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Raising Arizona Straight out of high school, forward Amare Stoudemire has soared toward the top of the rookie class and boosted fortunes in Phoenix

Jan. 20, 2003
Jan. 20, 2003

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Jan. 20, 2003

Raising Arizona Straight out of high school, forward Amare Stoudemire has soared toward the top of the rookie class and boosted fortunes in Phoenix

Of all the reactions you'd expect from a 20-year-old NBA rookie
whose coach just told him, "You got Shaq," a canary-swallowing
grin is not one of them. But unmistakable joy, even mirth, played
over the face of Phoenix Suns power forward Amare Stoudemire as
he planted a forearm in Shaquille O'Neal's back late in a recent
victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. Earlier in the season the
6'10", 245-pound Stoudemire had delivered a vicious dunk over the
L.A. Clippers' 7-foot Michael Olowokandi, dominated All-Star
Kevin Garnett in a 38-point, 14-rebound performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves and leveled Paul Pierce as he drove to the
hoop, leaving the Boston Celtics' swingman with two broken front
teeth. But Stoudemire didn't know if he'd be so fearless when he
finally confronted his hoops idol. "If I was going to be intimidated
by anyone in this league, it would have been Shaq," says Stoudemire. "But I wasn't. I enjoyed every minute."

This is an article from the Jan. 20, 2003 issue Original Layout

After a boyhood turned upside down by the death of his father and
by his mother's many run-ins with the law, after attending six
high schools in two states, Stoudemire (pronounced STODamire) has
finally found a stable home: in the paint, facing down the NBA's
most intimidating post players. Since replacing an injured Tom
Gugliotta in the starting lineup on Nov. 23, Stoudemire has given
the Suns their most potent inside force since a decade ago, when
Charles Barkley was in his prime. At week's end Stoudemire's 12.5
points and 9.1 rebounds per game were better than the rookie
stats of fellow high schoolers turned pros Garnett (10.4, 6.3),
Kobe Bryant (7.6, 1.9) and Tracy McGrady (7.0, 4.2), and his
precocious play had helped Phoenix (24--14), which failed to make
the playoffs last season, rise to third place in the Western
Conference.

"To say we expected this from Amare this soon would be silly,"
says Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo. An outspoken opponent of
drafting high schoolers, Colangelo set aside that opinion long
enough to watch Stoudemire work out last spring. After 15 minutes
he was sold. "Every once in a great while a player wows you,"
Colangelo says. "The only other [high school] player who did that
for me was Kobe Bryant. Kobe had it all: athleticism, skills,
work ethic, charisma, maturity and a certain look in his eye.
When I saw all that in Amare, I was moved. I knew he was our
guy."

Taken with the ninth pick last June (and the lone high schooler
to be drafted), Stoudemire has been a perfect fit on a rebuilding
team--a diligent, energetic presence who, with a vertical leap of
38 inches, can dunk with the quickness of a cobra strike,
regardless of which All-NBA player is guarding him. "Sometimes I
worry that the rest of the team is just watching to see if he'll
do something jaw-dropping," says Phoenix coach Frank Johnson, who
admits he is afflicted by the same anticipation. "He wows us all
the time."

Stoudemire's game is raw, instinctive. When he declared for the
NBA draft last May, he had played slightly more than two full
seasons of high school ball and received little real coaching. He
has no left hand, little range on his jumper and no clue against
a double team. He readily admits that his free throw
shooting--67.3% through Sunday--"needs work." Already, though,
Stoudemire has added a jump hook and a hanging one-hander. Last
Friday, in a 96--90 home win over the Memphis Grizzlies, he
snatched 21 rebounds, a team record for a rookie and the most by
a Sun in seven years. "Every game he does something that
surprises you," says Eddie Johnson, a 17-year NBA vet who is now a
Phoenix broadcaster. "And that tells me that he is picking things
up. Most rookies don't."

