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Does Amar'e Stoudemire Have Something to Prove?

Jul 6, 2010 – 8:59 AM
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Amar'e StoudemireAmar'e Stoudemire is the NBA's ultimate moving target, or dazzling quasar, or other weird object that frustrates us with power and elusiveness. Stoudemire, introduced Monday as the Knicks first major off-season acquisition, is neither as good as he (or his fans) think he is, nor as bad as some would like him to be. As a player and personality, Amar'e is dynamic, charismatic, and just plain big, but he's not -- get used to hearing this -- LeBron James.

Other players have looked to join the Knicks to take the next step toward empire. For Stoudemire, thriving under the brightest lights of all, and proving he's not a flake, wouldn't just justify the huge contract and franchise savior (for now) tag. It makes sense of a career that, up to this point, has been notable for its ability to confound and frustrate at every turn.

The classic Amar'e bind: For the last few seasons, he has been up for trade at the deadline. Among the teams that passed on him are the Portland Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers, both of whom probably wish, right now, that they could count Stoudemire among their ranks. Then again, Amar'e now is on the path to righteousness, having caught the defense and rebounding bug at the end of last season. That wasn't the Amar'e Portland could have had in 2009, or Cleveland this February.

Teams have missed out, but Stoudemire's sold himself short. In New York, we'll get to see just how ready to he is to step out of that liminal zone. First and foremost, Amar'e is playing for legacy. In his case, though, that really means revealing to us just who the hell he is.

Without rehashing too much biography, Amar'e Stoudemire's entire pro career has been an exercise in volatile ups and downs, reversals of public opinion, good and bad alike blown out of proportion. Much was made of his extremely public trials and tribulations as high school stud-for-hire, lack of organized ball-time, and his troubled mother. Questions about his attitude lead to a slip down to ninth in the 2002 draft, where the Suns nabbed a player projected as, ironically, an Alonzo Mourning-like bully inside.

Except within weeks of the 2002-03 season, when Amar'e was a preps-to-pro rookie at the misleading age of 20, those well-laid plan came unraveled fast. Stoudemire proved himself largely ineffectual on defense, but an absolute terror on the offensive end, even when his game consisted solely of dunking. Remember, at this point, it was Stephon Marbury setting up the eventual Rookie of the Year -- an important detail for those who insist Amar'e depends on Steve Nash.

You know what happened from here. Steve Nash came to the Suns, Phoenix became the capitol of NBA revitalization, and the team got as far as the conference finals -- where they were dismantled by the Spurs. Nevertheles, Stoudemire put up outlandish numbers, crushed Tim Duncan in single coverage, and earned rave reviews even if his efforts were for naught -- and allowed by the Spurs, who focused on neutralizing the Suns secondary threats.

Then came the heart-stopping microfracture surgery, a procedure which at that time, was still something of a death sentence for bombastic athletes like Amar'e. John Stockton, Jason Kidd, they could survive. A big man who exploded upward like a large, angry swingman? Plenty of fans spent months anxious over who we would see on the other side.

During that time, reports were mixed. In Jack McCallum's landmark Seven Seconds or Less, which chronicles the Suns 2005-06 season, Amar'e is cast as aloof, noncommittal, and not exactly eager to join the team's hive-mind. Understandably, he was wrestling with issues of his own. But as the Suns went just as deep into the 2006 playoffs, questions about Stoudemire swirled. Would he return, and if so, was he even necessary?

The answer was, of course. Post-surgery, Amar'e didn't have quite the same burst -- it would only return in full a year later, just as the timetables foretold. But he had become a smarter, more versatile player, an offensive monster who made Nash's life easier, and slithered through the lane like he understood the position of the basket at all times. He had range on his surprisingly wet jumper, and seemingly mocked team's expectations by releasing the ball low instead of going for dunk.

The 2006-07 Suns were Mike D'Antoni's crowning achievement, and unlike in 2005, might very well have gotten past the Spurs had it not been for a certain controversial suspension. But questions about Stoudemire's ego, attitude, and most pertinently, attitude and effort, persisted. The rebounding numbers weren't there. He was often lost on defense. And while the SSOL Suns had decent numbers at their less-favorite end of the court, they depended on making Shawn Marion doing all the work. When he left, and Shaquille O'Neal came in, the team stumbled.

Except this time around, no one blamed Amar'e. Yet as he got better and better, no one seemed inclined to elevate his standing among the league's stars. It was only when it became clear that he was a part of the 2010 Class that his name, like Joe Johnson, started being mentioned in the same breath as LeBron and Dwyane Wade. This past year, the Suns had an all-out, resurgence, and Stoudemire answered many of his critics. His critics, in turn, chalked it up to chasing a max deal; his boosters, and Amar'e himself, weren't inclined to admit past sins.

And so here we are. Amar'e Stoudemire is coming to New York, reunited with mentor Mike D'Antoni (who, in truth, might be little more than a sentient Don Nelson at this point), hoping to secure some other high-profile help. It's his time to prove himself, or be exposed once and for all. Or maybe it's not so simple.

Taken as a whole, Amar'e Stoudemire has somehow managed to leave us floored without escaping his critics.Then again, his critics are powerless to keep Amar'e down, keep him from causing mayhem on the court or making us feel that he's got the power to turn tides. Maybe this is why the Knicks are the perfect team for Amar'e: Amar'e is hitting the city as a major star who, in one way or another, will change the course of this franchise. The finer points of his game matter less than the overall effect, and affect, he brings to this sagging organization.
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