By Jeff Taylor
|Joakim Noah, big, athletic and skillfull, could be the... not so secret ingredient the French frontcourt was missing|
Europe heard about the name Joakim Noah a long time before his EuroBasket debut this summer in Lithuania.
In the spring of 2006, the 2.11m tall, athletic center was running up and down the floor for the Florida Gators and leading them to the first of back-to-back NCAA titles.
Word spread quickly from Madrid to Paris to Rome to Moscow that France had another gifted player waiting in the wings.
Joakim, the son of French Open tennis champion Yannick Noah, would one day play for the national team.
France had wanted that to happen two years ago at the EuroBasket in Poland but it wasn't until this year, with Noah having already turned into a bona fide NBA star, that coach Vincent Collet finally got his man.
If the French missed Noah's presence in the paint in Katowice when their unbeaten record was brought to an end in part because they had no answer for Spain's Pau Gasol in the Quarter-Finals, they've got it now.
And no one is happier that Joakim is in the French team than Joakim himself.
"This is great, really unbelievable," Noah said to fibaeurope.com.
"Just to be in this position right now, I never played in European basketball before so just to be in this position is great and I feel like the atmosphere is very college-like.
"You know you're in Lithuania and it's a whole different world out here."
What Noah, who was born in New York, brings to the table for France is obvious.
He makes opponents think twice before penetrating into the lane and attacking the basket.
Noah is tireless, crashing the boards with an unrivalled ferocity that saw him pull down a game-high 13 in France's 73-67 win over Lithuania on Friday night.
The 26-year-old has also brought an offensive game that has become more potent after four seasons with the Chicago Bulls.
What's most impressive is that Noah, who averaged double-doubles in points and rebounds the last two seasons for the Bulls, has not tried to force his game on the French team but rather be like any other player.
He does what is asked of him.
|Joakim, son of French sporting legend Yannick, has nothing but admiration for the established names who show up for national duty after a tiring club season, like Boris Diaw |
"That's not really my personality," he said.
"I understand that to win, you have to sacrifice.
"And I think that is what this team is all about.
"You just do what you have to do to win games."
Noah speaks with enormous pride about all his teammates, including those who don't play in the NBA.
"People had been talking about our bench not producing, but our bench has been huge and really effective," he said.
"That's what it's all about, having everybody on the same page with one goal and that's winning at basketball."
Noah admits he never dreamed that by playing basketball, he would have the opportunities that have come his way.
Not every player can say they have won an NCAA title, and he's done it twice.
Not every player can be a success in the NBA, or play for a national team like France that has a chance to reach the podium and also qualify for the Olympics.
So far, no team has beaten France in Lithuania.
"I feel very blessed and very lucky to be able to do all of this," Noah said.
"Basketball has taken me to Lithuania and basketball has been such a rollercoaster.
"It's been amazing. I feel very fortunate to play on great teams and with great people."
There is also the family atmosphere that exists in the French team, and the idea that playing for a country is the greatest honor of all, even for those who compete in the NBA.
"I see that Tony (Parker) has been doing this for 10 years, and Boris (Diaw) has been doing this for years and years," he said.
"There is a lot of sacrifice that goes with playing a whole NBA season and then coming and representing your country.
"It just shows the sacrifice that these guys have put in and it just makes you want to go out there and go hard."