Nor do most 20-year-olds get veteran calls--at week's end
Stoudemire had been to the line 199 times, 40 more than the next
closest rookie, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming--or strike terror
into the hearts of seasoned players. "I'm not going to name
names, but I've seen guys get out of his way," says Eddie
Johnson. "I've seen guys hold back and not try to block his dunk.
You don't see a young guy intimidating veterans. But guys know
they're going to get posterized, that he is going to try to break
their arm. That's the way Shaq does it."

One way or another, Stoudemire has gotten inside heads around the
league. Chicago Bulls forward Jalen Rose likes to goad 7'1"
teammate Tyson Chandler, a high-school-to-pros rookie last season
who averaged only 6.1 points and 4.8 rebounds despite being the
No. 2 pick, by extolling Stoudemire's numbers. (Chandler, who got
a technical for taunting Stoudemire in a preseason matchup,
admits that he "loves" Stoudemire's game.) After that 38-point
outburst at Minnesota--a record for a rookie straight out of high
school--Phoenix point guard Stephon Marbury took a jab at his
former teammate, saying that Garnett "doesn't even compare to
Amare. It's like Michael Jordan and Mario Elie."

Marbury later clarified that he wasn't comparing Stoudemire with
the veteran Garnett, who is one of the top talents in the league.
But as a rookie? "Amare's the kind of player who comes along once
every 20 years," says Marbury. "He's a different breed. He makes
basketball plays that he doesn't even know he's making. When he
learns the game and puts that together with what he does
instinctively, he's gonna be scary."

Stoudemire is reading Barkley's book I May Be Wrong but I Doubt
It, but Sir Charles's brashness has yet to rub off on him. He is
direct and polite in interviews though not often inclined to
elaborate. Except for the occasional burst of soft laughter,
Stoudemire's face remains impassive, his eyes wary. He performs
the required rookie duties without complaint, fetching doughnuts
before shootarounds and racking balls afterward. As Suns forward
Bo Outlaw puts it, "Amare's a good dude."

If Stoudemire seems unmoved by the hype surrounding him, it may
be because he has been in the middle of a recruiting circus since
he was 14. His adolescence was so turbulent, it was the subject
of an award-winning HBO Real Sports segment in 2001. His father,
Hazell Sr., a saxophonist and Pop Warner football coach from whom
Amare inherited his broad shoulders, long arms, large hands and
nickname--STAT, for Standing Tall and Talented--died in his sleep
when Amare was 12. His mother, Carrie, has been in and out of
jail since 1978; her convictions include grand theft, forgery,
prostitution and check fraud. In 1999 Amare's brother Hazell Jr.,
25, a once-promising basketball player, began serving a sentence
of three to nine years in Gowanda, N.Y., for criminal sale of a
controlled substance and sexual assault.

Amare started to dream of playing basketball professionally as a
14-year-old, when he shot up to 6'6". As the Stoudemire brothers
picked their way through the drug-infested neighborhood to the
playground in Lake Wales, Fla., Hazell Jr.--who, according to
Amare, is now 6'10" and 315 pounds--kept the dealers at bay.
"He'd tell them, 'Don't talk to my brother; he's going to the
court to play basketball,'" says Amare. "And they never bothered
me." Perhaps they, too, recognized the kid's talent: At Amare's
first AAU tournament he was named MVP. "I knew I was good," he
says, "because I was the only 14-year-old who could dunk
backward."

But Stoudemire's itinerant high school career cost him valuable
playing time. His freshman season at Lake Wales High was cut
short by academic ineligibility. The following year he joined
coach Joel Hopkins's squad at Mount Zion Academy in Durham, N.C.,
an Adidas-sponsored juggernaut that McGrady had played for before
jumping to the NBA. Midway through the year Hopkins started a
rival school, Emmanuel Christian Academy, in the basement of a
Durham office building and spirited away the Mount Zion team to
serve as his student body. "Hopkins made us feel like it was a
very good thing," Stoudemire told HBO. Even though Emmanuel was
considered a national power going into the next year, the school
folded before the team played a game.

