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."
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."
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
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."
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.
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.