Interview: Joakim Noah On Hennessy Partnership, Post Retirement Life and Basketball in Africa

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The almost 7-foot frame of a revered basketballer walks into the room at the Hennessy office in Lagos. He takes his time to work the room delivering pleasantries and apologies for his lateness. The story is that Nigerian Immigration caused a delay at the airport. 

Sporting a bucket hat, a linen shirt, and striped pants which give the impression of some color coding, he takes his seat and readies himself for the first of two days in Nigeria- a neighbor to Cameroon- the country of origin of his paternal grandfather. 

Joakim Noah, the now retired two-time NBA all-star and French international is in Nigeria for the first time- the product of a partnership with French cognac brand Hennessy on its Hennessy in the Paint initiative. The initiative consolidates a partnership between Hennessy and the NBA through which basketball and art are twinned together as both an act of philanthropy and also to promote the spirit of community. 

As part of the initiative, Nigerian graffiti artist Osa Seven was tapped initially to revitalize the Park 23 basketball court in the artistically symbolic Festac Town. Over the Independence Day weekend, another basketball court design was unveiled in VGC, Lagos,

The conversation has been condensed and edited. 

You have an interesting background- the son of a tennis player (former French Open winner, Yannick Noah), and the grandson of a soccer player- is there any special reason why sports have played such a big part in your family? 

Yeah, I think there are definitely reasons. I think this was part of my destiny and I was blessed to see my father train. I think that is something people don’t understand how hard and how much sacrifice you have to make to play at the highest level, in sports. This is something that I  grew up in this kind of environment, so I think that shaped me and the social work that was instilled in me and the way I was raised, social work has always been something that is very important, so that’s why I am in partnership with Hennessy and working with this initiative- In the Paint. It is something that has just made complete sense. It’s something I am very excited about.

We spoke earlier about your grandfather being a Fela Kuti fan. Right now, there is a lot of demand and appreciation for like Nigerian music and culture. Beyond Fela, is there something you have explored, and what has stood out to you?

I mean, Burna for sure. Even in Burna’s music, you can hear “the Fela”. You can hear Fela’s inspiration in his music, so I just love that. Also, I love the way Burna is traveling the world. He is always on tour but sharing his music with people. He was just in Jamaica and he’s really taken other sounds from the diaspora. The music is the bridge right now. You know people in America want to be on Nigerian Afrobeats’ songs, so I think that this bridge is something that is just going to make us make the continent that much stronger, so I am really proud of that.

Talk to us about the Hennessy in the Paint initiative. How did that come about and what does it mean to you?

Hennessy in the Paint initiative is something I am very proud of. This is our first one together. So I met everybody from Hennessy at the NBA All-Star game last year. And you know it was just a great event, a great party, I felt very comfortable just being there.

I was at this party. I was like this party is amazing, you know I’m seeing all these French people over here, I grew up in France for a little bit, so I was able to connect with a lot of people from different places and it’s kind of what Hennessey represents. You know, France is definitely where the brand grew and to be able to have a partnership with the NBA and the art initiative. We’re connecting all the dots and it’s grown very organically. 

Social work again is something you are talking about, so talk about Noah’s Ark Foundation, using that in terms of Sports and Art as a tool for youth development. So what inspired it and how has the foundation evolved? How has that influenced your perspective on using Art and Sports to empower young people?
Social work has become kind of my profession now. Now I am done playing basketball. I think it is just part of my African roots as well you know, that you measure somebody’s richness based on what they can do for others. 

That is a fire quote.

It is the truth, you know. You even look at African basketball players, it is always about what they can do for their community, you know and I think that is a message that we have to really instil in more of the players. And now that I am done playing, I think that being an ambassador for the NBA and working closely with the NBA, is my job now. It is like being able to influence the kids and showing them like, “Yeah, listen. I started my foundation when I was 23 years old and now I’m done playing and I have a platform and when a brand like Hennessy approaches me, you know I’ve been talking about expression, arts, and community building through sports”. So these are messages I have been working with for a long time and now to be able to partner with such a powerful brand like Hennessy, it’s only going to grow and hopefully, the work is impactful.

What is the bigger ambition for Hennessy in the Paint?

I think the bigger ambition is just to keep building courts, making sure that people in the community can enjoy basketball and art expressing the values of the game and being able to come together. It is something that you can’t undermine, I think you can do it through music but you can also do it through sports and sports is a great bridge. I think this is what this great initiative can bring.

You’ve been working with the NBA to develop the Basketball Africa league. How did this come about and why is it so important for you to develop basketball in Africa in your retirement?

So l retired three years ago and there was an opportunity to invest in the NBA Africa league. I think it was something that for me was just a no-brainer, because a lot of times as an athlete, you feel very alone when you are doing these initiatives. You want to build the courts, you want to do things, and you are alone. So now to have a team, a platform like BAL to be able to work with on my initiatives, I feel more confident because I have a team with me, you are not in this by yourself. So as it grows, partnerships come on such as Hennessy and now I have an opportunity to keep building courts on the continent.

It seems like they’re interwoven but how does the work you are doing with the BAL influence your work with Hennessy in the Paint?

I think that BAL and the Hennessy initiatives are very similar. The BAL is the top talent, African talent on the continent, so we’ve created a league, playing on beautiful stadiums but now how do we get this talent better?  How do we make the talent better? It starts by building structures at the grassroots level. Once we get the grassroots level done, then the talent at the highest level is going to get better.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on? 

You know this is my work and I feel like my purpose is stronger than ever, being able to connect the dots and connect the diaspora and being able to bring people from America and bring them on the continent and help grow basketball. I think that is my purpose right now on the continent and I am really proud of that.

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