Stoudemire returned to Florida, where his life became even more
tumultuous. He started living with Travis King, a coach on the
summer basketball circuit; attended summer school at Dr. Phillips
High in Orlando before his junior year; briefly reenrolled at
Mount Zion, where, Stoudemire claims, his transcripts had been
doctored to keep him from playing at another school (the school's
athletic director, Don Fozard Jr., declines to comment); sat out
a year at West Orange (Fla.) High for academic ineligibility
stemming from the Mount Zion transcripts; learned that Nike rep
George Raveling had given Carrie $100 while she was in jail; fell
out with King and came under the influence of the Reverend Bill
Williams, who soon after claiming to be Amare's legal guardian
entered prison, for the fourth time, on a bribery conviction;
enlisted the help of publicist Marc Little, a colleague of
Williams's, who accompanied Stoudemire to the 2001 Nike summer
camp in Indianapolis, where he handed out glossy pictures and
press clippings to the media; and committed to Memphis. Had
Stoudemire honored that commitment, his association with Little
and the money Raveling had given his mother would have certainly
set the NCAA hounds abaying. But after a senior season at Cypress
Creek High during which he averaged 29 points, 15 rebounds and
six blocks and was named Florida's Mr. Basketball, few believed
college was in his future.

"I never had a doubt that I would make it to the NBA, even when I
wasn't playing," says Stoudemire. "I always stayed focused
because my family was going bad, and I wanted to be able to take
care of them."

After signing a three-year, $5.7 million contract, he can do
exactly that. He owns a house and a Cadillac Escalade, and when
Carrie was recently released after 19 days in a Bartow, Fla.,
jail for a parole violation, he bought her a Mercedes and settled
her and his 14year-old brother, Marwan, into a rented house near
him in Phoenix. Though the presence of Carrie has some people
close to Amare nervous, he's happy to have her around. "It feels
like home now," he says. "It feels like it used to be. A lot of
people think I grew up with just my brother and me, but mom was
there even when she wasn't. We had a good household."

Last week, in the Suns' 88--81 victory over the Trail Blazers in
Portland, Stoudemire struggled against double teams and had just
four points and six rebounds. "I'm going to have to adjust," he
said, donning a black sweat suit and a black knit cap. "I've been
trying to overpower everything. It's time to break out my finesse
game." In other words, more surprises await.

Stoudemire then left the locker room and headed for a team bus
surrounded by fans. He stopped to sign autographs, a velour-clad
figure standing tall and talented.

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA [T of C] ARM WRESTLER Cavs forward Carlos Boozer (between Efthimios Rentzias and Greg Buckner) is one of the NBA's toughest rookies (page 48).COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH ON BOARD Having survived a turbulent childhood and a six-high-school odyssey, Stoudemire is feeling at ease in the NBA.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: NOREN TROTMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (WILLIAMS) WilliamsCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES WagnerCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES HilarioCOLOR PHOTO: GARRETT ELLWOOD/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (DUNLEAVY) DunleavyCOLOR PHOTO: CATHERINE STEENKESTE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES O, MY! Stoudemire's 38-inch vertical leap served him well in this oft-replayed jam over the Clippers' 7-foot center.

Ahead of the Curve

Of the 17 NBA players drafted directly from high school since
1995, most of those who have made it big showed a growth spurt in
their third season. Amare Stoudemire's Year 1 stats at week's end
already stack up against the Year 3 numbers for the best players
to have jumped from high school to the pros.

PLAYER, TEAM SEASON PPG RPG

Kobe Bryant, Lakers 1998--99 19.9 5.3

Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves 1997--98 18.5 9.6

Tracy McGrady, Raptors 1999--00 15.4 6.3

Rashard Lewis, Sonics 2000--01 14.8 6.9

Amare Stoudemire, Suns 2002--03 12.5 9.1