'Jo was all heart': What the magnetic, trash-talking, fearless Joakim Noah meant to the Chicago Bulls

JOAKIM NOAH APPEARED lethargic during a practice early in his sophomore season at the University of Florida, and Billy Donovan, his coach, had seen enough.

"I was all over him," Donovan recalls.

David Lee is in the NBA now. We need you. You're burning the candle at both ends. Start prioritizing things.

Around 11 that night, Donovan's phone rang. Al Horford and Corey Brewer, two of Noah's roommates and fellow members of what would become one of the greatest classes in college basketball history, needed Donovan's help: Noah was running sprints on the track, in the pouring rain, and he would not stop -- Noah's way of showing Donovan he was ready to be a leader.

"They had to send somebody out," Brewer says. "This dude was insane. If you challenge him, he will go to the extreme to prove you wrong."

Brewer met Noah at the start of their freshman year in 2004, when the gangly, long-haired SoHo-via-Paris hippie burst into the gym, saw Horford, Brewer, and Taurean Green on the court, and bellowed: "My type of guys, already in the gym!" Noah dropped his bags and joined.

The four lived together. Noah played the fewest minutes among them, stuck behind a glut of big men -- including Lee, who as a senior had been assigned the job of making sure Noah attended class. On the first day, Lee and Noah agreed to meet at 9 a.m. -- 15 minutes before Noah's class. At 9:15, there was no Noah. Lee texted. There was no reply.

At 9:45, Noah showed -- shirtless, carrying a boom box, blasting Bob Marley, and wearing "around 19 necklaces," Lee recalls.

"Jo, you have class!" Lee shouted.

"Yo, relax," Noah replied. "I'll get there when I get there."

"He was so charming, he convinced me I needed to relax," Lee says.

Donovan punished Noah and Lee by making them run at 6 a.m. the next day. It would not be the last time. On Fridays, strength coaches concocted dawn torture sessions for everyone: lifting, running hills, running hills while carrying weights.

Coaches soon discovered they needed to bring a trash can. Noah went so hard, so relentlessly, he often vomited.

"He'd puke, and 30 seconds later, he'd be right back at it," says Larry Shyatt, then an assistant at Florida. "I'd never seen an athlete drive himself beyond exhaustion like that."

"There were a couple of times we went hard the night before," Brewer says, laughing. "That might have played a part."

Some mornings, Noah would run into the gym shouting toward the coaches' offices: Who wants to work out Joakim? "And these weren't just getting shots up," Shyatt says. Noah asked coaches to put him through defensive drills, and shouted their catchphrases back at them: Squeaky feet! Fingers up!

"He inspired me," Horford says.

It didn't earn Noah much playing time as a freshman. The competition was too fierce. Noah caught mononucleosis. He had trouble remembering plays; in rehearsing sets, Horford sometimes escorted Noah to the right spots.

Late that season, a despondent Noah approached Donovan and admitted confidantes were suggesting he transfer. Donovan urged him to stay. Noah channeled his disappointment into work.

"That year made him a better player," Brewer says.

It is that work ethic the Chicago Bulls celebrate Thursday at Joakim Noah Night -- a reunion of old friends and a tribute to a career that petered out in a way Noah did not envision when he was a magnetic, trash-talking, irritant Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star. He is at peace.

"The last five years were the best thing that happened to me," Noah says. "It helps me appreciate the good times. When it's over, you realize all you have is your memories and your friends. I share a lot of stories with a lot of guys. That's what I'm looking forward to tonight -- meeting with the guys, drinking some drinks, and talking some s---."

THIRTEEN YEARS AFTER his checkered freshmen season, Noah was at rock bottom -- his celebrated return to the hometown New York Knicks unraveling amid surgeries to his knee and right shoulder, and a 20-game suspension for violating the NBA's anti-drug policy.

"I can't do this anymore," Noah told Fabrice Gautier, a French osteopath who has treated Noah. "I'm going to retire." Noah could not lift his right arm.