The Knicks are taking no chances. After signing Stoudemire to a five-year, $99.7 million deal in July, they forbade him to play in the FIBA world basketball championship because they were unable to get his contract insured.
In his first workout with the Knicks at their practice facility in Westchester, the trainers treated Stoudemire as if he were a pot of boiling water they were carrying across the room. The minute he walked into the gym, he was pounced on by medical folks, who took turns stretching him, massaging every muscle, and rubbing some sort of gloppy ointment on his back.
All the Knicks on the practice court wore, under their workout shirts, tank tops so tight and tiny they almost looked like sports bras. These tank tops hold a sort of fitness gauge in the pockets and are monitored by training-and-conditioning coach Dave Hancock, who is constantly watching the heart and breathing rates of everyone on the court. The bits of plastic kept falling onto the hardwood, at one point almost causing rookie Landry Fields to stumble on his face to avoid one. “I kind of hate them,” Stoudemire said, before catching himself. “But they help, so they’re great.”
Perhaps because of his past, Stoudemire is quiet—quieter than you would expect a superstar to be. He has bravado but not an extroverted, Reggie Jackson kind of bravado. He’s polite but not perfectly polished like Derek Jeter. He is not unlikable, standoffish, or unpleasant; he is just new to this sort of exposure and attention. (In Phoenix, Steve Nash was the face of the team in the community.) During Stoudemire’s orientation week, he was constantly accompanied by Max, members of the Knicks public-relations staff, and Ashley Smith, an employee of the Mint Sports & Entertainment Group, a PR-and-marketing company. Smith, who has worked with Stoudemire for just over a year, has been taken aback by how life in New York is different from life in Phoenix. “We’ll be in meetings with 50 people, none of whose names we know,” she says. “In Phoenix, if you needed something, you went to the same person to do it. Here, it seems like they have four people who do the same job that one person did there.”
“You have to be prepared for this type of environment. I get stopped in the streets every day … Definitely not like Phoenix, that’s for sure.”
The signature event of orientation week was the unveiling of a billboard featuring Stoudemire in Times Square. It’s what every New York sports team has promised every potential free agent since free agency was established: to have your image towering over one of the most trafficked locale in the country, to be an icon. The Knicks rented out a Gray Line double-decker tour bus to ride from Madison Square Garden to Times Square, with adorable kids from the Children’s Aid Society’s Harlem branch sitting up top, holding a WELCOME TO NEW YORK sign and singing a relentlessly cute song they wrote called (and containing only the lyrics) “Amar’e Stoudemire.” It was a perfect day in New York, and everyone was eagerly awaiting Stoudemire’s arrival.
About twenty minutes later, when the waiting had become something quite different from eager, Stoudemire appeared from a limousine, where photographers from the tabloids were standing by. He stopped and tentatively posed for a couple of minutes, oblivious to the kids singing the “Amar’e” song, a bit bewildered by the hubbub, as if he were just learning that this whole event was staged for him. After another twenty minutes of hanging around, Stoudemire was escorted to the top of the bus, where he dodged more photographers and TV cameramen to sit and chat awkwardly with the kids. Sample conversation:
STOUDEMIRE: So, you kids from Harlem?
The bus wended its way up Eighth Avenue, and there was little talking other than PR people alerting Stoudemire to duck down to avoid streetlights. When we at last arrived, the billboard was strangely underwhelming. It was tucked between a couple of buildings, almost hidden, and you could see it only if you happened to turn around at that exact street corner and look directly at it. (An ad for In the Heights featuring American Idol winner Jordin Sparks was far more prominent.) Stoudemire’s face in the ad was contorted and obscured. He was not smiling or looking ferocious. He was just going up for a casual dunk, wearing his signature goggles (to protect a partially detached retina, another injury), with the facial expression of a man ordering a cup of coffee or paying a parking ticket.
When the bus stopped at the ideal viewing spot, Stoudemire posed for more pictures with the billboard in the background while kids looked wide-eyed at the middle-aged photographers rushing toward him. As he stood, pedestrians in front of Forever 21 noticed him and began to congregate, taking pictures of their own. The crowd swelled to the point that some of the onlookers began to spill into the street, and Stoudemire, noticing this, began to look uncomfortable, stealing glances toward his people that implied that maybe it was time for the bus to get moving. He sat down and talked to Max, looked at his iPhone, then asked one of the kids if there was anything for him to sign. An endless couple of minutes passed, then the bus was moving again, en route to the Garden. Stoudemire had another workout scheduled.