In the middle of the Florida peninsula, along the shores of Lake Wailes, lies the city of Lake Wales, whose founders changed the spelling a century ago because they worried their residents would sound as if they were wailing all the time. Both Lake Wailes and Lake Wales would become landmarks in the life of Amar'e Stoudemire. He grew up in the town (pop. 13,076), an honor-roll student in elementary school who entertained neighbors with wheelies on his BMX bike and sat in the front row at church because the boys in the back were causing trouble. His father, Hazell, owned a lawn-care company and often took Amar'e to work in the morning. They piled four lawn mowers into the company truck—three riding mowers for Hazell and his men, a push mower for Amar'e—and drove to houses across the town. Amar'e was especially fond of the big ones on Lake Wailes, with lawns that appeared as wide as fairways overlooking the placid water. He was inspired by those yards, the challenge they presented, and also the promise. "They sparked my brain to how lavish life could be," Stoudemire says. "They made me want the same thing for myself."
He is staring out the window of his Manhattan apartment, at his own front yard, a cluster of snow-capped skyscrapers reaching into the night. He points to the Empire State Building like an excited tourist. This is not what he envisioned while cutting grass all those years ago by the lake in central Florida. "No," Stoudemire says, "It's 10 times better."
The apartment includes a billiards room, a barbershop and a recording studio for the artists on his label to use when they're in town. A leather notepad sits on the kitchen counter with ideas for the two lines of clothing he is preparing to launch. Life is lavish, indeed, but it cannot compare to the abundance of adulation at work. The next day Stoudemire will lead the Knicks to a win over the Heat at Madison Square Garden, find out he had been voted the team's first All-Star Game starter since Patrick Ewing in 1997 and walk through the tunnel afterward with Kanye West, serenaded by the usual MVP! chants But Stoudemire is more than the first-half MVP. He is the man saving New York basketball, once and for all, from the era of Isiah Thomas and Larry Brown, of Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry, of heedless spending followed by wholesale slashing.
"Nobody wanted this," the 28-year-old Stoudemire says. "Everybody was afraid." He is referring to fellow members of the free-agent class of 2010—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh et al.—who liked the benefits of New York without the burdens: a seven-year playoff drought, a roster highlighted by 22-year-old Italian forward Danilo Gallinari, a home court described as "a morgue" by Knicks Hall of Famer Walt Frazier. "We talked to a lot of great players, and you couldn't tell what they were thinking," says club president Donnie Walsh. "Amar'e was the only one who told us he wanted to be here."
Stoudemire is usually the first veteran to the practice facility, but he has also been to the playgrounds and the nightclubs, Fashion Week and Yankee Stadium, the theater and The Late Show, where David Letterman lamented that he can no longer make jokes about the Knicks. A tightly coiled 6'10", with a first step as fast as a guard's, Stoudemire has refined the moves he used so effectively for eight seasons with the Suns. He slices off pick-and-rolls, throws down tomahawk jams, glares through his goggles. But at week's end he was averaging a career-high 26.3 points, third in the NBA, with Raymond Felton setting him up instead of Steve Nash. All that separates him from serious MVP consideration is the Knicks' record (26--24), which would be better could they play any defense. They were putting up 106.5 points per game through Sunday, which ranked second in the league, but allowing 106.0, which ranked 27th. Stoudemire, a natural power forward often cast at center, is part of the give and take.
No one in New York is being picky, though. Never has the city embraced a team hovering around .500 more than these Knicks. They are seven games better than at this time a year ago, and their local television ratings at the halfway mark were up 47% from last season, 122% among males 18 to 34. "It's Amar'e," says Frazier, the team's TV color man. "He's like Ewing in the '90s. He's a rock star, and he hasn't even won anything yet." Frazier rattles off names of other rock stars in New York sports history: Joe Namath, Reggie Jackson, Lawrence Taylor. "Guys like that love the attention, the pressure, but it can be debilitating. It's not for everybody. It wasn't for LeBron James. It takes a special kind."
Stoudemire has decorated the walls of his apartment with pictures of entertainers and athletes who carried heavy loads: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics. But he reserves a place next to his bed for a photo of Hazell, probably taken on a Sunday, because he is wearing a suit. Hazell sang in the church choir, blew the saxophone and never cursed in front of kids. Amar'e was 12 when he died of a heart attack. He remembers his last words to him: "The skies are the limit for you."
Stoudemire believes that if his father had survived, he would have gone to only one high school. Instead he went to six, including one in the basement of an office building, where the only students were basketball players. Stoudemire's itinerant high school career has been well-chronicled, most notably by HBO: Real Sports in 2001. Stoudemire's mother, Carrie, was in and out of jail then. His older brother, Hazell Jr., was in prison. A minister named Bill Williams, who claimed to be Stoudemire's guardian, also went to jail. But he did have one stable—if not as documented—amateur experience. His final stop was at Cypress Creek High in Orlando, which had a fledgling six-year-old basketball program and a coach who had never heard of him. "When he first walked in, he had an entourage with him," says Earl Barnett, who coached Stoudemire at Cypress Creek. "He looked battered, beaten down, pulled in a million directions. He was finally able to find some peace."
Barnett made Stoudemire learn a system, for the first time. He benched him for showing up late. He persuaded him to stop barking at teammates. He explained that Stoudemire, as the best player in the school and perhaps the country, had to nurture those less talented. Stoudemire spent only one season at Cypress Creek, and went a modest 16--14, but a leader was born. "I had so much fun getting the best out of everybody," Stoudemire says, "getting them to rise up and excel." He tried to do the same at home. He helped raise his younger half brother, Marwan Williams, reading him bedtime stories every night. He supported his mother, watching her carry stereo speakers onto the street so she could preach to the gangsters in the neighborhood about the mistakes she made. Like any teenager, Stoudemire was embarrassed by his mom's candor, but he was proud of her courage, and he came to see her as a kind of leader as well.
He could never play that commanding role in Phoenix, first because he was too young and then because Nash so ably filled it. "He was kind of a loner on the road," says former Suns general manager Steve Kerr. "And when he was hurt, he didn't come around the locker room much." In July 2009 Stoudemire underwent a radical surgery to repair the partially detached retina in his right eye, and afterward doctors ordered him to lie facedown 22 hours a day for 10 straight days. Stoudemire checked into the biggest suite at the Sanctuary resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., and his mother positioned him on a massage table, books and videos arranged next to his laptop on the floor. Most had to do with ancient history. He had also taken classes in history and geography at Arizona State. He was determined to make up for some of the learning he had missed. Coaches still say that if they use a word Stoudemire doesn't know, he asks them to define it.