It’s a little after 2 p.m. Israeli time and the 6'10" Amar’e Stoudemire walks out on to the arrivals concourse of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. Wearing a blue Maccabi Tel Aviv polo with the team’s trademark yellow scarf denoting its six European championships draped around his neck, he immediately encounters a scrum of reporters. With a black kippah covering his head, Stoudemire briefly answers a few questions, before posing for a handful of pictures. “There’s no place like home, being back here in Israel,” he tells Sports Illustrated a little over two hours after his arrival.
Stoudemire is no stranger to the Holy Land—nor the more than 10 hours of travel it takes to get there. “I’m used to that for sure,” he jokes. Two Fridays ago, he returned to Israel, the latest of many trips the six-time NBA All-Star has had over the past decade. Among other visits, he’s played two stints in recent years with Hapoel Jersulaem, even buying a small minority ownership stake in the club. In March 2019, he added Israeli citizenship and he says he went through a conversion seven or eight years ago.
Two times over the last five years, he’s retired—first from the NBA in July 2016 and then from Israeli basketball in September 2017. But as his recent arrival indicates, Stoudemire is very much an active player. The 37-year-old is now set to finish the year with Maccabi Tel Aviv, competing at the highest level of professional basketball he’s had since leaving the U.S.
“My goal for these past few years is to reach a level of basketball that competes with the best,” he says. “This is high-level basketball. This is what I’ve been striving for.”
Stoudemire, whose Hebrew name is Jehoshaphat, joins a club in the top five of the EuroLeague table, one that has NBA scouts at seemingly every game. He’s “pretty content” playing for Maccabi, but if the NBA calls, and the right opportunity presented itself, “that would be another option.”
Throughout Stoudemire’s NBA career, injuries didn’t just sneak up on the forward, they often engulfed him, keeping the 2002-03 Rookie of the Year out for long stretches at a time. Injuries are one reason why Maccabi had a frontcourt need, as former NBA players Tarik Black and Omri Casspi are both sidelined. But the forward says that he’s been extremely healthy over the last few years. His body is allowing him to keep going.
In October, Stoudemire signed a deal to play for the Fujian Sturgeons of the Chinese Basketball Association. But after just two months and 11 games, he returned to Florida. He’s stayed ready since, often spending time around current and former NBA players.
On MLK Day, for instance, he sat courtside witnessing the Heat’s 118-113 win over the Kings. That Wednesday, he played five-on-five with the Wizards’ John Wall—“he looks good, he looks really well,” Stoudemire says of the rehabbing guard. “I had a beautiful time playing with him.”
He’s watched his old Knick teammate Carmelo Anthony get a chance that for a while seemed as if it wasn’t going to happen. “I think he set the tone for guys like myself who are competing still,” Stoudemire says of Anthony. “Even though they are later in age, they are still able to produce and be a great and productive person on the court.
“I mean, I can definitely do the same.”
That’s the message he’s tried relaying over the past few years, ever since his one-year deal with the Heat expired. But despite international opportunities, showcases in the BIG3 and a Las Vegas workout in front of around 15 NBA teams, among others, he hasn’t been provided an NBA opportunity.
So he finds himself back in Israel after a deal came about “spontaneously” over the course of a few days. He’s competing for a championship—something that eluded him during his NBA career—in the second-best league in the world.
“He’s aroused a lot of emotion among the fans, in every court and every city he came to,” says Yakov Meir, a basketball writer for Israel Hayom, the country’s leading daily newspaper. “Maccabi’s fans are very excited. They also like the fact that their opponent’s big star moved to their side.”
Stoudemire’s on-court debut was quickly overshadowed by the news he heard at halftime. As his new team wrap up its first half against Hapoel Tel Aviv on Sunday Jan. 26, the former NBA standout learned of Kobe Bryant’s sudden death.
“I don’t know what to say, man,” Stoudemire said before heading back to the locker room, wiping back tears. “I’m shocked, bro. I don’t know what to say. I have no idea what to even think. Feels unreal. I don’t even want to believe it.” Video of Stoudemire’s response was among the first global on-court interviews that surfaced following the news, as Maccabi’s game was in progress as word of the Lakers legend's death was spreading. He spoke to reporters before the exact number of people on the helicopter was reported, before Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was confirmed to be in the crash.
Stoudemire described the feeling like a dagger cutting through his heart. The team’s head coach, Ioannis Sfairopolous, ended his press conference by quoting Bryant’s famed words, “heroes come and go, but legends die forever.” One day later, Maccabi would hold a moment of silence before beginning its practice. Days later, in his EuroLeague debut against Real Madrid, Stoudemire wore custom sneakers dedicated to his friend.
Half a world away from where Stoudemire and Bryant battled in the postseason, the former Suns star is now carrying on his friend’s legacy.
In previous trips, he has taken Hebrew lessons and found a kosher butcher. Years after slicing off pick-and-rolls and throwing down tomahawks jams, he’s launched a kosher wine line—one that he recommends ahead of the weekly Jewish celebration of Shabbat—and has a menorah tattoo on his left wrist.
One last NBA chance might come as a result of his upcoming stint in Tel Aviv. Maybe, however, it won’t. “I appreciate the opportunity to be back in Israel playing for Maccabi,” he says. “And we’ll take it from here.”
At least for the time being, Amar’e Stoudemire feels back at home.