Amar'e Stoudemire's goggles sit in the middle of the Phoenix Suns locker room, resting atop table filled with shoes, jerseys and shorts. If Stoudemire had it his way, the goggles would stay there, out of sight and off his head, but they're always there, never letting him forget the most difficult time in his career.
Stoudemire missed the final 29 games of last season after having surgery in February to repair a detached retina he suffered during a game with the Clippers. Five months later, Stoudemire spent 10 days laying face down for 22 hours a day having fluid drained from his right eye in what Stoudemire, who had microfracture surgery in 2005, calls the hardest rehab he's ever experienced.
"Every time I put those goggles on it reminds me of everything I went through," said Stoudemire, who also wears fashionable black rimmed glasses to protect his eyes off the court.
Stoudemire's performance this season (he's averaging 19 points and 7.8 rebounds) has helped make the Suns one of the best stories this season. Many picked the Suns to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season with 17 of their first 26 games on the road. Yet they currently have one of the best records in the league at 15-6.
"I think a lot of folks and a lot of teams probably didn't think we were going to be as good as we are this year," said Stoudemire. "The key is that we're injury free for the most part and we're going back to the way that we used to play. We just need to keep implementing the defensive strategies and we'll be alright."
The biggest reason for Stoudemire's success is that the Suns once again began implementing the wide-open, run-and-gun offense he thrived in under Mike D'Antoni when Phoenix fired Terry Porter and made Alvin Gentry, D'Antoni's former assistant, the coach. Combine that with the departure of Shaquille O'Neal, who clogged up the paint, and Stoudemire is once again leading the Suns in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes.
"It frees up space," said Gentry. "That's not a negative against Shaq but it's just that it gives Amare an opportunity to have more space to operate. We've been a pick-and-roll team the last five years and it allows us to run more pick and rolls, with Channing [Frye] in the line up it also helps space the floor and create opportunities."
While Stoudemire was left to stare at the ground for hours during his rehab he often wondered about his legacy and how he would be remembered. Would he be thought of as a winner, a champion, a Hall of Famer? The more Stoudemire thought about it the more he became irked by the constant no's he'd get if he was honest with himself.
There was a time not too long ago that simply asking if Stoudemire was a good teammate would have brought back some no's from many within the Suns organization. That wasn't the case in training camp this season as Stoudemire dedicated himself to becoming a better defender and passer, the two biggest knocks against his game during his seven-year career.
"Everybody forgets he's still a young guy," said Gentry, who named Stoudemire as a co-captain along with Steve Nash and Grant Hill before the season. "He's been in the league a long time but he's only 27 years old so he's still learning. I think he's a much better teammate now. He's more focused on being a good teammate than he was before. He's prioritized everything. Winning becomes the most important thing and the team being successful becomes the most important thing. He's been able to establish himself as a leader on this team and much better teammate than ever before."
Two career-threatening injuries before your 26th birthday have a way of putting things in perspective.
"I've grown a lot," said Stoudemire. "When I came into the game I was this young phenom but with the surgeries I had it really allowed me to think the game out from a mental standpoint and also mature as a player. It's been tough few years with the injuries but I think I've been able to come back from those and still play at a high level and actually become a better player."
Before Stoudemire's injury it looked like he would be destined to be traded away as part of a rebuilding project. But now that the Suns are playing well and winning again, Stoudemire says he doesn't know where he'll end up next year when he will have to decide whether he wants to walk away from the $17.7 million he's owed in 2010-11 or become another big-name free agent in the class of 2010.
"I didn't know if I was going to be here at the end of the season," said Stoudemire. "But I think right now we have a good team so we're not in a rebuilding stage right now. I think we're trying to get better and trying to get back to that high-caliber team. This year we've really shown the efforts to become that team. We're still working on it. Free agency will take care of itself. If we keep winning and keep playing well that's all going to take care of itself."