Amar'e Stoudemire wanted a team he could call his own, so he went the one place his free-agent brethren avoided: New York. Now he's the toast of the town

In the middle of the Florida peninsula, along the shores of Lake Wailes, lies the city of Lake Wales, whose founders changed the spelling a century ago because they worried their residents would sound as if they were wailing all the time. Both Lake Wailes and Lake Wales would become landmarks in the life of Amar'e Stoudemire. He grew up in the town (pop. 13,076), an honor-roll student in elementary school who entertained neighbors with wheelies on his BMX bike and sat in the front row at church because the boys in the back were causing trouble. His father, Hazell, owned a lawn-care company and often took Amar'e to work in the morning. They piled four lawn mowers into the company truck—three riding mowers for Hazell and his men, a push mower for Amar'e—and drove to houses across the town. Amar'e was especially fond of the big ones on Lake Wailes, with lawns that appeared as wide as fairways overlooking the placid water. He was inspired by those yards, the challenge they presented, and also the promise. "They sparked my brain to how lavish life could be," Stoudemire says. "They made me want the same thing for myself."

He is staring out the window of his Manhattan apartment, at his own front yard, a cluster of snow-capped skyscrapers reaching into the night. He points to the Empire State Building like an excited tourist. This is not what he envisioned while cutting grass all those years ago by the lake in central Florida. "No," Stoudemire says, "It's 10 times better."

The apartment includes a billiards room, a barbershop and a recording studio for the artists on his label to use when they're in town. A leather notepad sits on the kitchen counter with ideas for the two lines of clothing he is preparing to launch. Life is lavish, indeed, but it cannot compare to the abundance of adulation at work. The next day Stoudemire will lead the Knicks to a win over the Heat at Madison Square Garden, find out he had been voted the team's first All-Star Game starter since Patrick Ewing in 1997 and walk through the tunnel afterward with Kanye West, serenaded by the usual MVP! chants But Stoudemire is more than the first-half MVP. He is the man saving New York basketball, once and for all, from the era of Isiah Thomas and Larry Brown, of Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry, of heedless spending followed by wholesale slashing.

"Nobody wanted this," the 28-year-old Stoudemire says. "Everybody was afraid." He is referring to fellow members of the free-agent class of 2010—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh et al.—who liked the benefits of New York without the burdens: a seven-year playoff drought, a roster highlighted by 22-year-old Italian forward Danilo Gallinari, a home court described as "a morgue" by Knicks Hall of Famer Walt Frazier. "We talked to a lot of great players, and you couldn't tell what they were thinking," says club president Donnie Walsh. "Amar'e was the only one who told us he wanted to be here."

Stoudemire is usually the first veteran to the practice facility, but he has also been to the playgrounds and the nightclubs, Fashion Week and Yankee Stadium, the theater and The Late Show, where David Letterman lamented that he can no longer make jokes about the Knicks. A tightly coiled 6'10", with a first step as fast as a guard's, Stoudemire has refined the moves he used so effectively for eight seasons with the Suns. He slices off pick-and-rolls, throws down tomahawk jams, glares through his goggles. But at week's end he was averaging a career-high 26.3 points, third in the NBA, with Raymond Felton setting him up instead of Steve Nash. All that separates him from serious MVP consideration is the Knicks' record (26--24), which would be better could they play any defense. They were putting up 106.5 points per game through Sunday, which ranked second in the league, but allowing 106.0, which ranked 27th. Stoudemire, a natural power forward often cast at center, is part of the give and take.

No one in New York is being picky, though. Never has the city embraced a team hovering around .500 more than these Knicks. They are seven games better than at this time a year ago, and their local television ratings at the halfway mark were up 47% from last season, 122% among males 18 to 34. "It's Amar'e," says Frazier, the team's TV color man. "He's like Ewing in the '90s. He's a rock star, and he hasn't even won anything yet." Frazier rattles off names of other rock stars in New York sports history: Joe Namath, Reggie Jackson, Lawrence Taylor. "Guys like that love the attention, the pressure, but it can be debilitating. It's not for everybody. It wasn't for LeBron James. It takes a special kind."

Stoudemire has decorated the walls of his apartment with pictures of entertainers and athletes who carried heavy loads: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics. But he reserves a place next to his bed for a photo of Hazell, probably taken on a Sunday, because he is wearing a suit. Hazell sang in the church choir, blew the saxophone and never cursed in front of kids. Amar'e was 12 when he died of a heart attack. He remembers his last words to him: "The skies are the limit for you."

