By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Following what was by all appearances season-ending left shoulder surgery last week, 30-year-old Bulls big man Joakim Noah has but one goal in his recovery.
“I just want to prove I have a lot more basketball in me,” Noah said.
Where that will be is anyone’s guess.
Speaking Tuesday to reporters for the first time since dislocating his left shoulder on Jan. 15 and having surgery four days later, Noah largely displayed tunnel vision, zeroing his focus in on the rehab work that lies ahead in the next four to six months and not the uncertainty that his impending free agency will bring in July.
“It’s not easy,” Noah said. “It’s very humbling to go through injuries as an athlete. This is the last thing you want. You prepare yourself for a long season, then you get hurt, but it’s part of it and you know, it’s tough, but I’ll bounce back.”
Is his goal to bounce back with the Bulls in 2016-’17?
“I hope so,” Noah said. “Right now, I’m not trying to focus on the future.”
Doctors told Noah there’s a “very good chance” he makes a full recovery. He believes he’ll split his rehab work between New York, where he had the surgery, and Chicago, where he’ll try to hang around his teammates as much as possible.
The Bulls haven’t officially ruled Noah out for the season, with the early window of the recovery timetable being marked by playoff time in mid-May, but Noah appeared to confirm the bad forecast. First asked if there’s a chance he could return late in the season, Noah responded, “I don’t know.”
Later, Noah directly used the word “season-ending” to describe his shoulder injury.
“I’m not thinking about the future at all,” Noah said. “I’m just trying to focus on getting my shoulder right right now, just getting strong. I’m a week removed from surgery. It’s tough. I want to be out there. I want to compete, but that’s not my reality right now.”
The Bulls are the only professional organization Noah’s ever known, as they selected him ninth overall in the 2007 draft. His infectious attitude, sacrifice-his-body playing style, admirable anti-violence work, barbs at opponents and an ugly, sidewinding jump shot endeared him to the city, and he served as the cornerstone of a stout Bulls defense in the Tom Thibodeau era.
Lately, he’s been nothing of that sort. Left knee surgery that was initially termed “minor” in May 2014 – after a standout year in which he was named the Defensive Player of the Year – was anything but, and Noah’s body and knee then betrayed him of the ability to play his renowned high-energy game night after night.
Just ahead of this regular season, first-year coach Fred Hoiberg demoted Noah to the second unit after five years of full-time starting. He’s often been a bit player this year, averaging 4.3 points on 38 percent shooting and 8.8 rebounds in 22 minutes per game.
Neither that performance nor the injury bode well for Noah entering free agency, though the exploding salary cap does.
“I know there are people out there who it’s a lot harder for,” Noah said of a contract season turning so rough. “So I’m not complaining. These are my cards right now. It’s all about how you bounce back.”
At one point in his interview Tuesday, Noah was asked about the Bulls’ inconsistent play. He zeroed in on Saturday’s win against the Cavaliers, pointing out how much he enjoys beating Cleveland, a city he’s long verbally needled.
Noah was then asked if he missed being able to take a verbal jab at Cleveland. He held off, but only momentarily. Questioned about what he liked about Saturday’s win, Noah couldn’t resist.
“I thought we executed well,” Noah said. “It was just good to see their crowd that upset and come out of there with a win. Cleveland was pissed off that night.”
It reflected the unfortunate reality of a man who wants nothing more than to play but has nothing more than words to give to the Bulls.
“This is all I know,” Noah said, referring to his career in Chicago. “I’m looking forward to seeing what the guys are doing. Right now, it’s all about taking a step back and just focusing on getting healthy, and then we’ll go from there.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.