As the NBA trading deadline approaches, no name has been thrown around more than Amar’e Stoudemire. An All-Star starter two years running and once thought to be the future of the Phoenix Suns, now it appears certain that if Amar’e isn’t traded this month, he’ll sign with another team in free agency this summer.
Back in Dime #52 (Oct. 2009), Amar’e talked about facing criticism, injuries, falling short of a championship, as well as the trade rumors that have followed him for the last year.
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MOMENT OF CLARITY
Something ain’t right. And if Amar’e Stoudemire doesn’t know exactly what it is, he can certainly feel it. Sense it. If he isn’t quite privy to every single detail and modus and operandi of what’s going on, he’s not oblivious by any means, either.
It’s February in Phoenix, still 80-something and arid outside, one week before the city would become the axis on which the basketball world turns for NBA All-Star Weekend. At a photo studio a few blocks from the heart of downtown, Stoudemire arrives, six or seven deep. Basic white tee, camo shorts, Chuck Taylors, no socks, gold chain and a pinkie ring adorning his 6-10, 250-pound tatted frame.
Only a couple of hours before this scheduled shoot, reports surfaced in the national media that Phoenix Suns management was talking to other teams about trading Amar’e, the 26-year-old four-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA selection. With the Suns struggling in the standings — ninth place in the West on the day the trade rumors started, foreshadowing a finish that would see them miss the playoffs for the first time since 2004 — and notoriously thrifty owner Robert Sarver on the hook to pay Stoudemire up to $34 million over the next two seasons, even a young, marketable, certified superstar becomes expendable.
“Things haven’t really been the way I thought they were gonna be,” Stoudemire says, in between man-sized bites of pasta salad and ranch-dipped chicken wings. “Right now I’m just trying to make my way. I’m still scratching the surface of my ability, I just need to be in the right system where I can really show it, know what I mean?”
What system is that?
“I don’t know,” he says, raising his eyebrows and switching to an almost ominous tone. “We’ll find out soon.”
In the days leading up to the All-Star break, it seemed inevitable that Amar’e would be traded. During a Cavs/Suns game on Feb. 11, Cleveland announcer Austin Carr said on-air, “It’s not a matter of if, but when” Phoenix would pull the trigger on a move. From the Bulls to the Grizzlies to the Warriors to the Blazers, potential suitors were emerging seemingly every hour.
But by the time All-Star Weekend was over, the story turned from Stoudemire’s possible change of address to Suns head coach Terry Porter getting fired. Replacement Alvin Gentry re-implemented the fast-paced system these Suns were originally built for under former coach Mike D’Antoni, the system in which Amar’e and Steve Nash thrived as the League’s most explosive big-man/little-man tandem.
In the first two games under Gentry, the Suns averaged an NBA Jam-ish 141 points in back-to-back wins over the Clippers. Stoudemire scored 23 points in just 20 minutes in that first game, then went off for 42 points in 36 minutes the next, bumping his season averages to 21.4 points and 8.1 rebounds. Throwing no-look passes, crushing backwards dunks, running the floor with that familiar high-socked stride — this was the Amar’e the Suns wanted to build their franchise around.
“He’s still as good a player as there is in this league,” says future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. “Whether his numbers dipped a little bit or not, he brings the same stuff to the table. His quickness, agility, explosiveness, the fact that he brings another aspect to the game with his outside shot, it all makes him very tough to guard.”
In the first three and a half months of the ’08-09 season — a period marked by uncertainty about his future, numbers that didn’t reach his own high standards, and his team losing more than it ever had in the past five years — Amar’e took more criticism than at any point in his pro career. His well-known biggest weakness on the court (defense) came under even more intense scrutiny. His attitude, seen by critics as somewhere between moody and spoiled, was also in question; reports that superstar-starved teams like Memphis were turning down Amar’e trade proposals from Phoenix only added to the idea that, as talented as Stoudemire is, he can’t step into just any locker room and be a winning franchise cornerstone.
“I can be dominant on any team,” Stoudemire said defiantly. “Any team — it don’t matter what team it is — I can adjust to the situation, to the style of play, and still be dominant.”
And then, just when things were getting back on track for Amar’e, he was dealt another dose of adversity. The day after that 42-point explosion against the Clippers, during which Amar’e sustained a seemingly harmless poke to the eye, doctors concluded he needed surgery to repair a partially detached retina. His season was over.
“This is just a small setback,” Stoudemire said a few days after the surgery. “But with this and all the other adversity that I’ve encountered in life, I’ll work hard to get back stronger than before.”
In September he was cleared to resume full-contact workouts, and — wearing goggles that he vows to use every game for the rest of his career — reported to the Suns’ facility in top condition, dominating pickup runs with some of the Suns’ young players. True to his word, Stoudemire wasn’t only back in the mix; he looked ready to get even better.
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Amar’e Stoudemire has always flown in the face of doubt.
He grew up poor in Lake Wales, Fla., (a tattoo that says “POVERTY” dominates his right arm), losing his father when he was 12 years old and seeing his mother go in and out of prison. He went to six high schools before graduating from Cypress Creek in Orlando, then entered the ’02 NBA Draft amidst questions surrounding his background and character (think Michael Beasley circa 2002). Picked ninth overall by the Suns, Stoudemire became the first high school-to-NBA product to win Rookie of the Year, stiff-arming the hype surrounding fellow rookie Yao Ming while drawing comparisons to a young Moses Malone or a bigger Connie Hawkins. Amar’e missed almost all of his fourth season recovering from microfracture knee surgery, and even then, eventually recaptured his pre-injury athleticism and power, one of few ballplayers to fully come back from a procedure that had grounded stars like Chris Webber, Tracy McGrady and Jamal Mashburn.
