CHICAGO — When it’s empty and dark, the United Center has this really cool vibe inside. It feels like if you listen hard enough, you can hear those 1990s stories. I was standing at the center-court logo — one of the most iconic in sports — looking up, a perspective I don’t think I’d ever had.
The banners hung high above, markers of a different time, a dominant time for the Chicago Bulls. Those teams are long gone now, those fans are older, grayer, slower. As the present-day team struggles to find its identity, the arena is a reminder of days long past.
“This place is special,” former Bulls center Joakim Noah said with a wistful smile, breaking our brief moment of silence.
He hears it too. The echoes.
Noah, who announced his retirement in 2021, had just finished a photo shoot for the team’s collaboration with Chicago-based brand Lyrical Lemonade. The new limited-edition capsule collection features graphic T-shirts, hoodies, a varsity jacket, a hat, a basketball and plush, all with a specially crafted joint logo.
“I really feel like there’s no such thing (as retirement). It’s just a mentality,” Noah said. “Obviously it’s different just not playing basketball anymore. You always have to find your purpose and find things to do. Because since I was a little kid, it’s always been wake up, train … you know, what can I do to get better at basketball? And now the vision is different.”
In nine seasons with the Bulls, Noah became one of the team’s most beloved players. Known for his passion, his signature high bun and a displeasure for Cleveland, he represented the kind of player fans felt a connection to — a connection Noah has maintained even in his absence from the court.
In the summer of 2022, Noah shared his insights on life and hoops when his former teammate and best friend Derrick Rose sponsored the Simeon boys basketball team on a trip to Senegal.
“It’s one of the biggest blessings in my life just to understand that it’s bigger than the sport,” he explained. “It’s also what you represent to the community and understanding that that can last a lifetime if you do it right.
“I’m very proud of the work that I did in the community. Not just post-career, but you have to build an identity and take the time and it started my rookie year. Being able to have teammates like Derrick Rose, who understood the vision, and being able to do a trip with inner-city kids from Chicago and bring them to the Motherland was probably one of the most powerful experiences that I ever did. Not just for them but for myself.”
As a Bulls ambassador, Noah hopes to deepen his relationship with the Chicago community. His role as the model for the Lyrical Lemonade collaboration came through the team, and he views it as an opportunity not only “to work with cool companies,” but also to continue the work of his foundation, Noah’s Arc.
“Well, the blessing is that my foundation is here,” he said. “We do a lot of work with kids, sports and art, getting these kids outlets to express themselves.
“So a lot of my work is here, and being able to work with the Bulls makes it a lot easier. Just being able to use this platform to raise funding. This is as big as it gets in terms of a sports platform.”
Noah’s Arc’s One City Basketball League, launched in 2023, is involved in violence prevention initiatives through sports. Noah said the league will be adding girls, and he has tapped Chicago Sky coach Teresa Weatherspoon to join him.
“Teresa is a childhood friend of mine, a mentor,” he said. “I remember when I was a kid, she was playing with the (New York) Liberty at the time and she always took the time for me. And then when I came on the (New York) Knicks, those were tough times for me. I was going through a lot in my life, and she was always a mentor and very supportive.”
The Bulls embrace Noah and other alumni using the team as a platform to do good in and around the city.
“Being a part of the fabric of our community here in Chicago is extremely important to us,” said Sarah Smith, Bulls director of marketing. “So we certainly always want to stay civically engaged. And we know that we have a global platform as a brand and we also represent Chicago. So staying close to those alumni as well as current players that are active in the community is one way that we also branch out as a brand.”
Smith said the Bulls want to keep the connections alive with their former players — and it also was important to have Noah be a part of the team’s future.
“I really feel like Chicago is a place of great influence for other places,” Noah said. “I just want to make sure that the programs that we have in Chicago are locked in so we can grow stronger roots, and then the tree grows and (we) bring it to other communities.”