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The Mouse That Soars

Jan. 15, 1996
Jan. 15, 1996

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Jan. 15, 1996

Photo Credits: NBA Photo Library/Getty Images

The Mouse That Soars

Confounding Skydome skeptics, Toronto's diminutive point guard Damon Stoudamire leads the pack of NBA rookies

Let us begin with the height question. It is precisely that, a question. The exact height of Damon Stoudamire's compact frame is harder to pin down than Stoudamire himself in the open court. This may be due to his apparent ability to expand and contract: During a span of about 10 minutes in one recent conversation, for instance, Toronto Raptor coach Brendan Malone referred to his dynamic rookie point guard as 5'8", 5'10" and 5'9". Stoudamire is officially listed as 5'10", and though he admits to being 5'9" in bare feet, he might be telling a slightly tall tale. When he faced 5'7" Spud Webb of the Atlanta Hawks last week, well, let's just say that they came awfully close to seeing things eye-to-eye.

This is an article from the Jan. 15, 1996 issue Original Layout

One thing that is certain about his size is that at five-feet-whatever and 171 tightly packed pounds, Stoudamire could pass for a light heavyweight contender. It's not surprising, then, that his teammates often talk about him in terms that could just as easily describe a boxer. "Damon's tough, he's relentless," says Toronto guard Alvin Robertson. "He doesn't care who you are or how big you are--he just keeps pounding away at you. The basketball skills are obviously there, but what sets him apart is what's in his chest. You can't put a tape measure around his heart."

Stoudamire also possesses a fighter's mentality, which is to say that when he takes a punch, he tries to respond by throwing one even harder. That's why he doesn't mind admitting that he's had his eye on the Rookie of the Year award since the day last June that the expansion Raptors drafted him with the seventh pick. The honor would be the perfect knockout blow to those who thought he was too small and shot too much to be a successful NBA point guard. "Between the end of my senior year [at Arizona] and the beginning of this season I took a lot of unfair criticism," he says. "I think I've earned the respect of some people who thought I wouldn't make it. I don't need the award to prove they were wrong, but it wouldn't hurt."

It's too early for him to begin clearing a space on his mantel just yet, but after the first two months of the season Stoudamire, who was averaging 17.6 points and 9.1 assists at week's end, ranks slightly above Philadelphia 76er guard-forward Jerry Stackhouse as the league's best rookie (box, page 56). He continued to solidify that status last week with 23 points, 13 assists and only one turnover against the Orlando Magic, followed by a 19-point, 10-assist performance against the Hawks. "He has a chance to be an All-Star point guard in the very near future," says Seattle SuperSonic coach George Karl. "I don't know if there's a guard in the league any quicker. He's shown that Toronto was right to take him so high in the draft."

Stackhouse, who was averaging 19.8 points at week's end, is the leading scorer among rookies, but no other first-year player has had as great an effect on his team as has Stoudamire. The Raptors depend so heavily on him that through Sunday he was second in the league in minutes played, averaging 41.4 per game, and it takes only one look at the way the Toronto offense stagnates when he is on the bench to see why. The Raptor attack revolves around Stoudamire, who creates opportunities for his teammates with his speed on the fast break and his penetration in the half-court offense. He also became the favorite of Raptor fans in about the time it took for him to make one of his faster-than-a-speeding-bullet, full-court dashes. "He's a show all by himself," says Raptor executive vice-president Isiah Thomas, a rookie himself (as an executive) and someone who knows a little something about small, entertaining point guards. "Watching Damon makes you want to jump up and holler."

Stoudamire is so important to the Raptors that the veterans haven't subjected him to the usual rookie indoctrination by treating him like their personal valet. "He hasn't had to pick up my luggage one time, and I'm not happy about that at all," jokes forward John Salley. "But I guess it makes sense, because you can't ask a guy to carry the team and carry the bags."

In fact, the Raptor veterans, most notably Robertson, Salley and swingman Willie Anderson, have treated Stoudamire like a kid brother, offering advice on everything from defense to diet. When Salley boarded the team plane earlier this season and found Stoudamire about to bite into a ham sandwich, he stopped him. "I told him there were healthier things he should be putting into his body," Salley says. "What's more, he put the sandwich down. That's the thing about Damon--he's not one of these rookies who ignore what you try to tell them because they're too busy counting their money. Damon will listen. He'll use what he can use and let the rest of it pass, but he'll always listen."

If Malone and Thomas ever doubted Stoudamire's ability to handle such a central role so early in his career, he quickly convinced them otherwise. Malone remembers the air of confidence Stoudamire showed in a predraft interview. "He came in with his chest stuck out and walking almost on his tiptoes in this kind of little strut," he says. "It was just like Jimmy Cagney. I thought I heard Yankee Doodle Dandy playing in the background."

Stoudamire, 22, wasn't quite sure who Cagney was when Malone first made the comparison. "But I figured he must be somebody who was tough," he says. Stoudamire prefers to compare himself to another take-charge little character: Mighty Mouse. He wears a tattoo of the rodent superhero holding a basketball aloft on his right arm, and the Raptors play the theme music from the cartoon when Stoudamire does something spectacular. "Mighty Mouse was always saving people, always coming to the rescue," Stoudamire says. "He was the man. He could get you out of any jam. That's what I always wanted to be like. Oh, and yeah, he was small."

