Joakim Noah squeezed his 6-foot-11 frame inside the tightly cramped, steamy middle school gym, gazed around at the talented high-school prospects on the court, the grown men sitting three deep underneath each basket, and smiled.
iS8, he thought to himself, is still iS8.
“That’s what I love about this place,” said the Chicago Bulls power forward, who took in the iS8 Nike Spring Classic semifinals last Saturday. “It hasn’t changed one bit – same atmosphere, same vibe.”
Noah, who attended Poly Prep and grew up in Manhattan before developing at Lawrenceville Prep (N.J.), still fondly remembers the famed South Jamaica tournament. He remembers winning the title in 2003, teaming with such stars as Lenny Cooke, Curtis Sumpter and Charlie Villanueva, and proudly taking the massive trophy home with him on the A train all the way from Far Rockaway to Hell’s Kitchen.
It was special, he said, because of the elite competition that draws players from several states and has rabid and demanding eyes on the on-court talent.
“You can see where you’re at,” said Noah, who just returned from vacation in Hawaii. “Only in New York City can you find a place like this.”
He won consecutive national titles at Florida and has developed into a reliable playoff performer with the Bulls. His ability to play in big games began at iS8, where the mantra is “bring your game, not your name.”
“Playing in an environment like this, this is where you get your whole foundation,” he said. “Playing here definitely helped me playing in big games.”
Noah didn’t merely make a cameo. He chatted with fans and players, even joining the New York Panthers, his former AAU program, in their joyous locker room afterward. They knocked off the Sean Bell All-Stars, 88-84, to earn a rematch against New Heights in tomorrow morning’s final.
Noah didn’t just talk about his prep days. He also touched on the subject everyone wants to know about – LeBron James’ next destination, although he didn’t have any inside information. While Noah is a New York City product and said he loves the Big Apple, he would like to see James wind up in Chicago.
“I’m excited to have a chance to play with the best player in the world,” Noah said, flashing his trademark smile. “That’s why you play the game, to play at the highest level with the best players in a great place like Chicago. It would be a great opportunity to one day win a championship.”