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Forecast: Sunny and Hot
Jack McCallum
January 15, 2007
His knees healthy and his attitude adjusted, Phoenix's Amar� Stoudemire is brilliantly blending his explosive skills into a well-stocked team that may finally be poised to win a title
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January 15, 2007

Forecast: Sunny And Hot

His knees healthy and his attitude adjusted, Phoenix's Amar� Stoudemire is brilliantly blending his explosive skills into a well-stocked team that may finally be poised to win a title

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STREAK TEAM FINAL FINISH
33 '71--72 Lakers NBA champions
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'49--50 Rochester Royals First round

Amar� stoudemire, a wide smile plastered on his angular face, was looking for a little love from his Phoenix Suns teammates following last Friday night's 108--80 win over the comically undermanned Miami Heat.

Early in the fourth quarter Stoudemire, a 6'10" "beast from the deep," according to teammate Boris Diaw, had spontaneously gone behind his back with a lefthanded dribble on a fast break and finished with an emphatic dunk. "I'm a versatile big," concluded Stoudemire, looking to his neighbors in the Suns' locker room.

"That behind-the-back stuff?" said forward Jumaine Jones. "That was nothing. Didn't mean a thing."

"That ball looked like it weighed 300 pounds going behind your back," said swingman Jalen Rose, who, like Jones, is new to the Suns this season. "And, see, really versatile bigs would've shot it with their left hand too."

"You hear that?" Stoudemire said, still smiling. "You expect that from opponents. But when you get no love from your teammates? That is just so wrong."

Actually, it is so right. Only two months ago the 24-year-old Stoudemire's future as a Phoenician, and perhaps his entire career, was in doubt. Thirteen months removed from microfracture surgery on his left knee and seven months after arthroscopic surgery on his right, Stoudemire was the league's best-paid bench player, having gotten a five-year, $72 million contract extension from the Suns in October 2005, just days before the lesion in his left knee was discovered.

And now? He is literally the center of the league's second-best team, and often the center of attention in the locker room or on the practice court.

Last Saturday, for example, in the team's practice gym at US Airways Center, most of the Suns (with the exception of guard Steve Nash and forward Shawn Marion, the other two thirds of the franchise troika, who were working on their shooting) were hooting and hollering as they grouped around Stoudemire and Rose, who were playing a game of one-on-one, winner take five grand. The game was only to three baskets, but it lasted at least 20 minutes, the intensity resembling that of a championship series. Rose won 3--2, which in previous years would've prompted Stoudemire to stalk off to the locker room. But he accepted the good-natured barbs and stuck around for 45 minutes, working on his post moves and jump shot with assistant coach Marc Iavaroni.

And during a casual New Year's Day practice in Chicago, Stoudemire grabbed a whistle and officiated an impromptu pickup game among his teammates. "Sometimes it's the little things that count," says assistant coach Phil Weber. "To see that level of engagement from Amar� was very, very revealing. I don't think we had seen it before."

The official verdict, of course, can only come from Nash, the two-time league MVP who is playing like a three-time MVP. "The exciting thing for all of us has been Amar�'s willingness to fit in and be a great teammate," says Nash. "There's been a rub-off factor: Everyone in the room is getting along, and Amar� wants to, too. He has come to know what is important to a team, on and off the court."

In Stoudemire's first three seasons he lived pretty much as the sole resident of Planet Amar�, often selfish on offense, passive on defense and isolated in the locker room. The nickname he gave himself years ago, STAT, is an acronym for Standing Tall And Talented, an exhortation he advertises with one of his many tattoos, but the joke that it stood for someone who cares only about his own statistics was beyond obvious. In the 2004--05 season, his third since entering the league straight out of Orlando's Cypress Creek High, Stoudemire was the main beneficiary of Nash's arrival in Phoenix, with Stoudemire averaging 26.0 points and 8.9 rebounds on his way to second-team All-NBA honors.

Then, in Stoudemire's fourth season, came the microfracture surgery, an abbreviated and disastrous three-game comeback and the 'scope, after which he seemed more isolated than ever. Coach Mike D'Antoni and others in the organization believed that Stoudemire did not pursue his rehabilitation as assiduously as he should have, missing some workouts and cutting others short.

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