Amaré stoudemire, awide smile plastered on his angular face, was looking for a little love fromhis Phoenix Suns teammates following last Friday night's 108--80 win over thecomically undermanned Miami Heat.
Early in the fourth quarter Stoudemire, a 6'10" "beast from thedeep," according to teammate Boris Diaw, had spontaneously gone behind hisback with a lefthanded dribble on a fast break and finished with an emphaticdunk. "I'm a versatile big," concluded Stoudemire, looking to hisneighbors in the Suns' locker room.
"That behind-the-back stuff?" said forward Jumaine Jones. "That wasnothing. Didn't mean a thing."
"That balllooked like it weighed 300 pounds going behind your back," said swingmanJalen Rose, who, like Jones, is new to the Suns this season. "And, see,really versatile bigs would've shot it with their left hand too."
"You hearthat?" Stoudemire said, still smiling. "You expect that from opponents.But when you get no love from your teammates? That is just so wrong."
Actually, it is soright. Only two months ago the 24-year-old Stoudemire's future as a Phoenician,and perhaps his entire career, was in doubt. Thirteen months removed frommicrofracture surgery on his left knee and seven months after arthroscopicsurgery on his right, Stoudemire was the league's best-paid bench player,having gotten a five-year, $72 million contract extension from the Suns inOctober 2005, just days before the lesion in his left knee was discovered.
And now? He isliterally the center of the league's second-best team, and often the center ofattention in the locker room or on the practice court.
Last Saturday, forexample, in the team's practice gym at US Airways Center, most of the Suns(with the exception of guard Steve Nash and forward Shawn Marion, the other twothirds of the franchise troika, who were working on their shooting) werehooting and hollering as they grouped around Stoudemire and Rose, who wereplaying a game of one-on-one, winner take five grand. The game was only tothree baskets, but it lasted at least 20 minutes, the intensity resembling thatof a championship series. Rose won 3--2, which in previous years would'veprompted Stoudemire to stalk off to the locker room. But he accepted thegood-natured barbs and stuck around for 45 minutes, working on his post movesand jump shot with assistant coach Marc Iavaroni.
And during a casualNew Year's Day practice in Chicago, Stoudemire grabbed a whistle and officiatedan impromptu pickup game among his teammates. "Sometimes it's the littlethings that count," says assistant coach Phil Weber. "To see that levelof engagement from Amaré was very, very revealing. I don't think we had seen itbefore."
The officialverdict, of course, can only come from Nash, the two-time league MVP who isplaying like a three-time MVP. "The exciting thing for all of us has beenAmaré's willingness to fit in and be a great teammate," says Nash."There's been a rub-off factor: Everyone in the room is getting along, andAmaré wants to, too. He has come to know what is important to a team, on andoff the court."
In Stoudemire'sfirst three seasons he lived pretty much as the sole resident of Planet Amaré,often selfish on offense, passive on defense and isolated in the locker room.The nickname he gave himself years ago, STAT, is an acronym for Standing TallAnd Talented, an exhortation he advertises with one of his many tattoos, butthe joke that it stood for someone who cares only about his own statistics wasbeyond obvious. In the 2004--05 season, his third since entering the leaguestraight out of Orlando's Cypress Creek High, Stoudemire was the mainbeneficiary of Nash's arrival in Phoenix, with Stoudemire averaging 26.0 pointsand 8.9 rebounds on his way to second-team All-NBA honors.
Then, inStoudemire's fourth season, came the microfracture surgery, an abbreviated anddisastrous three-game comeback and the 'scope, after which he seemed moreisolated than ever. Coach Mike D'Antoni and others in the organization believedthat Stoudemire did not pursue his rehabilitation as assiduously as he shouldhave, missing some workouts and cutting others short.
Stoudemire, for hispart, either does not believe or will not acknowledge that he didn't tackle hisrehab in anything but a professional manner. "I would get frustrated andmad that I wasn't showing progress, and I'd let that show through," hesays. "Maybe that's why they thought I wasn't doing everything I could. Iheard a lot of times, 'You have to play with pain.' But it all depends on thelevel of pain."
The schism betweenplayer and team continued into this season. D'Antoni, usually decisive aboutwhich players to use and when to use them, was admittedly perplexed about howto reintegrate Stoudemire. He brought him off the bench in Phoenix's first fourgames, three of which were losses. But then came a Nov. 8 meeting with theSpurs in San Antonio, and D'Antoni decided to start Stoudemire. "I figuredmaybe we, and Amaré, could get back some of the magic," says D'Antoni.After all, Stoudemire had gotten his max contract largely on the strength ofhis dominating play against the Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks in the 2005playoffs. Plus, by that time D'Antoni was aware ("through thegrapevine," he says) that Stoudemire was itching to be in the firstfive.
"I never wentto Coach D'Antoni and said, 'I want to start,'" says Stoudemire. "Buthe knew. Everybody knew. With some players it doesn't make any difference, butI just don't like sitting on that bench to begin the game." He smileswidely. "I just like bringing the pain from the opening whistle."
Neither the Sunsnor Stoudemire experienced an immediate turnaround--Phoenix lost to the Spurs(111--106 in overtime) and the Mavericks (119--112) in STAT's first two starts.But then Stoudemire began bringing the pain in earnest. He blocked seven shotsin a 99--93 win over the New Jersey Nets on Nov. 24. He scored 30 points in a103--89 victory over the Orlando Magic on Dec. 11. He had 31 points and 13rebounds in a 108--101 triumph over the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 31, then 24points, 18 rebounds and four steals in a 97--96 win over the Chicago Bulls onJan. 2 (after getting incensed that the United Center P.A. announcer hadmispronounced his first name as uh-MEER instead of ah-MAHR-ay).
