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Hope in Shorts

In Amar’e Stoudemire, Knicks fans finally have a reason to believe.

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Stoudemire on the floor of Madison Square Garden for the first time as a Knick.   

Amar’e Stoudemire is not Jewish. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings here: I know everyone was very excited.

The enthusiasm is understandable. He might not be LeBron James, but Stoudemire is one of those exceptional, otherworldly talents that the Knicks haven’t had in a generation. It’s been so long since someone like him has played here that I’m not sure we understand what we have. He dunks the basketball with a ferocity that seems to overwhelm the game itself; he attacks the basket as if beckoned there by evolution. Stoudemire has many facets to his game, but his signature act—driving the lane, throwing the ball down, defenders vaporized into dust underneath him—is so elemental and powerful that it may, by itself, change the trajectory of basketball in this town for the next decade. For years, Knicks fans have attempted to cheer for an endless parade of overhyped malcontents, has-beens, and never-weres, unlikable men playing an unlikable version of their game. We strove to survive the present, not daring to hope for the future. But now the future is here.

All that and he’s Jewish too?

Not quite. Sorry. Shortly after Stoudemire signed with the Knicks in July, he did travel to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, telling Israeli reporters his mother had Jewish roots and that the trip was one of self-discovery. (When he was there, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz pointed out that he could join the national team.) It is true that he keeps kosher; one of the main job requirements of his assistant, Max, who accompanied Stoudemire at every step during his orientation week in New York last month, was to be sure every restaurant he visited met the athlete’s spiritual dietary requirements. (“It hasn’t been hard at all,” Max told me.) And yes, it’s true that he has a tattoo of the Star of David on his left hand, one of the most recent additions to a body that is beginning to run out of room for ink.

And yet Stoudemire’s agent, Happy Walters, told TMZ straight out that Stoudemire wasn’t Jewish. (“He thinks there may be some Jewish blood on his mother’s side, and he is researching it,” Walters said.) Stoudemire tweets things like, “Words Of Wisdom. In everything give thanks; for this is the will of GOD in CHRIST JESUS for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 NY, NY,” which is of a piece with the massive tattoo of Jesus he has on his bulging left deltoid. He claims he’ll observe Shabbat, which, unless he plans on taking every Friday-night and Saturday-day game off, is either uninformed or disingenuous.

Judaism, like most things in Stoudemire’s life, appears to be something he’s trying on in the absence of a typical personal foundation; he is a searcher, yes, but he is also a millionaire professional athlete who went to the pros straight out of high school and is still trying to catch up spiritually, emotionally, intellectually. In the meantime, and fortunately for the rest of us, he is quite certain about where he belongs in the physical realm: under the basket, standing over some guy who just got dunked on.

Growing up in Lake Wales, Florida, Stoudemire had a nightmarish childhood. His father died when he was 12, around the time Stoudemire first picked up a basketball. His older brother has a lengthy rap sheet, his half-brother is currently in jail, and his mother has been incarcerated several times. She was arrested multiple times in the Phoenix area while her son was playing there, eventually earning a three-year prison sentence for felony DUI following a car accident. (She served just under two years.) Stoudemire attended six different high schools, he says, to “make sure I stayed out of trouble.”

After being drafted by the Suns in 2002, Stoudemire made an immediate impact, his supernatural athleticism fueling slashing drives to the basket and acrobatic, violent dunks. But his gift was threatened by a 2005 knee injury that required microfracture surgery, a delicate procedure that was known as a last-ditch effort to save careers. (It didn’t help Allan Houston or Anfernee Hardaway.)

Stoudemire came back too early and struggled, causing most to fear that what made him him would be gone forever. But eventually he worked his way back, for a time altering his game—staying more earthbound but developing a deft mid-range jump shot—then gradually recovering explosiveness until he was arguably the most unstoppable offensive threat in the NBA in the second half of last season. “When you go through what he’s gone through, it makes you appreciate the career you have,” says Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, who also coached Stoudemire for five years in Phoenix. “He wants to be considered one of the best players to ever play the game.”


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