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When the Knicks traveled to Phoenix last March, the Suns were 45--26, one of the league's most pleasant surprises. Before the game, Phoenix forward Grant Hill approached Knicks assistant coach Phil Weber, who remade Stoudemire's jump shot years ago when he was a Suns assistant. "Amar'e is the reason we're doing this," Hill told Weber. "He has changed." Hill was not referring to Stoudemire's thirst for knowledge as much as his eagerness to impart it. Phoenix, traditionally a veteran team, had several young players, such as Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez. Kerr noticed Stoudemire taking them to dinner and organizing outings with them on the road. Naturally he yearned to expand his leadership role. "Let's tell it like it is," Suns coach Alvin Gentry says. "This was Steve's team, and Amar'e wanted to find one that he could call his own."
On Stoudemire's free-agent visit to New York early last July, he went to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in Midtown to watch the musical Rock of Ages, which was produced by his agent, Happy Walters. During the show, when the lights were out and the curtains drawn, a fan masquerading as a reporter snuck past theater security and by Stoudemire's personal detail. Before being apprehended, the fan took a seat in the aisle next to Stoudemire and asked if he was signing with the Knicks. It was the kind of episode, both amusing and disturbing, that can turn a visitor off to New York—or on to it.
"I appreciated how much the guy cared," Stoudemire says. Two days later he told Walters to cancel his upcoming visits, and Walters reminded him of the weight he was about to assume. "I've got broad shoulders," Stoudemire said. When he proclaimed publicly, "The Knicks are back," he sounded like his mom shouting through her speakers.
He was not the only one taking a risk. Team president Donnie Walsh had spent two years in NBA purgatory, clearing cap space with the understanding that he would have no chance to compete. "It gets tough to go to work every day," says Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. "We slogged through it." D'Antoni's reward, instead of James, was a player who traded jabs with him in Phoenix, had undergone microfracture surgery on his left knee five years ago and was enough of an injury risk that the Knicks were denied insurance on his five-year, $100 million contract. "If you asked me in Phoenix whether he could be the top dog in New York, I'd have told you no," says Dan D'Antoni, Mike's brother and a Knicks assistant. "He wasn't sure of himself, and when you aren't sure of yourself, you do two things: talk about how good you are and blame somebody else when things go wrong."
On the first night of training camp, after a team dinner at the Ritz-Carlton in White Plains, N.Y., Stoudemire asked Mike D'Antoni if he could take the floor. Stoudemire does not remember the specifics of what he said, only that he laid out a plan "for us to overwhelm people, to shock them, to do what's least expected." Standing in front of the room, he recalled what it was like to control a team, and he felt as comfortable as he had at Cypress Creek. "I've been in the NBA for 12 years, so I've heard a lot of those speeches," says Weber. "That was the best one." Dan D'Antoni detected no ego, and when the Knicks started 3--8, he heard no blame. Stoudemire scored 30 or more points over nine straight games in November and December, and after he sprained his right knee on Jan. 28 in Atlanta, he came back two days later and poured in 33 against Detroit.
New York guard Roger Mason Jr. likens Stoudemire's leadership style to that of Tim Duncan, Mason's former teammate in San Antonio. His intellectual curiosity is reminiscent of Nash's. Stoudemire's much publicized trip to Israel last summer came off like a stunt, but it was actually motivated by the studying he did after eye surgery, which piqued his interest in Jewish history. Stoudemire wore a yarmulke on the trip, floated in the Dead Sea, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and touched the Western Wall with his left hand, which is marked by a Star of David tattoo. He met with Shimon Mizrahi, chairman of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club, and former Maccabi star Tal Brody, who offered Stoudemire a roster spot when his current contract expires. "We feel he is one of us now," Brody says.
Stoudemire received invitations to more bar mitzvahs than he could possibly attend and grew uncomfortable with all the attention. He insists he is not Jewish—though he says an ancestor on his mother's side may be—and practices no formal religion. He is planning a trip this summer to Mali, which is predominantly Muslim, because he wants to build a school there. But Stoudemire does keep kosher at home. "It's a matter of learning the most I can about every culture and trying to bring people together," he says, over a dinner of herb-crusted chicken breast, sautéed spinach and challah bread, prepared by his kosher chef. "That's New York."
It is a basketball town, dating from the pickup games in the Jewish settlement houses at the turn of the 20th century and extending to today's inner-city projects. When the Knicks had Ewing, the playgrounds had Marbury and Kenny Anderson, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest. But when the Knicks slipped, so did the playgrounds. "There has always been a correlation," says Gary Charles, founder of Grassroots Basketball of America and director of the New York Panthers AAU program. "When the Knicks were down, it affected basketball here at all levels. We had a drought, too. We didn't turn out as many first-round draft picks." New York became more associated with baseball, not because of the players it produced, but the ones it acquired. "People think of this as a baseball town now," says Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain, a friend since before Stoudemire signed with the Knicks. "He wants to change that back."
Charles can see the rustling of a renaissance, with the improvement of the Knicks and the emergence of St. John's and some of his own players bypassing prep school to stay home. "Amar'e started it," he says. "He brought a lot of pride when he said, 'Hey, none of those mothers want this on their shoulders? Well, I'll take it.'"
Stoudemire swears the only burden he feels comes from opposing defenses, smothering him in an attempt to make someone else beat them. He wakes up with more aches than ever, the one drawback to having his own team. As much as he relishes the responsibility, he could also use help, and this is where Carmelo Anthony comes in. If New York can pry Anthony from the Nuggets, through a trade this month or free agency this summer, Stoudemire will no longer be the sole headliner. But he was here first, when it wasn't the popular choice, and Knicks fans will never forget that.