Vilnius (heinnews) – Watching Joakim Noah joke around on the court during practice, one gets the feeling of observing a kid in a candy shop. Then again, the Chicago Bulls center is having the time of his life at his first EuroBasket.
“It’s cool. I’m having a blast,” Noah told heinnews at the 2011 European basketball championship in Lithuania.
“This is my first time playing in this tournament. It’s really a different game than the NBA. But I’m learning every day.”
Noah has played a huge part in France rolling through their first seven opponents in Siauliai and Vilnius. In 24 minutes of action, the 26-year-old is averaging 9.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.0 steal per game while also giving the French a huge energy.
Noah is an oddity in so many ways.
Very rarely do NBA stars with European national teams make their international debut at age 26. Most of them had grown up playing in the youth ranks of the national team system, which includes annual Under-16, Under-18 and Under-20 European Championships and even has Under-17 and Under-19 World Championships.
Noah, however, never played for France before this summer. He was born in New York and moved to Paris when he was 3 years old. And then 10 years later, Noah left the French capital to return to the Big Apple with his mother and younger sister.
Noah began to emerge as a star in basketball in college, helping the Florida Gators to back-to-back NCAA National Championship titles in 2006 and 2007, even being named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 NCAA Tournament Final Four.
The 6-foot-11 center was granted French citizenship on April 11, 2007 and received permission by FIBA to play for France on August 10, 2007, which prompted an open fight for his services for international basketball.
Again, Noah is an oddity.
His father is a French icon. Yannick Noah became an instant celebrity in 1983 when he became the first Frenchman to win the French Open in 39 years. Currently he is one of the hottest pop stars in France.
Noah’s mother, Cecilia Rodhe, won the Miss Sweden pageant in 1978 while his paternal grandfather, Zacharie Noah, was a professional soccer player in Cameroon. With that multi-ethical up-bringing, Noah gave himself the nickname “African Viking”.
Noah admitted quite quickly after receiving his French passport that he wanted to line up for Les Bleus. But the Chicago Bulls refused to grant him permission to play at EuroBasket 2009.
The NBA club also could not come to an agreement with the French federation for the 2010 World Championship in Turkey.
Sweden also threw their hat into the Noah Sweepstakes ring as an outsider chance, but that was short lived as Noah continually reiterated he would play for France when the issue was resolved.
Last summer, even the United States tried to get Noah to play for them at the Worlds in Turkey. Noah told the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche in September 2010 that Team USA director Jerry Colangelo had contacted him as the Americans lacked quality big men.
Even Cameroon gave it a go, Noah said.
“I was pleased to be contacted by Team USA, which searched valid centers. It could have given me the possibility to play with great players. But I repeat it: I want to play with France, it’s my dream,” said Noah in the interview.
“That would make my grandmother really happy and I want my family to be proud. This summer (2010), I was in a difficult situation. But I’m coming next year and I will use my blue jersey.”
The trip to Lithuania is also opening the already-cultivated eyes of Noah.
“It’s just you go outside and it’s a whole other world. It’s a whole other culture,” said Noah.
“We’re in the countryside but you don’t realize that they have this huge basketball arena (in Siauliai).”
Vilnius is a different story than Siauliai as the Lithuania capital is a much more bustling city, with billboards of basketball everywhere one looks.
“You look at all the commercials are all basketball. It’s unbelievable to see how much of a following basketball has around the world,” said Noah.
With basketball being Noah’s world and Lithuania being basketball-mad, Noah is truly a kid in a candy shop – both on and off the court.