Let us begin with the height question. It is precisely that, a question. The exact height of Damon Stoudamire's compact frame is harder to pin down than Stoudamire himself in the open court. This may be due to his apparent ability to expand and contract: During a span of about 10 minutes in one recent conversation, for instance, Toronto Raptor coach Brendan Malone referred to his dynamic rookie point guard as 5'8", 5'10" and 5'9". Stoudamire is officially listed as 5'10", and though he admits to being 5'9" in bare feet, he might be telling a slightly tall tale. When he faced 5'7" Spud Webb of the Atlanta Hawks last week, well, let's just say that they came awfully close to seeing things eye-to-eye.
One thing that is certain about his size is that at five-feet-whatever and 171 tightly packed pounds, Stoudamire could pass for a light heavyweight contender. It's not surprising, then, that his teammates often talk about him in terms that could just as easily describe a boxer. "Damon's tough, he's relentless," says Toronto guard Alvin Robertson. "He doesn't care who you are or how big you are—he just keeps pounding away at you. The basketball skills are obviously there, but what sets him apart is what's in his chest. You can't put a tape measure around his heart."
Stoudamire also possesses a fighter's mentality, which is to say that when he takes a punch, he tries to respond by throwing one even harder. That's why he doesn't mind admitting that he's had his eye on the Rookie of the Year award since the day last June that the expansion Raptors drafted him with the seventh pick. The honor would be the perfect knockout blow to those who thought he was too small and shot too much to be a successful NBA point guard. "Between the end of my senior year [at Arizona] and the beginning of this season I took a lot of unfair criticism," he says. "I think I've earned the respect of some people who thought I wouldn't make it. I don't need the award to prove they were wrong, but it wouldn't hurt."
It's too early for him to begin clearing a space on his mantel just yet, but after the first two months of the season Stoudamire, who was averaging 17.6 points and 9.1 assists at week's end, ranks slightly above Philadelphia 76er guard-forward Jerry Stackhouse as the league's best rookie (box, page 56). He continued to solidify that status last week with 23 points, 13 assists and only one turnover against the Orlando Magic, followed by a 19-point, 10-assist performance against the Hawks. "He has a chance to be an All-Star point guard in the very near future," says Seattle SuperSonic coach George Karl. "I don't know if there's a guard in the league any quicker. He's shown that Toronto was right to take him so high in the draft."
Stackhouse, who was averaging 19.8 points at week's end, is the leading scorer among rookies, but no other first-year player has had as great an effect on his team as has Stoudamire. The Raptors depend so heavily on him that through Sunday he was second in the league in minutes played, averaging 41.4 per game, and it takes only one look at the way the Toronto offense stagnates when he is on the bench to see why. The Raptor attack revolves around Stoudamire, who creates opportunities for his teammates with his speed on the fast break and his penetration in the half-court offense. He also became the favorite of Raptor fans in about the time it took for him to make one of his faster-than-a-speed-ing-bullet, full-court dashes. "He's a show all by himself," says Raptor executive vice-president Isiah Thomas, a rookie himself (as an executive) and someone who knows a little something about small, entertaining point guards. "Watching Damon makes you want to jump up and holler."
Stoudamire is so important to the Raptors that the veterans haven't subjected him to the usual rookie indoctrination by treating him like their personal valet. "He hasn't had to pick up my luggage one time, and I'm not happy about that at all," jokes forward John Salley. "But I guess it makes sense, because you can't ask a guy to carry the team and carry the bags."
In fact, the Raptor veterans, most notably Robertson, Salley and swingman Willie Anderson, have treated Stoudamire like a kid brother, offering advice on everything from defense to diet. When Salley boarded the team plane earlier this season and found Stoudamire about to bite into a ham sandwich, he stopped him. "I told him there were healthier things he should be putting into his body," Salley says. "What's more, he put the sandwich down. That's the thing about Damon—he's not one of these rookies who ignore what you try to tell them because they're too busy counting their money. Damon will listen. He'll use what he can use and let the rest of it pass, but he'll always listen."
If Malone and Thomas ever doubted Stoudamire's ability to handle such a central role so early in his career, he quickly convinced them otherwise. Malone remembers the air of confidence Stoudamire showed in a predraft interview. "He came in with his chest stuck out and walking almost on his tiptoes in this kind of little strut," he says. "It was just like Jimmy Cagney. I thought I heard Yankee Doodle Dandy playing in the background."
Stoudamire, 22, wasn't quite sure who Cagney was when Malone first made the comparison. "But I figured he must be somebody who was tough," he says. Stoudamire prefers to compare himself to another take-charge little character: Mighty Mouse. He wears a tattoo of the rodent superhero holding a basketball aloft on his right arm, and the Raptors play the theme music from the cartoon when Stoudamire does something spectacular. "Mighty Mouse was always saving people, always coming to the rescue," Stoudamire says. "He was the man. He could get you out of any jam. That's what I always wanted to be like. Oh, and yeah, he was small."
So far Stoudamire hasn't been able to rescue the Raptors very often; they were 9-23 through Sunday. But with an unshakable faith in his own talent that falls just short of arrogance, he has helped make them competitive. Ask him if there is a defender in the league that he is not quick enough to beat off the dribble, and without hesitation he answers, "Nope." He believes that whatever he gives up because of his size he can get back with his speed. "I get guys telling me that they're going to take my little you-know-what down low," he says. "But this is the way I figure it: As many times as you try to post me up down low, that's how many times I'm going to blow past you on the other end."