Stoudemire believes that if his father had survived, he would have gone to only one high school. Instead he went to six, including one in the basement of an office building, where the only students were basketball players. Stoudemire's itinerant high school career has been well-chronicled, most notably by HBO: Real Sports in 2001. Stoudemire's mother, Carrie, was in and out of jail then. His older brother, Hazell Jr., was in prison. A minister named Bill Williams, who claimed to be Stoudemire's guardian, also went to jail. But he did have one stable—if not as documented—amateur experience. His final stop was at Cypress Creek High in Orlando, which had a fledgling six-year-old basketball program and a coach who had never heard of him. "When he first walked in, he had an entourage with him," says Earl Barnett, who coached Stoudemire at Cypress Creek. "He looked battered, beaten down, pulled in a million directions. He was finally able to find some peace."

Barnett made Stoudemire learn a system, for the first time. He benched him for showing up late. He persuaded him to stop barking at teammates. He explained that Stoudemire, as the best player in the school and perhaps the country, had to nurture those less talented. Stoudemire spent only one season at Cypress Creek, and went a modest 16--14, but a leader was born. "I had so much fun getting the best out of everybody," Stoudemire says, "getting them to rise up and excel." He tried to do the same at home. He helped raise his younger half brother, Marwan Williams, reading him bedtime stories every night. He supported his mother, watching her carry stereo speakers onto the street so she could preach to the gangsters in the neighborhood about the mistakes she made. Like any teenager, Stoudemire was embarrassed by his mom's candor, but he was proud of her courage, and he came to see her as a kind of leader as well.

He could never play that commanding role in Phoenix, first because he was too young and then because Nash so ably filled it. "He was kind of a loner on the road," says former Suns general manager Steve Kerr. "And when he was hurt, he didn't come around the locker room much." In July 2009 Stoudemire underwent a radical surgery to repair the partially detached retina in his right eye, and afterward doctors ordered him to lie facedown 22 hours a day for 10 straight days. Stoudemire checked into the biggest suite at the Sanctuary resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., and his mother positioned him on a massage table, books and videos arranged next to his laptop on the floor. Most had to do with ancient history. He had also taken classes in history and geography at Arizona State. He was determined to make up for some of the learning he had missed. Coaches still say that if they use a word Stoudemire doesn't know, he asks them to define it.

When the Knicks traveled to Phoenix last March, the Suns were 45--26, one of the league's most pleasant surprises. Before the game, Phoenix forward Grant Hill approached Knicks assistant coach Phil Weber, who remade Stoudemire's jump shot years ago when he was a Suns assistant. "Amar'e is the reason we're doing this," Hill told Weber. "He has changed." Hill was not referring to Stoudemire's thirst for knowledge as much as his eagerness to impart it. Phoenix, traditionally a veteran team, had several young players, such as Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez. Kerr noticed Stoudemire taking them to dinner and organizing outings with them on the road. Naturally he yearned to expand his leadership role. "Let's tell it like it is," Suns coach Alvin Gentry says. "This was Steve's team, and Amar'e wanted to find one that he could call his own."

On Stoudemire's free-agent visit to New York early last July, he went to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in Midtown to watch the musical Rock of Ages, which was produced by his agent, Happy Walters. During the show, when the lights were out and the curtains drawn, a fan masquerading as a reporter snuck past theater security and by Stoudemire's personal detail. Before being apprehended, the fan took a seat in the aisle next to Stoudemire and asked if he was signing with the Knicks. It was the kind of episode, both amusing and disturbing, that can turn a visitor off to New York—or on to it.

"I appreciated how much the guy cared," Stoudemire says. Two days later he told Walters to cancel his upcoming visits, and Walters reminded him of the weight he was about to assume. "I've got broad shoulders," Stoudemire said. When he proclaimed publicly, "The Knicks are back," he sounded like his mom shouting through her speakers.

He was not the only one taking a risk. Team president Donnie Walsh had spent two years in NBA purgatory, clearing cap space with the understanding that he would have no chance to compete. "It gets tough to go to work every day," says Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. "We slogged through it." D'Antoni's reward, instead of James, was a player who traded jabs with him in Phoenix, had undergone microfracture surgery on his left knee five years ago and was enough of an injury risk that the Knicks were denied insurance on his five-year, $100 million contract. "If you asked me in Phoenix whether he could be the top dog in New York, I'd have told you no," says Dan D'Antoni, Mike's brother and a Knicks assistant. "He wasn't sure of himself, and when you aren't sure of yourself, you do two things: talk about how good you are and blame somebody else when things go wrong."

