Joakim Noah wasn’t sure if he’d ever play in the NBA again. He did on Wednesday night and had sincere comments afterward on what it meant.
David Cobb, The Commercial Appeal
Joakim Noah pulled out his cell phone because the story of how one of the most famous couples in sports helped him find happiness on the basketball court again was in there.
“I want to show you this,” Noah said after a recent game.
On the screen was a video of Noah in a pool at the Malibu home of legendary pro surfer Laird Hamilton and his wife, volleyball star Gabrielle Reece, the Santa Monica Mountains serving as a backdrop.
At Hamilton’s command, Noah repeatedly leapt out of the water to dunk a medicine ball into a 10-foot hoop.
The decision to wheel a basketball goal into the middle of a pool, Noah said, was Hamilton’s, just like every unorthodox facet of the Extreme Performance Training (XPT) program he and Reece co-founded. NBA clients include Paul George, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin.
Noah estimates he did 5,000 medicine ball dunks like this during 10- to 15-minute intervals at the end of his workouts this offseason.
It’s why Noah believes he’s enjoying a renaissance on the court, averaging more dunks per game than he has in eight years, according to Pro Basketball Reference.
“I’m 34 years old right now, and I’m [bleeping] dunking on young guys. It’s a pretty good feeling,” Noah said.
And none of this, Noah insists, would have happened without the guidance and friendship of Hamilton and Reece.
‘A dark place’ after getting kicked off Knicks
If you want to know what occurred to resuscitate Noah’s NBA career, or what happened in between the time he was an exile in New York and became an emotional leader in Memphis, just go through his Instagram account.
There, on Sept. 5, is a video of Noah doing in-water dunks with a message for Hamilton.
“Thank you for helping me find my way Laird,” Noah wrote. “I couldn’t ask for a better big brother. I needed help and you and your family were there for me.”
Then, on Jan. 6, Noah posted a photo of him and Reece to commemorate Reece’s birthday. Along with it, he told the story of how she saved him during the lowest moment of his basketball career.
It was a few weeks after Noah had been kicked off the Knicks last season, and he was drinking his way through Fashion Week in New York City.
Noah had signed a four-year, $72-million contract in July 2016 and it had gone so badly that the Knicks decided to pay him to go away.
“I was in a dark place,” Noah wrote on Instagram. “I had no direction and I was partying to ease the pain. I was embarrassed.”
And he was about to buy a plane ticket to London, Paris and Milan to party some more with his friends when Reece called.
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Her advice went like this:
“Move into the house in Malibu and train like you’re in season, and you don’t stop training like you’re in season until the season is over,” Reece said last week as she recalled the conversation “Don’t, because you’re mad or you’re frustrated or feel misunderstood, go to Europe and do maybe things that don’t support you.”
How Noah met Hamilton, Reece
Hamilton instantly intrigued Noah back in 2011, when Noah read Hamilton’s book and the two met in Maui, where Noah’s mother lives.
Noah had just gone to the Eastern Conference finals with the Chicago Bulls and celebrated with a trip to Las Vegas “with all my boys,” he said.
But Hamilton’s response wasn’t to judge him, or tell him to change his ways, as Noah had heard before.
It was, Noah recalls, “If you’re going to do that, make sure you come out here and do nature trips and just keep the balance. It really resonated.”
So Noah began working out with Hamilton periodically, and continued to do so each offseason after that.
Over time, a bond formed.
Here were two legends in their respective sports who could break through to Noah, who he came to know as, “the truest and most true to themselves people.”
So Noah was receptive when he picked up the phone after being dropped from the Knicks and heard Reece’s voice.
In January 2018, he moved into the Malibu home of Hamilton and Reece and lived there by himself for two months.
By April, once Hamilton and Reece returned from Hawaii after the end of Hamilton’s surfing season, the Noah we see on the court now had begun to take shape.
“I wouldn’t be back playing if it wasn’t for that phone call,” Noah wrote on Instagram.
What changed about Joakim Noah
Reece knew this year would be different for Noah when he began showing up to her house for training at 8 a.m., instead of 10 a.m. like in years past. Instead of being in the pool once a week, he was there three or four times each week.
“It became my primary training,” Noah said.
On its website, XPT is described as a lifestyle and involves three facets: Breathe, move and recover. Hamilton developed it as he aged in hopes of figuring out the best way to increase his lung capacity in the water without putting wear and tear on his body.
“It’s underwater training in a pool with heavy weights, and so there’s no pounding on the joints,” Noah explained. “It gave my legs a lot of confidence to jump (by) jumping under water with heavy weights. You can imagine the cardio of being 10 feet under water with 50-pound dumbbells, not being able to get to the top and try to get as many jumps as possible and then maybe doing a down-back without any oxygen.”
Sometimes, in the middle of a workout, Hamilton had Noah go into a sauna or take an ice bath just to increase the stress on his body. Even the breathing routines are more cardiovascular than meditative, Noah said.
He supplemented all this with daily track workouts and basketball training.
But, Reece said, this was more about embracing healthier habits than the actual work because Noah’s “biggest deterrent in the past is he likes to have fun.”
He started eating better, thanks to meals cooked by Hamilton and Reece. He went to bed earlier and didn’t ignore the recovery aspect of training. If Hamilton wanted to do yoga, Noah did yoga. If Hamilton wanted to play tennis, Noah played tennis. If Hamilton went in for treatment, Noah went in for treatment.
“He really grew up,” Reece said.
Why Noah gives credit to Grizzlies
Here’s where the Grizzlies became part of this reclamation project.
Though Noah rediscovered his passion for the game in Malibu, most of the NBA forgot about him. The Knicks didn’t release him until October, so he began this NBA season still exiled and training with Hamilton and Reece.
“I was playing basketball every day without even knowing if I was going to get a chance to play basketball again,” Noah said, “and that’s really tough.”
But Memphis was looking for a back-up big man to limit Marc Gasol’s minutes, and Noah’s longtime friend, Chandler Parsons, vouched for him. On Dec. 4, Noah signed a contract for the remainder of this season for the veteran’s minimum.
And then, he quickly began to change his basketball narrative.
After appearing in just 82 games the previous three years combined, he’s averaging a career-high in points per 36 minutes and once again looks like the rugged 6-foot-11 former NBA defensive player of the year who played for the Chicago Bulls with a passion and energy few can match.
He’s become a roaring, towel-waving fan favorite at FedExForum and “he’s kind of like the heart of our team right now,” Parsons said.
This speaks to why his fit here is more about how his spirit fits the culture of the city.
It’s why now the discussion surrounding Noah and this remarkable rebirth isn’t about whether he can still play. He’s proven that. It’s whether he’ll still be playing in Memphis necutxt year.
Asked if the team’s faith in him will factor into his decision this offseason, Noah responded, “For sure. I mean, this place revived my career.”
So did a legendary surfer, his world-renowned pro volleyball player of a wife, and a basketball hoop in the middle of a pool in Malibu.