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Of all the reactions you'd expect from a 20-year-old NBA rookie whose coach just told him, "You got Shaq," a canary-swallowing grin is not one of them. But unmistakable joy, even mirth, played over the face of Phoenix Suns power forward Amare Stoudemire as he planted a forearm in Shaquille O'Neal's back late in a recent victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. Earlier in the season the 6'10", 245-pound Stoudemire had delivered a vicious dunk over the L.A. Clippers' 7-foot Michael Olowokandi, dominated All-Star Kevin Garnett in a 38-point, 14-rebound performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves and leveled Paul Pierce as he drove to the hoop, leaving the Boston Celtics' swingman with two broken front teeth. But Stoudemire didn't know if he'd be so fearless when he finally confronted his hoops idol. "If I was going to be intimidated by anyone in this league, it would have been Shaq," says Stoudemire. "But I wasn't. I enjoyed every minute."
After a boyhood turned upside down by the death of his father and by his mother's many run-ins with the law, after attending six high schools in two states, Stoudemire (pronounced STOD-a-mire) has finally found a stable home: in the paint, facing down the NBA's most intimidating post players. Since replacing an injured Tom Gugliotta in the starting lineup on Nov. 23, Stoudemire has given the Suns their most potent inside force since a decade ago, when Charles Barkley was in his prime. At week's end Stoudemire's 12.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game were better than the rookie stats of fellow high schoolers turned pros Garnett (10.4, 6.3), Kobe Bryant (7.6, 1.9) and Tracy McGrady (7.0, 4.2), and his precocious play had helped Phoenix (24-14), which failed to make the playoffs last season, rise to third place in die Western Conference.
"To say we expected this from Amare this soon would be silly," says Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo. An outspoken opponent of drafting high schoolers, Colangelo set aside that opinion long enough to watch Stoudemire work out last spring. After 15 minutes he was sold. "Every once in a great while a player wows you," Colangelo says. "The only other [high school] player who did that for me was Kobe Bryant. Kobe had it all: athleticism, skills, work ethic, charisma, maturity and a certain look in his eye. When I saw all that in Amare, I was moved. I knew he was our guy."
Taken with the ninth pick last June (and the lone high schooler to be drafted), Stoudemire has been a perfect fit on a rebuilding team—a diligent, energetic presence who, with a vertical leap of 38 inches, can dunk with the quickness of a cobra strike, regardless of which All-NBA player is guarding him. "Sometimes I worry that the rest of the team is just watching to see if he'll do something jaw-dropping," says Phoenix coach Frank Johnson, who admits he is afflicted by the same anticipation. "He wows us all the time."
Stoudemire's game is raw, instinctive. When he declared for the NBA draft last May, he had played slightly more than two full seasons of high school ball and received little real coaching. He has no left hand, little range on his jumper and no clue against a double team. He readily admits that his free throw shooting—673% through Sunday—"needs work." Already, though, Stoudemire has added a jump hook and a hanging one-hander. Last Friday, in a 96-90 home win over the Memphis Grizzlies, he snatched 21 rebounds, a team record for a rookie and the most by a Sun in seven years. "Every game he does something that surprises you," says Eddie Johnson, a 17-year NBA vet who is now a Phoenix broadcaster. "And that tells me that he is picking things up. Most rookies don't."
Nor do most 20-year-olds get veteran calls—at week's end Stoudemire had been to the line 199 times, 40 more than the next closest rookie, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming—or strike terror into the hearts of seasoned players. "I'm not going to name names, but I've seen guys get out of his way," says Eddie Johnson. "I've seen guys hold back and not try to block his dunk. You don't see a young guy intimidating veterans. But guys know they're going to get posterized, that he is going to try to break their arm. That's the way Shaq does it."
One way or another, Stoudemire has gotten inside heads around the league. Chicago Bulls forward Jalen Rose likes to goad 7'1" teammate Tyson Chandler, a high-school-to-pros rookie last season who averaged only 6.1 points and 4-8 rebounds despite being the No. 2 pick, by extolling Stoudemire's numbers. (Chandler, who got a technical for taunting Stoudemire in a preseason matchup, admits that he "loves" Stoudemire's game.) After that 38-point outburst at Minnesota—a record for a rookie straight out of high school—Phoenix point guard Stephon Marbury took a jab at his former teammate, saying that Garnett "doesn't even compare to Amare. It's like Michael Jordan and Mario Elie."
Marbury later clarified that he wasn't comparing Stoudemire with the veteran Garnett, who is one of the top talents in the league. But as a rookie? "Amare's the kind of player who comes along once every 20 years," says Marbury. "He's a different breed. He makes basketball plays that he doesn't even know he's making. When he learns the game and puts that together with what he does instinctively, he's gonna be scary."
Stoudemire is reading Barkley's book I May Be Wrong but I Doubt It, but Sir Charles's brashness has yet to rub off on him. He is direct and polite in interviews though not often inclined to elaborate. Except for the occasional burst of soft laughter, Stoudemire's face remains impassive, his eyes wary. He performs the required rookie duties without complaint, fetching doughnuts before shootarounds and racking balls afterward. As Suns forward Bo Outlaw puts it, "Amare's a good dude."
If Stoudemire seems unmoved by die hype surrounding him, it may be because he has been in the middle of a recruiting circus since he was 14. His adolescence was so turbulent, it was the subject of an award-winning HBO Real Sports segment in 2001. His father, Hazell Sr., a saxophonist and Pop Warner football coach from whom Amare inherited his broad shoulders, long arms, large hands and nickname—STAT, for Standing Tall and Talented—died in his sleep when Amare was 12. His mother, Carrie, has been in and out of jail since 1978; her convictions include grand theft, forgery, prostitution and check fraud. In 1999 Amare's brother Hazell Jr., 25, a once-promising basketball player, began serving a sentence of three to nine years in Gowanda, N.Y., for criminal sale of a controlled substance and sexual assault.