On the first night of training camp, after a team dinner at the Ritz-Carlton in White Plains, N.Y., Stoudemire asked Mike D'Antoni if he could take the floor. Stoudemire does not remember the specifics of what he said, only that he laid out a plan "for us to overwhelm people, to shock them, to do what's least expected." Standing in front of the room, he recalled what it was like to control a team, and he felt as comfortable as he had at Cypress Creek. "I've been in the NBA for 12 years, so I've heard a lot of those speeches," says Weber. "That was the best one." Dan D'Antoni detected no ego, and when the Knicks started 3--8, he heard no blame. Stoudemire scored 30 or more points over nine straight games in November and December, and after he sprained his right knee on Jan. 28 in Atlanta, he came back two days later and poured in 33 against Detroit.

New York guard Roger Mason Jr. likens Stoudemire's leadership style to that of Tim Duncan, Mason's former teammate in San Antonio. His intellectual curiosity is reminiscent of Nash's. Stoudemire's much publicized trip to Israel last summer came off like a stunt, but it was actually motivated by the studying he did after eye surgery, which piqued his interest in Jewish history. Stoudemire wore a yarmulke on the trip, floated in the Dead Sea, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and touched the Western Wall with his left hand, which is marked by a Star of David tattoo. He met with Shimon Mizrahi, chairman of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club, and former Maccabi star Tal Brody, who offered Stoudemire a roster spot when his current contract expires. "We feel he is one of us now," Brody says.

Stoudemire received invitations to more bar mitzvahs than he could possibly attend and grew uncomfortable with all the attention. He insists he is not Jewish—though he says an ancestor on his mother's side may be—and practices no formal religion. He is planning a trip this summer to Mali, which is predominantly Muslim, because he wants to build a school there. But Stoudemire does keep kosher at home. "It's a matter of learning the most I can about every culture and trying to bring people together," he says, over a dinner of herb-crusted chicken breast, sautéed spinach and challah bread, prepared by his kosher chef. "That's New York."

It is a basketball town, dating from the pickup games in the Jewish settlement houses at the turn of the 20th century and extending to today's inner-city projects. When the Knicks had Ewing, the playgrounds had Marbury and Kenny Anderson, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest. But when the Knicks slipped, so did the playgrounds. "There has always been a correlation," says Gary Charles, founder of Grassroots Basketball of America and director of the New York Panthers AAU program. "When the Knicks were down, it affected basketball here at all levels. We had a drought, too. We didn't turn out as many first-round draft picks." New York became more associated with baseball, not because of the players it produced, but the ones it acquired. "People think of this as a baseball town now," says Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain, a friend since before Stoudemire signed with the Knicks. "He wants to change that back."

Charles can see the rustling of a renaissance, with the improvement of the Knicks and the emergence of St. John's and some of his own players bypassing prep school to stay home. "Amar'e started it," he says. "He brought a lot of pride when he said, 'Hey, none of those mothers want this on their shoulders? Well, I'll take it.'"

Stoudemire swears the only burden he feels comes from opposing defenses, smothering him in an attempt to make someone else beat them. He wakes up with more aches than ever, the one drawback to having his own team. As much as he relishes the responsibility, he could also use help, and this is where Carmelo Anthony comes in. If New York can pry Anthony from the Nuggets, through a trade this month or free agency this summer, Stoudemire will no longer be the sole headliner. But he was here first, when it wasn't the popular choice, and Knicks fans will never forget that.

The way Stoudemire charted his own journey makes his teammates believe he can captain theirs. He talks regularly with his mom, who lives in Phoenix and has started a street ministry; his older brother, Hazell Jr., who lives in Florida and is looking for work; and his younger brother, Marwan, who is serving 9½ years in prison for conspiracy to commit armed robbery. "I can call him about once a month," Stoudemire says. "I try not to get too emotional on the phone."

Stoudemire is single but has three children who live with their mother in Phoenix and visit him in New York. They have rooms in the apartment and are getting a minihoop for the hallway. They make Stoudemire think of his own father, and how enduring their short time together was. He believes Hazell's example kept him out of trouble when so many around him succumbed. He flashes back to those last words—"The skies are the limit for you"—as he sits over Manhattan. The city is spread out around him. Snow falls on his front yard.

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"WE TALKED TO A LOT OF GREAT PLAYERS," SAYS WALSH. "AMAR'E WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO TOLD US HE WANTED TO BE HERE."

PHOTOPhotograph by MICHAEL O'NEILLCONSOLATION PRIZE Shunned by the Big Three free agents, the Knicks signed Stoudemire, who has led them to a seven-game improvement. PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLAGOING STEADY Stoudemire has scored at least 20 points in 38 of New York's last 41 games, including a team-record nine straight games with 30 or more. PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA

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