Stoudemire started,in his words, "to feel the game again." He took, and converted,fundamental, face-the-basket jump shots. He made memorable no-look, one-touchpasses to Marion and Diaw. He consulted with veteran defensive ace Kurt Thomason the bench and followed Thomas's instructions about "not fighting with aguy in the post and [instead] just holding position." He watched how guardRaja Bell "is aware of the whole floor" and began taking hisoff-the-ball defensive responsibilities seriously. He yelled out slides as hepatrolled the back of the zone defense the Suns play from time to time."Amaré has gone from being a guy with a brutish game to being a student ofthe game," says Iavaroni. "That is a very important sign ofmaturation." Instead of STAT, Iavaroni has taken to calling Stoudemire SWAT(Standing Wide And Tall).
Whether it wasphysical, mental or a little of both, Stoudemire's knees got stronger andstronger. He says that he is still not 100% but has neither pain nor swellingin either knee, "only stiffness once in a while, which I always had andalways am going to have." At week's end he was averaging 17.8 points (on60.1% shooting), 9.0 rebounds and 1.42 blocks in only 29.4 minutes.
Just as important,Stoudemire began smiling and laughing and joking with his teammates, and theSuns began winning--15 in a row, from Nov. 20 to Dec. 19 (chart, below), andnow, after a 128--105 win over the Golden State Warriors on Sunday night,another six in a row to stand at 25--8. Only the 27--8 Mavs have a betterrecord, but, proclaims Nash, "we're going to be better than them by the endof the season. And Amaré is a big, big reason."
Granted, sucheureka transformations--Lindsay Lohan's got it together!--should be consideredwith requisite skepticism. But Stoudemire never had far to travel to join theflock. He was egotistical and immature, to be sure, befitting a raw talent whocame into the league at 19 with a résumé that included, by his own memory, fiveelementary schools, six middle schools, six high schools and zero colleges. Butteammates never considered him a bad guy. "There is so much about Amaréthat's good, and I think he's now homed in on developing that part," saysD'Antoni. "And that means both in his game and in being ateammate."
There are otherreasons besides Stoudemire that the Suns are shining, beginning, needless tosay, with Nash, who at week's end was, absurdly, shooting above 50% overall andfrom three-point range, and almost 90% from the free throw line while averaging19.9 points and a league-high 11.0 assists. "He's the best basketballplayer on the planet," says Bulls coach Scott Skiles, "and I don't eventhink it's close." Debates about Nash's athleticism occasionally resurface,but suffice it to say that his hand-eye coordination is O.K. After a Sunspractice last week, Nash reappeared with a 60-degree wedge and flawlesslybounced a golf ball on it ("even though I don't play much anymore") fora photo that will accompany a Q&A in an upcoming Golf Digest article.
Marion is againfilling up the box score (averaging 19.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.0 steals and1.47 blocked shots) and guarding multiple positions; against Miami, D'Antoniput him on Jason Williams to cool off the Heat point guard. Bell is that rareshooting guard who supplies toughness and energy rather than athleticism andbig-time scoring (though he was averaging 15.0 points); on a team that can besoft on defense, D'Antoni needs Bell's hard edge.
Despite somepreseason concerns, Diaw, last year's center, and Stoudemire have had noproblems playing together because the 6'8" Frenchman has an absolutedisinclination to be anything but a facilitator, the big man's version of Nash.In a 110--87 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 26, Diaw, playinglargely on the perimeter, finished with zero points and zero rebounds but was,according to assistant Alvin Gentry, "sometimes the best player on thefloor" by virtue of his eight assists. With Stoudemire back, Diaw now hastwo targets for his backdoor lobs: Marion is an expert at slipping screens andgoing to the basket, while Stoudemire just bulls his way there and looks forthe pass.
Guard LeandroBarbosa, the Brazilian Blur, already would have the Sixth Man Award locked up(at week's end he was averaging 16.6 points and 4.3 assists) if not forChicago's explosive Ben Gordon. Thomas, Stoudemire's defensive Yoda, is areliable seventh man, and forward James Jones, a sometime starter last season,seems to have won the battle with Rose, Jumaine Jones and guard Marcus Banksfor the eighth spot, having found his shooting touch in the last few gamesafter a disastrous first two months. "I needed the return of the leatherball," James Jones explains.
Still, Phoenixlacks the depth of Dallas, to whom it lost in last year's Western finals. TheSuns still blow big leads, and they can get pounded on the boards, particularlyby teams such as, well, Dallas, which has three 7-footers. But Phoenix iscounting on the addition of Stoudemire--the new and improved Stoudemire--to getthem by the Mavs, not to mention the Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers and perhapseven the Utah Jazz in the brutal West.
"I've alwayshad one message for Amaré," says D'Antoni, "and that is, 'When youbecome an MVP is when we win a championship.'" Stoudemire says he hasreceived the bulletin. "There was one positive about the injury," hesays. "Sitting out let me see how hard it is to be away from the game andmy teammates. My work ethic has increased. I want to improve, and I admit Ididn't always think about that in the past. Now I'm focused on one thing: achampionship. If we get that, everything I went through will have been worthit."
THE SUNS won 15games in a row from Nov. 20 through Dec. 19, tying the seventh-longest winningstreak in league history. But do such runs forecast a title? Fifteen previousteams had a winning streak of 15 or more games in a season; two clubs, the1970--71 Bucks (led by Lew Alcindor, above) and the 1999--2000 Lakers, had apair in the same season. Eight of those 15 teams went on to win the NBAchampionship, and two others made the Finals.
With Stoudemire back as a running mate, peerless point Nash (13) has even moreweapons to deploy.