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Stoudemire returns to hometown of heartache amid difficult season

Amar'e Stoudemire comes from a small city in Florida that used to be called Lake Wailes, but founders worried that the name made residents sound melancholy, as if they were wailing all the time. So they changed it to Lake Wales, in hopes of a joyful populace. Stoudemire beams when he talks about his hometown -- the elementary school where he made the honor roll and the church where he sat in the front row, the streets where he popped wheelies on his BMX and the sprawling waterfront homes where he mowed lawns with his dad.

But Lake Wales has also been the site of much anguish for Stoudemire. He was 12 when his father, Hazell Sr., died of a heart attack. His mother, Carrie, was in and out of jail. So was his older brother, Hazell Jr. Without their guidance, Stoudemire went to six high schools, including one in an office basement. He helped raise his younger half-brother, Marwan Williams, reading him bedtime stories at night. Marwan also wound up in jail.

Stoudemire never cut ties with his wayward family members. If anything, he grew closer to them, galvanized by their problems. As a boy, he carried stereo speakers into the front yard, so his mom could preach to the gangsters in the neighborhood about mistakes she made. He was both embarrassed and proud. Last year, I wrote a feature on Stoudemire for the magazine, and asked about his brothers. Marwan was still in jail but they talked once a month. "I try not to get too emotional on the phone," Stoudemire said. Hazell Jr. was out of jail and living in Florida. "He is trying to find a job," Stoudemire said. Again, he seemed both embarrassed and proud.

Stoudemire left the Knicks and headed home Monday, to grieve again. Hazell Jr. died in a car accident early Monday morning in Lake Wales when his Cadillac Escalade struck the back of a tractor trailer. According to reports, the 35-year-old was not wearing a seatbelt and was declared dead at the scene. The reports did not say whether the Escalade was a gift from Stoudemire, but it would be a surprise if it weren't.

This season has already been a professional struggle for Stoudemire, who is scoring 18.2 points per game, the fewest since he was a rookie. A year ago, Stoudemire was averaging more than 25, and New York felt like a basketball city again. Stoudemire was the headliner, serenaded with MVP chants, the Knicks' first All-Star starter since Patrick Ewing. Then the team acquired Carmelo Anthony, forced Stoudemire to accept second-billing and jettisoned all quality point guards. Stoudemire, who spent his most productive years running the pick-and-roll with Suns point guard Steve Nash, is posting the worst field-goal percentage of his career (44.7 percent) and the Knicks have fallen back to oblivion. Last week, Stoudemire sprained his ankle when he tripped over a jump rope on the court.

There is no projecting how a player will respond to personal turmoil, but Stoudemire is deeply connected to his family, even though he was often separated from them. He keeps a photo next to his bed of Hazell Sr., wearing a suit. Hazell Sr. sang in the church choir, blew the sax and never cursed in front of kids. Stoudemire has wondered how his childhood would have been different if Hazell Sr. survived. "One high school," he said.

He missed Monday's game against the Jazz and perhaps more, as he returns to Lake Wales, a place that for Stoudemire has become synonymous with both happiness and heartache.

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