Among his many talents, Shaq is the bequeather of NBA nicknames. It was the self-proclaimed Big Diesel who identified Tim Duncan as the Big Fundamental, Kevin Garnett as the Big Ticket, Paul Pierce as the Truth and Dwyane Wade as Flash. "All the good nicknames out there,'' as Shaq once told Howard Beck of The New York Times, "I made up.''
So I was loitering in the cozy visitors' locker room in New Jersey on Tuesday before the Suns' 114-86 drubbing of the Nets when the 36-year-old Shaq came out of the trainer's room and confronted the 25-year-old Stoudemire at his locker. Mentor and student launched a spirited but altogether incomprehensible conversation to which I was paying little attention, I admit. Then Shaq turned to me and said, "Sun Tzu or the Punisher?''
"What do you mean?'' I said.
"Amaré's nickname,'' Shaq said in his half-whisper, which, as he ages, is sounding more and more like Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone. "Which one do you like better? Sun Tzu or the Punisher?''
Why was he asking me? Was I being pranked? I glanced each way to see Shaq looking down on me and Stoudemire staring up at me from his locker. They were waiting. I thought about it, and then, as if laying a sword across Amaré's shoulder, I looked him in the eyes and said, "Sun Tzu sounds like a good name.''
"So it's Sun Tzu then,'' Shaq said, and with a quick shrug he walked away.
Stoudemire, whose nickname has been STAT (Standing Tall and Talented), appeared to be thrilled with the new alias.
"Sun Tzu is my nickname,'' he announced loudly to anyone who happened by his locker. "Sun Tzu. My name is Sun Tzu.''
Paul Coro, the splendidly dressed Suns beat writer for The Arizona Republic, came into the locker room. Stoudemire told him the news of Sun Tzu. Coro shook his head in mild bewilderment.
"Sun Tzu,'' Stoudemire said. "His motto is, the way he prepares for battle, he uses deception. So, like, let's say we go out to play a game, right, and the New Jersey Nets say Amaré can't go to his left; he's going to go right. But I know what they're thinking, that I'm going to go right. So I go left.''
"Because you're a master of deception,'' Coro said.
"Because I'm a master of deception,'' Stoudemire said.
"The David Blaine of the NBA,'' Coro said.
"No, I'm the Sun Tzu!'' Stoudemire said. "Sun Tzu.''
"Don't go trying to change his name,'' I said to Coro.
"Hey,'' Stoudemire said, "you ever read that book, Sun Tzu, TheArt of War?''
Coro shook his head no.
"Well, it's a book,'' Stoudemire said. "A lot of generals and warriors read his book because he has a great idea of how to win without even fighting. You know what I'm saying?"
"Win before it starts,'' Coro said, nodding.
"Yeah,'' Stoudemire said. "So that's why they call me Sun Tzu.''
I was sensing that if I wrote anything more about Sun Tzu, I was going to start losing my audience. So I pulled Stoudemire aside to change the subject. I thought I might put him on his heels by asking him about his play on defense, which throughout his career has been deplorable. But apparently the mythical spirit of the Taoist Chinese general has infused Stoudemire with a new sense of purpose.
"My goal is to become a phenomenal defensive player,'' he said.
I found myself staring as if he was asking me to nickname him again.
"That's my goal,'' he went on. "To be a phenomenal defensive player night in, night out, no nights off. And ultimately to win a championship.''
He substantiated his ambition by pointing out that the Suns have emphasized defense under new coach Terry Porter.
"A lot of defensive drills,'' Stoudemire said. "We're going over the different tactics of defense. It's very important from my standpoint, being a young player. I never really had long practices on defense. It was never really forced. We talked about it, but as far as practicing it and really going through the preparation, it is the first of my career.''
I have been skeptical about this change of heart for a franchise that won at least 54 games each of the last four seasons by prioritizing offense. Even if Stoudemire learns to defend, it's asking a lot for Shaq, Steve Nash and Grant Hill -- all 34 or older -- to elevate defensively so late in life.
"They can lean on me, that's my motto,'' Stoudemire said. "They can lean on me, and the rest of the young guys, they can follow me. And we're just going to play as hard as we can and try to get it done.''
When I asked how Stoudemire was taking to the new defensive principles, Porter expressed patience.
"I think he's improving,'' the coach said. "He always wanted to improve. It's something he shared with me, and so every day is a new day. He seems to be in the right spots, and I think it's just a matter of him getting the reps and being able to read situations better.''
I was seeking Hill's perspective when Stoudemire returned to his nearby locker, which put Hill in an awkward position.
"I was telling Grant about the new you,'' I explained to Stoudemire, who had heard his name being mentioned.
He nodded in agreement to Hill and said, "Sun Tzu.''
"What?'' said Hill.
"No, no,'' I said. "I meant that Amaré was telling me that he was going to become a great defensive player.''
"I think he will,'' Hill said.
"Don't lie for me, Grant,'' Stoudemire said, laughing.
"No, I think he will,'' Hill said as Stoudemire retreated. "A lot of the stuff that we're going through now is potentially the first time he's done it. He's soaking it in, he's really hungry to learn different things, and you see it starting to happen. Is it going to happen overnight? [He paused rhetorically.] But get to the end of this season, get to next year, and then you'll see all of the work he's put in.''
It was hard to gauge the conversion of the Suns based on this one evening against a young team. Stoudemire was assigned to guard Yi Jianlian, who was 5-of-14 from the floor when he wasn't picking himself up off it, which was often as he fell over when bumping into Stoudemire. At the other end, Stoudemire and Shaq were combining for 32 points on 17 shots.
"I'm 60-65 percent lifetime, from little league right up till now,'' O'Neal said of his shooting percentage. "So if they won't double me, they will pay.''
Stoudemire carried forth the spirit of Shaq Fu and Sun Tzu the following night, when he devastated Indiana with 49 points (on 17-of-21 from the field and 15-of-15 at the line), 11 rebounds, six assists, five steals and two blocks.
After the game in New Jersey, I asked Shaq about Stoudemire's nickname.
"I liked the Punisher,'' Shaq said, pulling on his coat, "but you liked Sun Tzu.''
"So you let me choose his nickname.''
"And why is that?''
"You know why?'' Shaq said. "Because it's marketing, and you're going to write about it and help it get out. It's always marketing.''
We'll see how long this new identity lasts. I give Sun Tzu two weeks, max.