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Why did Joakim Noah use that gay slur?

Chicago Bulls' Joakim Noah is shown during Game 3 NBA Eastern Conference finals basketball series against Miami HeMiami Sunday May

Chicago Bulls' Joakim Noah is shown during Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals basketball series against the Miami Heat in Miami, Sunday, May 22, 2011. Noah apologized again Monday for directing an anti-gay slur at a fan during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, and was bracing for punishment ó likely a large fine ó from the NBA. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

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Updated: August 30, 2011 12:17AM

MIAMI — Joakim Noah looked as if he would have rather been anywhere else Monday. In solitary confinement. Stuck in an elevator with 10 Amway salesmen. In front of a team of IRS auditors. Anywhere but in a hotel meeting room with a horde of reporters.

Over and over, he tried to explain how he, as tolerant and as progressive as they come in the NBA, could have screamed a gay slur at a fan during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals the night before.

It seemed so out of character for a man who takes deep pride in his diverse background and in his worldview. But it indeed was Noah who was caught by TNT cameras lashing out at a fan behind the Bulls’ bench in the first quarter Sunday. You didn’t have to be much of a lip reader to understand what he was saying. He called the man “a [bleep]ing faggot,’’ propriety preventing us from revealing Noah’s alliterative talents.

Over and over Monday, he told reporters he didn’t want to be a distraction for his team. But that ship had already sailed, fitted with megawatt speakers that blared noise over this Bulls-Heat series.

“With the comment to the fan, I just want to apologize about that,’’ he said. “I had just picked up my second foul. I was frustrated. He said something that was disrespectful towards me, and I lost my cool. People who know me know I’m an open-minded guy. I’m not here to hurt anybody’s feelings.’’

Why that word?

OK, fine. But why is “faggot” the word Noah chose in his enraged state? Why is it the word Lakers star Kobe Bryant chose when screaming at a referee last month? Why does that seem to be the insult of choice so often?

On the playground courts, it’s the ultimate insult, the nuclear bomb. At its kindest, it means you’re a wuss. You’d think by now someone would have come up with something different, something more creative, something dealing with another topic.

I’ve never quite understood why someone’s sexuality matters to anybody else, but here we are in 2011 talking about one player’s ugly reaction to a fan.

Noah’s immediate, visceral response was to call the person an anti-gay slur. In the heat of the moment, at the height of his anger and frustration, he lashed out. Sometimes sticking the knife in farthest is the only goal, the mess be damned. But he needs to ask himself why.

The NBA fined Noah $50,000 Monday, half of what it had fined Bryant. Noah’s sin was worse. No matter how provoked a player might be, he can’t insult the paying customer. What happened Sunday is an example of athletes’ disconnect, and commissioner David Stern should have jumped all over it. Players tend to forget that the people in the seats are paying their contracts.

Conversely, the people in the seats forget they’re not playing in the game. Noah wouldn’t reveal what the fan had said to provoke his outburst, other than there was “no question’’ it had crossed the line. Teammate Taj Gibson said several fans were cursing, screaming slurs and “throwing the whole book at Joakim.’’

One fan did most of the yelling, Gibson said.

“He was really loud,’’ he said. “He was a big guy, too. He was intoxicated. I was surprised because he kept going and going. Normally a fan may say a couple of things and sit down. But he kept going at Joakim. And then it was just Joakim the whole time. Even when I was sitting on the bench with Joakim … he was still going.’’

Those are the circumstances of what took place Sunday night, but they’re also circumstances that, in the end, don’t matter. A player can’t respond the way Noah did.

“Sometimes fans say things that are a little bit overboard, but still it’s on us not to react,’’ he said. “If you react, they won.’’

And you lose a lot of money.

An open-minded league?

The other day, TNT analyst Charles Barkley said that if an NBA player were to announce he was gay, it wouldn’t be an issue for teammates. It’s a league filled with open-minded people, he said.

I’d like to believe that’s true, but it’s difficult to accept when incidents like Sunday’s happen. No one is saying Noah is homophobic. But if “[bleep]ing faggot’’ were the first words in the line of defense for him and Bryant, maybe the sports world has a ways to go.

The Bulls have enough trouble without the Noah incident. They’re down 2-1 in this series because, for the second game in a row, they didn’t have an answer to the Heat’s lockdown defense on Derrick Rose.

Noah was frustrated he had taken the attention away from Game 4 and said several times Monday he just wanted to focus on the task at hand — winning a basketball game. A noble thought, just not very realistic.

Finally, a Bulls’ official informed media members that Rose was available for interviews across the room. The herd moved on. Saved by the most valuable player again.

“Thank you,’’ Noah said, letting out an audible sigh of relief.

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