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Joakim Noah: Public Enemy Number 1

Joakim Noah is a villain – and that’s a good thing. The NBA needs villains. Fans that despise certain teams or players want their favorite teams and players to share that same vitriol … but it rarely is the case. Players know each other from years of competing; they hang out and they’re friendly. Today’s NBA is different in that regard – player-to-player friendships have evolved over the years. Players of the past may have been friendly off the court, but there was a rivalry and a competitiveness that was combustible on game day. Today’s league is, for the most part, devoid of villains. The Bad Boys Pistons are long gone. Instead, today’s NBA is a spectrum of passive aggressive tough guys on one end and Dwyane Wade and LeBron James hugging for 48 minutes on the other.

That’s why a personality like Joakim Noah is so important. Noah isn’t hard to miss, as he stands nearly 7’0’’ tall with long, frizzy hair that he wears in a bun on game days. Though it’s really his passion and antics that make him revered in Chicago … and detested everywhere else.

LeBron James was a villain. It was perfect. He became a villain as soon as he bolted for the glitz and title-winning glamour of Miami. LeBron was in such bad standing with NBA fans that he made Dan Gilbert a sympathetic figure. That’s nearly impossible to do. Seriously, LeBron was the bad guy compared to a petulant child who penned a letter akin to a spurned lover, while simultaneously overseeing a company with shady lending practices. LeBron was an important villain, similar to John Calipari or the New York Yankees. Nobody sold road tickets faster and at a higher dollar than the “Threetles” led by King James himself. People paid to see them lose. The difference between LeBron and other NBA villains was that he was a reluctant villain; he never wanted to be one and never embraced it. He liked being America’s Sweetheart, and not the guy that everyone loved to hate.

After returning to Cleveland, LeBron was back in America’s good graces. Now, most teams will treat LeBron James like The Godfather. That’s why Joakim Noah is important, because he treats LeBron James like he’s Fredo Corleone.

Noah is a persistent underdog. He was a lottery pick, but many thought he was overdrafted due to major questions on how his game would translate to the NBA. Joakim is one of the game’s toughest and most fearless defenders and rebounders. On the court, Joakim has more than proven himself, but his value is not exclusive to his production. Noah is a thorn. He’s a deliberate and unapologetic menace. His style is a mix between old school values and new school gamesmanship. But more than that, Noah is just plain hated. He outwardly dislikes and absorbs hatred from the league’s fans and players. This is the important role he plays in the NBA landscape.

In case you need a refresher, here’s just a small sample of the way that Joakim has become public enemy number one in the NBA.

Joakim doesn’t think Cleveland is cool:

Then there was the time that Joakim aggressively clapped in the direction of the Miami Heat:

Here’s Joakim, wearing a white shooter shirt, just trying to blend in with the Toronto Raptors:

Then there was the time Noah defended Terrence Ross from the sideline:

And perhaps most appropriately, Joakim has never really liked LeBron:

What happens between the lines – and through actual play – in sports only means so much. Drama drives the bus. And this is a premise that understandably many people reject … but the proof is in the pudding. Our emotional attachment doesn’t just come from the games – it comes from the storylines of the game’s competitors. All good storylines have a villain: we are programmed to hate guys like Joakim Noah. The problem is that, most times, our favorite players don’t share this same animus. That’s why Noah is so important. He’s annoying, he’s a menace, he’s tough and he’s disliked by nearly everyone that watches or plays in the NBA.

I’ve often thought Joakim Noah was just misunderstood. But it doesn’t matter. You aren’t supposed to like Joakim Noah. That’s the way the league – and its fans – need it to be.

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