Already this season Stoudamire has given fits to such stellar defenders as the Magic's Anfernee Hardaway, the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan and the SuperSonics' Gary Payton, but he has had his share of difficult rookie moments as well. His lowest point came on Nov. 13 when Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton badly outplayed him in a 103-100 Raptor loss. Stockton had 29 points and 12 assists compared with Stoudamire's seven and nine. But Stoudamire now looks back on that game as the turning point of his season because of what Thomas told him afterward. "I was so worried about what Stockton was going to do against me when he had the ball that I didn't concentrate on making him work to stop me on the other end," he says. "Isiah took me aside and told me never to be passive, no matter who I'm playing. He told me his motto: Go attack them before they attack you. Ever since then, that's what I've tried to do."
Thomas, who made 12 All-Star teams and won two championships as the Detroit Pistons' point guard, has tried to counsel Stoudamire without being overly intrusive, and he has emphasized the mental part of the game more than the physical. In order to make sure Stoudamire doesn't lose sight of the Raptors' long-term goal, for instance, Thomas included a clause in Stoudamire's contract that requires him to attend this year's NBA Finals. "I want him to see what he's chasing," Thomas says. "This franchise isn't in it to go to the playoffs someday. We're here to work toward winning a championship, and anything short of that is failure. That's one of the reasons we wanted Damon. He comes across as the kind of player who won't be satisfied to have a good career and no ring."
Choosing Stoudamire with his first pick as an NBA executive was a bold move for Thomas, although he didn't see it that way. "When you're an expansion franchise and you're only expected to win somewhere between nine and 15 games, why not take a risk?" he says. Still, when the Toronto pick was announced, Raptor fans at the SkyDome in Toronto, the site of the draft, booed loudly. They wanted Thomas to choose Ed O'Bannon, the 6'8" forward who led UCLA to the NCAA championship two months earlier (O'Bannon was chosen two slots later by the New Jersey Nets). But Stoudamire didn't take it personally. "The way I saw it, they weren't booing me, because they really didn't know who I was," he says. "I knew that once they saw me play, they'd like me."
Erasing the perception that he was a point guard who was more interested in shooting than passing wasn't as easy. Stoudamire, who averaged 22.8 points and 15.5 shots as an Arizona senior, insists his reputation as a gunner was never accurate. "I may have taken a lot of shots at Arizona, but that was the way we needed to play, the way I was asked to play," he says. "But if you look, I averaged more assists [7.3] last year than any of the other guards taken in the first round. Anybody who thought I didn't know how to pass, or didn't like to pass, didn't really know my game." His claim is supported by the fact that at week's end he was third in the league in assists, behind only Stockton and the Portland Trail Blazers' Rod Strickland.
Stoudamire is so central to the Toronto attack that opposing teams have begun to focus their defense on stopping him. "He's the head, and you take the head away, and the body will die," says Payton, who allowed Stoudamire to get his first triple double (20 points, 11 assists, 12 rebounds) the first time they played but held him to 10 points and five assists the second time. "You throw different things at him—double-team him, pick him up deep in the backcourt, bump him, talk to him. If you don't, he'll start blowing by you to the basket and pulling up for three-pointers. That's when Toronto can give you some trouble."
The extra attention he is drawing from other teams is bound to take a physical toll on Stoudamire, and he has heard all about the imaginary wall that rookies hit after about 40 games, the point at which fatigue starts to set in and their performances start to fall off. He smiles at the notion, seemingly certain that the wall is just another obstacle he can head-fake and zip past. "If you don't think there's a wall, there's no wall," he says.
"Damon doesn't think he has any limitations," says Malone. "He's like Sophia Loren. I was reading a story about her the other day; someone mentioned to her that she's 61, and she said, 'Really?' She doesn't think about her age. Damon's the same way. I don't think he realizes how small he is. And you know what? I'm not going to be the one to tell him."