Amar’e is also part of an exclusive group that challenges the long-held Fifth Avenue adage that NBA big men don’t sell merchandise. He’s been on the covers of video games, starred in sneaker commercials, and one reason he’s in this Phoenix photo studio on an off day is to take his first shots as the public face of Nike’s Pro Combat performance gear. Along with Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Yao and Shaq, Amar’e is one of the game’s few bankable big men.
“It’s my swag, man,” Stoudemire says. “A lot of big guys don’t have swag — a lot of ’em are goofy, know what I’m saying? Their swagger looks false. My swag is legit. More so off the court than on the court. On the court I just dominate.”
Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and longtime Lakers assistant Kurt Rambis can testify.
“He’s so gifted physically,” Rambis says. “He’s so quick, he’s so athletic and so strong. He’s another player that you have to devote a lot of attention to. In transition, you’ve gotta be able to run with him. In the offense, you’ve gotta be able to have somebody that can stand in front of him. With his speed and quickness and power in getting to the basket, you can’t leave him unattended ’cause you receive lobs. And he’s done a great job being able to score from the outside. He’s really improved his outside shot and he’s really improved his free throws, so now you gotta play defense without fouling him. If he continues to improve with his defense, he’s gonna be another one of those players that’s just completely unstoppable.”
Almost anyone in the League will agree about the talent. For Amar’e, the most frustrating part of the whole thing is that ’08-09 was supposed to be the best year of his career. After taking a pass on playing for Team USA in the Beijing Olympics, he worked all summer to fine-tune his game and his body, coming into training camp with two-percent body fat. He publicly stated he was ready to join the ranks of LeBron, Kobe and anyone else considered elite among the elites.
“I worked on everything in the offseason, man,” Stoudemire said. “But all the stuff I worked on, Coach Terry Porter told me not to work on. So I stopped working on it. I was Top-5 in the League last year (’07-08) in scoring. I was ready to take that step this year, but the system changed.”
He also read. The Art of War, by legendary Chinese military commander Sun Tzu, was his book of choice, posthumously recommended to Amar’e by his biggest literary influence, Tupac Shakur.
“It’s a war-mentality book,” Stoudemire says. “I try to use that in situations for basketball, as far as outsmarting your opponent, winning the battle before it starts. Politic with the enemy before you kill him.”
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Somebody else might be embarrassed.
Standing under bright studio lights wearing only a skin-tight compression top and shorts, Amar’e is the center of attention. Something as simple as changing his socks comes with four people hovering over him; a sip of water can’t be had without a handful of people interested. Still, he is at ease here. He throws on the trademark snarl and assassin’s glare on the photographer’s cue, but as soon as the flashbulb pops, can switch back to chatting with everyone in the room and sharing inside jokes with his boys off-camera.
In a lot of ways, Amar’e is still a youngster in the League, but in other ways he’s a vet. He’s become used to all of this: the demands and responsibilities of being a star.
His off-court portfolio is maturing as well. He owns Stoudemire’s Downtown, a restaurant that serves $15 salads and $9 burgers right across the street from U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix. Amar’e has also formed a business partnership with T.I., combining sports management and music labels, each giant in his respective genre serving as a liaison and counsel to the other.
“It’s been a short seven years to me,” Stoudemire says of his NBA career. “It’s gone by so quick, man. I feel like I just got in the League not too long ago. I guess that’s a good feeling.
“I mean, I know now that everybody’s gonna say something about everything,” Stoudemire says. “I’m a four-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year—I’ve been very successful in this League. I’ve had a pretty good career so far. If I keep it up, hopefully I’ll be a future Hall of Famer. So regardless of what they say, I’m still improving. I’m getting better. I’m in my prime right now. I’m ready to step up and be That Guy.”
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It’s now three months after the eye surgery. In the thick of the NBA playoffs, Amar’e is in Newport Beach, Calif., for a Nike sneaker launch. Black t-shirt, black track pants, black headband — it’s as if he’s mourning the end of his season. His hair is a week away from a mini-fro, but most notable in Stoudemire’s appearance are the thick-rimmed glasses on his face; a pre-cursor to the goggles.
“I had high expectations this season, you know. I was totally ready, fully equipped and ready to dominate,” he says. “I think this year is gonna be different. I have more of an idea what I want to accomplish and what the team needs. We’re solid now; last year we were still looking for a coach and all that. We didn’t know what program we was gonna have as a team.”
However, the certainty that seemed to come for Stoudemire following the mid-season coaching change disappeared somewhere along the way. Amar’e was again tied to trade rumors throughout the offseason, including one that seemed to be a done deal on Draft Night sending him to the Warriors, but fell apart a few days later. In May, Stoudemire did a radio interview where he indicated he’d like to play for the Knicks (and Coach D’Antoni) should he opt out of his contract in 2010.
Not that he’s bothered by the prospect of moving.
“I’m always secure,” Stoudemire says. “It’s never really a problem with me from a rumor standpoint. I never really feed into it too much. My thing is always steady improvement, and I’m always gonna do that until I retire. I’m so anxious, I’m so ready, so motivated to get back out there right now. If I could go right now, I would.”
Two more questions for Amar’e.
What is one word that would describe this past season?
And one word you want to describe next season?
He takes a second. Rolls a few around in his head before it comes to him.
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