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Hardworking Joakim Noah has come a long way since his days as a towel boy

Bulls center Joakim Noah grabs rebound fourth quarter his way triple double as Chicago Bulls defeated BostCeltics 100-89 December 18

Bulls center Joakim Noah grabs a rebound in the fourth quarter on his way to a triple double as the Chicago Bulls defeated the Boston Celtics 100-89 December 18, 2012 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 17, 2013 6:47PM

HOUSTON — Those who think Joakim Noah should be home resting his foot instead of participating Sunday in the NBA All-Star Game might not realize how significant this moment is for him.

Lakers center Dwight Howard understands.

“Joakim was the water boy, the towel boy,” Howard said. “He really didn’t play that much basketball, but he kept working, and all his hard work is paying off.”

Howard and Noah have been playing against each other for years. When they first met, however, Noah was a gawky kid from New York via Paris who was still trying to learn the game.

They were at Sonny Vaccaro’s invitation-only camp in Hackensack, N.J. Noah wasn’t invited, but his high school coach was in charge of security, so he was allowed to sleep in his room and fetch water and towels for players.

Now he’s competing in his first All-Star Game.

“It’s another reason why I feel so lucky to be here right now,” Noah said. “I know that I came from very far when it comes to basketball. To be the water boy and to know some guys remember me as the water boy, and now I’m in this position. It’s special to me.”

Don’t expect Noah to log major minutes because he’s still recovering from plantar fasciitis in his right foot, which forced him to miss three games before the break.

Noah said he already has spoken with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra about his role. Spoelstra, who’s coaching the Eastern Conference All-Stars, plans to talk to Noah again before determining how many minutes he’ll log.

“I’ll be very judicious and work with him and have an understanding of what he has been through,” Spoelstra said. “Health is the most important thing for guys this weekend, but they do want to experience this, as well. We can manage everything.”

Making the trip to Houston and participating in the game is a significant milestone for a player who has earned respect around the league because of how hard he competes.

Noah continues to be a late bloomer, too. His offensive game has improved significantly since last season. In his sixth season, he’s averaging a career-best 11.8 points to go along with 11.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.0 blocked shots.

He has improved his outside shot and is shooting a career-best .757 from the foul line.

“He hasn’t been gifted with a great shot or one-on-one moves, but what he has been given he uses to 100 percent of his ability,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

Noah credits his father for instilling the work ethic that landed him in the All-Star Game. Just watching how hard Yannick Noah worked to be a professional tennis player helped Joakim understand what it takes to succeed at the highest level.

Like his dad, Noah might not use classic form, but he somehow gets the job done in his own unique way.

“The biggest quality I got from my father is his work ethic,” Noah said. “He has always been a hard worker. He played with a lot of fire when he was a tennis player. He was somebody who didn’t have a good backhand; he didn’t have a good forehand. He had a very weird and unorthodox style when he played tennis. People say the same thing about me. I’m proud of that.”

Noah was more doe-eyed than usual during Friday’s media day, seamlessly switching from English to French while answering questions from reporters from around the globe.

This weekend is all new to him, but it’s not something the former water boy would have missed.

“It’s an unbelievable experience,” Noah said. “I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little boy. To finally be in this situation and playing with all these great players and sharing this experience with the best players in the world is very humbling.”

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