than just a great teammate. He does a lot of great things off the court.”
"To have a vet like that and a guy I can always talk to about doing things in Africa, because those are things that I want to do in the future, too.” Noah said. “Just being able to have a guy like Lu kind of help me with that we were able to go to an NBA Africa party [Saturday], got to meet players from the Cameroon national team. To me, it's really special and I feel like I got a lot done -- not just on the court, but off the court, as well."
Noah also got to learn about some other new All-Star teammates off the court. After well-publicized spats with guys like Kevin Garnett and LeBron James, Noah clearly enjoyed his time among the greats of the game.
"Just being able to spend some time with these guys that you view as kind of like the enemy," Noah said. "Every summer I work out, I think about all these guys and about how they're in the way of what I want and that's a championship. And to be able to spend a little time and talk to them, vibe with them, and check out their routines, it's pretty interesting."
The experience will only motivate the proud big man even more moving forward. He relayed a story on Saturday from his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, that he clearly held with him throughout the weekend. The point was that even at age 51, people still come up to Rodhe and talk to her about the fact she was Miss Sweden in 1976. Noah wants people to remember the fact that he was an All-Star in 2013 because he doesn't know how many more chances he will get to play in the gala event.
"It means a lot to be able to be a part of this," Noah said. "I was never at the rookie game; as a sophomore I was never here. So this was my first time really appreciating it and spending time with it. I haven't slept in three days, so I'm kind of tired right now. But I had a blast."