Towards the end of what was, by all accounts, one of the most intense and chippy Knicks’ practices of the season on Tuesday, Joakim Noah stood next to coach Jeff Hornacek and talked basketball, the two gesturing toward different spots on the floor. Noah then did the same with assistant coach Jerry Sichting.
The Knicks center, who is nursing a pulled a hamstring, did some shooting and light movement, but it was far from a full practice.
In other words, Noah wasn’t able to vent some of the frustration and disappointment that followed Monday night’s loss to the Lakers.
This has been a season of pain for Noah, 31. He suffered a hamstring injury in the preseason, which hampered his acclimation to the team. He battled through a sprained ankle. Now the hamstring is barking again.
But those physical aches pale in comparison to the pain Noah has kept inside. He opened up to MSGNetworks.com about the emotional pain he’s feeling about not having been more of a force for the team he grew up cheering for.
“It hurts a lot, emotional pain,’’ Noah said. “But you know what, I try to keep things in perspective even though it is hard. It’s not easy.
“It’s a childhood dream of mine to play for the Knicks organization and not playing well, it’s tough. But I’m not complaining. I’ve got to keep working and persevere through this.’’
Noah was one of the Knicks big off-season acquisitions. He signed a four-year, $72 million deal, but the money was secondary.
Truth is, Noah is not your average athlete, not by a long stretch. Playing for the franchise he loves in the city where he feels at home has no price tag.
Noah the grandson of a Cameroon soccer star, and the son of a French tennis star father and former Miss Sweden mother, who became a successful artist and therapist.
Noah has lived in Paris and New York.
He was named the 2014 NBA Defensive Player of the Year for his relentlessness hustle and the 2015 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for his advocacy of helping children realize their potential.
He wears his heart on his sleeve on the court, yet is introspective off it.
He wore a beige pinstripe suit with a bowtie, which caused quite a brouhaha at the 2007 NBA Draft. And he sparked political discussion in 2007 when he didn’t tuck in his shirt, a sign of protest of America’s involvement in the Iraq War, for a visit to the White House after leading Florida to the NCAA title.
“He knows about everything that’s going on in the world,’’ said guard Derrick Rose, a Chicago native who played for his hometown Bulls and can most identify with Noah’s situation.
“He’s in touch with it. He has no other choice because of his background; how he grew up.
“And individually, he’s a caring person. When things are going on in the world that he sees as an injustice, he has an opinion. He’s one of the deepest thinkers I know.’’
Having been raised in Hell’s Kitchen and growing up a Knicks fan, Noah hit the childhood dream jackpot by signing with New York.
It’s been a dream interrupted.
He leads the Knicks with 8.7 rebounds per game, but he’s averaging just five points and his free throw shooting has been an issue. Noah has been working on the latter, but he needs to see improvement in games, which isn’t an option now.
Noah’s missed the last two games with the hamstring and likely won’t play tonight against the Denver Nuggets (7 p.m.; MSG Network). The Knicks are looking to snap a three-game losing streak and it hurts Noah to watch from the bench.
“I’ve been a Knicks fan my entire life,’’ Noah said. “I was in The Garden when Michael Jordan scored 55. I cried that day.
“It is an honor to be with this organization. It hurts that the season hasn’t gone well. We have to keep working. Nothing you value comes without hard work and sacrifice.’’
He’s come close to tears this season, too. He took the mic before the Knicks home-opener on Oct. 30, a 111-104 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, and stirred The Garden faithful by exhorting, “It’s a long season. Thanks for the support. Let’s get it.”
Noah grabbed 10 rebounds, had seven assists, scored six points, blocked one shot and took stitches in his left ear, the battle wound of his body-be-damned style of play.
After the game, his eyes red and a little swollen, Noah was emotionally exhausted. But there was joy in his heart.
“Game 1 at the Garden, stitched up, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Noah said. “Growing up here, walking distance [from the Garden]. I’ve been in this building for a lot of games as a fan.
“So just to be able to wear this jersey, it’s more than special to me.’’
Which is why the Knicks’ struggles have roiled his emotions. Despite the team’s 22-32 record, the Knicks remain just three and one-half games out of the final playoff spot.
The Knicks have 28 games left, including tonight’s. They need to make a move soon or the season may be lost. For now, the move will have to be made without Noah.
“It’s not about me or even about this one season,’’ Noah said. “It’s not about that. It’s about us as a unit putting together a product that will make the fans proud.
“You know, it’s not about making a message to the fans right now. We just lost to the Lakers by 20. We got embarrassed. Right now we’re just trying to focus on getting better as a team. Building a culture. That doesn’t come overnight.’’
Noah knows about the process of building. When he arrived at the University of Florida, coach Billy Donovan saw a tall, skinny athlete that was about as physical as a feather duster.
He sent Noah to play in the Rucker Park Entertainer’s Basketball Classic, where his coach, Tony Rosa, had been given a mandate by Donovan: Do whatever it takes to toughen up the big man.
Rosa benched Noah frequently, berated him with such intensity it nearly brought tears. When the Gators won the first of back-to-back titles in 2007, Noah stood on the winner’s platform screaming, ‘Thank you, Tony Rosa!’
The boy from Hell’s Kitchen had become a man, a man not about to be restricted to being defined a basketball player. He spoke out against racial inequity and war. The concept of young people killing young people is abhorrent to Noah.
His public statements and actions are contrary to his desire to be anonymous off the court. He was cast in the public eye early, the son of tennis star Yannick Noah, one of France’s greatest athletes.
It was a status that brought privilege and burden. Noah attended private high school, starring at Poly Prep, and he enjoyed vacations most can’t fathom. But he craved to be one of the guys that could grab a slice of pizza without notice.
That remains his elusive wish.
He pounds his chest and shouts to the rafters on the court. He wears his hair in a wild, free-flowing fashion atop his 6-foot-11 frame. But he enjoys walking in Chelsea like the UPS guy.
“He’s old school,’’ said Knicks legend Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier, who as a player would ride the subway to The Garden. “You could tell he’s still got the family thing and tradition going. You could tell he’s aware of the trials and tribulations of people in the world.
“He’s not like a lot of guys in the league that are all about the money and the hip hop scene. He sees a bigger picture.’’
Hornacek has not spoken to Noah about the added pressure of playing for his hometown team, but the former NBA player-turned-coach knows injuries can have an effect on the mind as well.
Hornacek sees Noah navigating those waters now.
“At some point, you can’t try so hard,’’ Hornacek said. “Sometimes you’re at a point where you’re thinking about that stuff, ‘How am I going to make the city proud?’
“Sometimes, especially when you’re losing, you press a little bit. Joe’s injuries, he’s had a couple little things. I’m sure he’s frustrated with it, but I haven’t talked to him about the mental part of playing in the city and being back home.
“I know he cares. I know he wants to be out there. It’s tough.’’
It’s tough, not only because of the ankle and hamstring. It’s tough because that innermost place in all of us, the place where dreams ferment, is not a peaceful place for Noah.
“What’s important right now is building the right habits,’’ Noah said. “We’re not where we want to be but we have to stick together through these hard times.
“I believe we will. I believe in the power of a team and teammates that care. We have that here. That’s what hurts.’’