When Joakim Noah and his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, created Noah’s Arc Foundation in 2010, they talked about establishing longtime bonds within the city that embraced Noah’s passionate play for the Chicago Bulls.
They even kept the foundation based in Chicago when Noah ended his nine-season run with the Bulls and signed with the New York Knicks in 2016.
So it stands to reason that three years after he officially retired from the NBA, Noah sat at the United Center on Saturday morning, surrounded by political and youth leaders and community service organizers, talking about his foundation’s biggest project yet.
On May 20, the One City Basketball League will begin. It will run into August, giving 280 players ranging in age from 16 to 25 from the South and West sides of the city the opportunity to use basketball as a potential springboard to transcend some of the many issues plaguing Chicago.
The collaboration between Noah’s Arc Foundation, Transform Justice and 28 violence reduction groups will feature coaches trained in conflict resolution and, according to program manager Yolam Anderson-Golhor, offer educational off-court programming, art therapy and job placement opportunities.
“This is a lot bigger than basketball,” Noah said. “This is my job now.”
Noah served as the emotional epicenter for a Bulls era that galvanized the city, featuring large personalities and talents like Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Tom Thibodeau and others. Throughout it all, including the Bulls’ trip to the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, his foundation consistently gave back to the community.
That included several years of the Noah’s Arc Foundation Peace Tournament, a smaller-scaled version of what the One City Basketball League vision is. Those one-off tournaments took place over one weekend.
This league will be a weeks-long event, featuring seven games each Saturday at one site on the South side and one site on the West side.
“This city has given me so much. This is where my platform is. This is some of the best memories of my life. I love coming back here. And at the end of the day, I know there are issues in this city that we have to tackle. And as an ambassador not just for the Bulls but for the city, I want to do right,” Noah said. “This gives me purpose.
“When you’re done playing, you got to think of things to do. You can’t just be lying around at home, your wife looking at you all crazy like, ‘What are you going to do today?’ I want to do things that inspire me. The people who are putting in work in this city, those are the people who inspire me. I love being around them.”
In fact, Noah spent Saturday talking with the local violence reduction and conflict resolution leaders who will serve as coaches. And these weren’t Noah’s first conversations with these people.
“This is not just starting. This has been 10-plus years in the making. And that’s why I think Noah’s Arc has some credibility in the city,” Noah said. “It’s about using my platform to give voices to the guys who are putting in work every day. That’s all it really is.”
Noah’s respect and love for Cobe Williams was most palpable. Williams serves as Cure Violence’s global director of national programs and is the Founder of Transform Justice and has partnered with Noah’s Arc Foundation on many projects over the years.
The two first met with Noah posted to social media how much watching the 2011 documentary “The Interrupters” impacted him.
“This is my brother,” Noah said. “Every time I go into the neighborhood, I go into the neighborhood with this guy. And I love him to death. People respect the work we’ve done together.”
During Noah’s playing days, the two often would talk deep into the night, trying to brainstorm new ideas to help Chicago’s youth escape some of the violence that plagues the city.
Both men talked Saturday about how events like the Peace Tournament or the upcoming One City Basketball League can lead to more conversations. Because it’s in those moments, after the games are staged and the competition is over, when people with supposed differences can find common ground.
“Man, the city loves Joakim. It’s like he’s still playing for the Bulls. Everybody respects him because when he’s here, he still comes in the community,” Williams said. “Every time I talk to him on the phone, he’s like, ‘What’s going on? How can we help? What’s next?’ That communication is so big with him. He wants to keep giving back.”
According to a news release following the event, the league is “guided by the philosophy that providing opportunities for young people to gather and make connections is a tried and true way of reducing violence and supporting their growth and development.”
Noah equated knowing how to play his role to help impact winning while on the Bulls to what he’s doing now—using his platform to unite community leaders to make a greater impact on the city’s youth.
“This is what leadership looks like,” said Illinois Senator Elgie Sims, who joined Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias in paying tribute to Noah’s work.
Noah said that work never ends. But he’s up for the challenge.
“This is about hope and love and togetherness. I think this tournament is going to be very special,” he said. “It’s only the beginning. We’re at the seed stage now. But it’s going to grow into a beautiful tree.”