The background of Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah is as diverse as that of just about anyone in the sports world.
His father is a French tennis star. His mother is a former Miss Sweden. His paternal grandfather is a Cameroon-born former pro soccer player. His paternal grandmother is a former captain of the French national basketball team.
Noah spent his youth in New York City and Paris and attended college at Florida. He spends as much time as possible in Maui, a place he has visited frequently since childhood. He’s a huge fan of Bob Marley and the Wailers, and dubbed himself “African Viking” in a nod to his mixed heritage.
He was a cornerstone of back-to-back NCAA championship teams at Florida. He was the No. 9 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft. He’s a standout rebounder and defender who has made four playoff appearances in five NBA seasons.
On the court, he’s emotional and demonstrative. Off the court, he’s thoughtful and engaging. He’s active in charitable activities, including his own Noah’s Arc Foundation, which provides opportunities in the arts and sports to youths.
Playbook had the opportunity to discuss all of the above with Noah during his recent trip to ESPN headquarters to promote Vita Coco natural coconut water. Here’s what transpired:
ESPN Playbook: You grew up in New York, and you’ve played in Chicago for five years. Which city has better pizza?
Noah: Definitely New York. I’m not a pan pizza kind of guy. Maybe I just don’t know the spots as well. I grew up in New York, so I have my spots where I grew up eating pizza. Shout out to Ben’s Pizza on Thompson Street. I gotta give my pizza spot some love.
You’re a big Bob Marley fan. What are your three favorite Marley songs, and why?
“Rebel Music” is one of my favorites. I like “Natural Mystic.” And “Forever Loving Jah” is my other favorite. But I love a lot more than three. It’s hard to say your top three. Bob is my guy, and I wished kids listened to him more. He’s a genius. Prophetic.
If you hadn’t become a professional athlete, what line of work would you have pursued?
I don’t really know the answer to that. I’m really big on quality of life, so I would say, maybe fruit vendor on the beach or something like that.
Your father is a famous tennis pro who became a musician. Your mother is a former Miss Sweden who became a sculptor. Will you pursue a career in art after your playing days?
Probably not. But who knows? The only time I like to sing is in the shower, and I’m not a good painter or sculptor. But I enjoy music, and I enjoy artwork. It’s interesting to me, but I think I’ll probably do something more that has to do with working with kids.
You’re very active in charity work. What inspires you to participate in those efforts?
I love kids, and I feel like when you’re playing for Chicago, there’s a lot of issues going on there -- a lot of violence. Kids are killing each other. There are a lot of gangs. ... I think it’s on us, as athletes, to be a part of that, understand that and try to give the kids a good message -- to take an interest and not be judgmental, because those areas are very tough. They’re going through a lot, and they’ve seen a lot at a very young age.
You wore a memorable suit to the 2007 draft. Where would you rank your attire among the best draft outfits of all time?
I just can’t believe we’re still talking about my draft suit. A lot of people come up to me and say, “What were you thinking?” I think it was pretty funky. I love the suit. I still have my bow tie. I never wear it, but when I look at it, it puts a smile on my face.
You reportedly blew through the money from your rookie contract pretty quickly. What did you spend it on?
It is a lot of money. But with a lot of money goes a lot of responsibility. And when you’re 21, sometimes you have to learn from your experience. It goes fast. Half of it goes to taxes. People don’t talk about that at all. You get yourself a car. You wanna take care of mom. Get your mom a car. None of your friends have a credit card, so anytime there’s a bill, it’s always you. If you’re not careful, money goes fast. They tell us to be careful about it during rookie orientation, but it’s one thing to talk about it, and it’s one thing to live it.
Who’s the most underrated player in the NBA?
I think that [Utah forward] Paul Millsap is somebody who’s very underrated. He’s somebody who can really rebound the ball. He’s not even a rebounder above the rim, but he’s someone who understands positioning. Just a very talented player. [Philadelphia guard] Lou Williams is a very underrated player. He’s somebody who can score the ball in a number of different ways. [Oklahoma City forward] Nick Collison is one of the most underrated players, but he’s starting to get the recognition that he deserves by playing deep into the playoffs.
Who’s the most overrated player in the NBA?
I don’t like to talk bad about players, because you have to play against them. You start talking bad, and then they drop 30 on your ass. It’s karma.
Who are the three biggest floppers in the NBA?
The biggest flopper -- No. 1 by far, and I loved it when he was on my team -- is [New York center] Kurt Thomas. Unbelievable flopper. [Cleveland forward] Anderson Varejao is a flopper. But it’s part of the game. When somebody on my team flops and takes a charge, there’s no better feeling, knowing that you’re getting the ball and bringing it down the court. So when flopping works for you, it’s a good feeling. But I’m not a big flopper.
Let’s play word association:
• Billy Donovan
The best coach I ever had. Unbelievable balance. He has the basketball sickness that most coaches have, but he’s also a family man and very religious. He’s somebody who’s played the game at the highest level -- what he did at Providence, going to the Final Four, and playing in the NBA a little bit. He’s somebody who understands what your body is going through and how you feel as a player.
• LeBron James
Unbelievable talent. Somebody that we have to go through to get to where we want to get. That’s what I have to say about LeBron James.
Cleveland is a tough place to spend time. It’s a very depressing city, but at least they have the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Who was your favorite player growing up, and why?
Patrick Ewing. I grew up a Knicks fan, and I loved that hard-nosed, tough mentality. Just get in your face and take the game from you. I feel like that’s what the Knicks were all about -- trying to physically dominate their opponent with their toughness.
What is the biggest misconception that people have about you?
People think the way I am on the court is how I act all the time. That’s television. I’m pretty laid back. I’m just a chill kind of guy -- a hippie that likes to go to the beach and go to concerts and do hippie things. On the court, I have a lot of energy. I hate everybody. I always talk really loud, and I’m kind of obnoxious.
Does your on-court personality ever follow you off the court?
I think it depends how much tequila I drink. [Laughs.]
You spend a lot of time in Maui. What’s the best thing about the island that few people know about?
I love the fact that people don’t know too much about basketball over there. I usually stay on the north shore of the island, where it’s more local. Surfing gets most of the hype out there. ... Maui is one of the only islands in the world that has every possible vegetation -- from desert to rainforest to snow. It’s really beautiful.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I have lots of guilty pleasures.
What are some of them?
Nawww ... [Laughs.]