ANDREW SELIGMAN, AP Sports Writer
LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. (AP) — There were some emotional moments and some funny stories as Joakim Noah accepted the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award on Monday, like this one.
The Chicago Bulls’ center recalled a grueling workout with coach Tom Thibodeau.
“I told Thibs, ‘If we weren’t winning games, I would really, really hate you,'” he said. “And he said, ‘Trust me, Jo, I feel the same way about you.'”
Noah laughed. So did Thibodeau.
With their drive and desire, those two are in many ways a perfect match. And when it came to this year’s award, it was no contest.
Noah got 100 of a possible 125 first-place votes from a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters and wound up with 555 points.
Indiana’s Roy Hibbert (166 points, eight first-place votes) and the Los Angeles Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan (121 points, eight first-place votes) came in second and third, respectively.
“This is very humbling to be in this situation right now,” Noah said as his famous father Yannick, his mom, his sisters and brother all watched from the front row.
He told coach Tom Thibodeau: “Without your system, this wouldn’t be possible.”
The only other Bulls player to win the award was Michael Jordan in 1988. Besides joining the greatest player in franchise history, Noah’s name gets added to an impressive list of centers to take the honor. It includes stars such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, David Robinson, Dwight Howard.
And now, Noah.
The recognition comes after Noah helped Chicago win 48 games and earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs despite losing Derrick Rose to a season-ending knee injury and trading away Luol Deng.
The Bulls won more games than any other Eastern Conference team after New Year’s Eve before stumbling in the postseason opener against Washington. Game 2 is Tuesday, another test for a team and a player who have passed their share.
Noah had some issues with teammates and coaches after he was drafted out of Florida in 2007. But there’s little question who the team’s most valuable player was this season.
When the Bulls looked like they might fall apart, Noah kept them together. The irony is the defensive player award comes at a time when he’s getting as much praise for his ability on offense, a weakness his first few years in the league.
Noah averaged career highs of 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists. He’s a focal point on offense and one of the league’s best passing big men, with the ball often being funneled through him. He also remains their anchor on defense with his ability to cover ground and rotate onto smaller players in pick-and-roll situations creates havoc for opponents. He averaged 1.5 blocks.
“It’s been really fun for all of his to watch him and his game evolve and grow over the years,” general manager Gar Forman said. “He’s a competitor. He’s passionate. He’s intelligent and he’s a leader. But along with that, what Joakim probably is is the best teammate that I’ve had a chance to witness in the 16 years that I’ve been with the Chicago Bulls.”
The recognition comes at a difficult time for Noah, whose youth basketball mentor and second father figure Tyrone Green recently died. He dedicated the award to him, recalled sleeping on his couch in the summer as a teenager and forgoing trips with his mom and sister to work on his game. Green believed he could make Noah into an NBA player even if his own father had doubts.
“We were watching a game,” said Yannick Noah, the former tennis star. “(Joakim) was 15 or 16 years old. Mr. Green told me, ‘I’ll get him there, we’ll get him there.’ I said, ‘Where are you gonna get him — to the next tournament or the ABCD camp or something?’ And he said, ‘No, we’re gonna get him there to the NBA, and I never believed that.”
“He was too skinny, couldn’t shoot,” Yannick Noah said. “He couldn’t jump, couldn’t do a lot of things. The only thing I knew he had was his drive.”
Look where it got him.
AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney in New York contributed to this report.
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