So far Stoudamire hasn't been able to rescue the Raptors very often; they were 9-23 through Sunday. But with an unshakable faith in his own talent that falls just short of arrogance, he has helped make them competitive. Ask him if there is a defender in the league that he is not quick enough to beat off the dribble, and without hesitation he answers, "Nope." He believes that whatever he gives up because of his size he can get back with his speed. "I get guys telling me that they're going to take my little you-know-what down low," he says. "But this is the way I figure it: As many times as you try to post me up down low, that's how many times I'm going to blow past you on the other end."

Already this season Stoudamire has given fits to such stellar defenders as the Magic's Anfernee Hardaway, the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan and the SuperSonics' Gary Payton, but he has had his share of difficult rookie moments as well. His lowest point came on Nov. 13 when Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton badly outplayed him in a 103-100 Raptor loss. Stockton had 29 points and 12 assists compared with Stoudamire's seven and nine. But Stoudamire now looks back on that game as the turning point of his season because of what Thomas told him afterward. "I was so worried about what Stockton was going to do against me when he had the ball that I didn't concentrate on making him work to stop me on the other end," he says. "Isiah took me aside and told me never to be passive, no matter who I'm playing. He told me his motto: Go attack them before they attack you. Ever since then, that's what I've tried to do."

Thomas, who made 12 All-Star teams and won two championships as the Detroit Pistons' point guard, has tried to counsel Stoudamire without being overly intrusive, and he has emphasized the mental part of the game more than the physical. In order to make sure Stoudamire doesn't lose sight of the Raptors' long-term goal, for instance, Thomas included a clause in Stoudamire's contract that requires him to attend this year's NBA Finals. "I want him to see what he's chasing," Thomas says. "This franchise isn't in it to go to the playoffs someday. We're here to work toward winning a championship, and anything short of that is failure. That's one of the reasons we wanted Damon. He comes across as the kind of player who won't be satisfied to have a good career and no ring."

Choosing Stoudamire with his first pick as an NBA executive was a bold move for Thomas, although he didn't see it that way. "When you're an expansion franchise and you're only expected to win somewhere between nine and 15 games, why not take a risk?" he says. Still, when the Toronto pick was announced, Raptor fans at the SkyDome in Toronto, the site of the draft, booed loudly. They wanted Thomas to choose Ed O'Bannon, the 6'8" forward who led UCLA to the NCAA championship two months earlier (O'Bannon was chosen two slots later by the New Jersey Nets). But Stoudamire didn't take it personally. "The way I saw it, they weren't booing me, because they really didn't know who I was," he says. "I knew that once they saw me play, they'd like me."

Erasing the perception that he was a point guard who was more interested in shooting than passing wasn't as easy. Stoudamire, who averaged 22.8 points and 15.5 shots as an Arizona senior, insists his reputation as a gunner was never accurate. "I may have taken a lot of shots at Arizona, but that was the way we needed to play, the way I was asked to play," he says. "But if you look, I averaged more assists [7.3] last year than any of the other guards taken in the first round. Anybody who thought I didn't know how to pass, or didn't like to pass, didn't really know my game." His claim is supported by the fact that at week's end he was third in the league in assists, behind only Stockton and the Portland Trail Blazers' Rod Strickland.

Stoudamire is so central to the Toronto attack that opposing teams have begun to focus their defense on stopping him. "He's the head, and you take the head away, and the body will die," says Payton, who allowed Stoudamire to get his first triple double (20 points, 11 assists, 12 rebounds) the first time they played but held him to 10 points and five assists the second time. "You throw different things at him--double-team him, pick him up deep in the backcourt, bump him, talk to him. If you don't, he'll start blowing by you to the basket and pulling up for three-pointers. That's when Toronto can give you some trouble."

The extra attention he is drawing from other teams is bound to take a physical toll on Stoudamire, and he has heard all about the imaginary wall that rookies hit after about 40 games, the point at which fatigue starts to set in and their performances start to fall off. He smiles at the notion, seemingly certain that the wall is just another obstacle he can head-fake and zip past. "If you don't think there's a wall, there's no wall," he says.

"Damon doesn't think he has any limitations," says Malone. "He's like Sophia Loren. I was reading a story about her the other day; someone mentioned to her that she's 61, and she said, 'Really?' She doesn't think about her age. Damon's the same way. I don't think he realizes how small he is. And you know what? I'm not going to be the one to tell him."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Though he's still a work in progress, Stoudamire's artistry is apparent on his speedy drives to the hole. [Damon Stoudamire] COLOR PHOTO: STEVE LIPOFSKY No. 1 pick Smith (right) and No. 2 Stackhouse have lived up to lofty expectations. [Joe Smith]COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Jerry Stackhouse]COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Even against established stars like Hardaway, an undaunted Stoudamire refuses to back down. [Damon Stoudamire guarding Anfernee Hardaway]