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Hope in Shorts

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Back at the Garden, on the bus, Stoudemire marveled at what had just happened, even if nothing much had happened at all. “It’s kinda magnified; everything’s times two here,” he said. “You have to be prepared. Before I signed, I factored in all that. You have to be prepared for this type of environment. I get stopped in the streets every day. It’s going to get to the point now where I won’t be able to walk. I won’t be able to go anywhere. Definitely not like Phoenix, that’s for sure.”

Then another handler showed up and reminded him that the kids were still on the roof, on a hot day, boiling, waiting for him to disembark. “Oh, yeah, right,” he says. “Forgot about that.”

So, no, Stoudemire is not 100 percent camera-ready yet. On the other hand, he learns fast. A month later, he was all over Fashion Week, showing up at countless events and charming Anna Wintour, who personally invited him to the Fashion’s Night Out runway show. “The great thing about Amar’e is he can assess a situation and take control of it,” says D’Antoni. “New York is a place you have to conquer. It’s waiting to be conquered. He sees the opportunity, and he has the nerve and the fortitude to do it. That’s one reason we were so attracted to him. Maybe the main one.”

On the court, Stoudemire isn’t the kind of superstar who single-handedly defines a team. He doesn’t take the ball and create shots for everyone else with his one-on-one skills, like LeBron. He’s at his best when he gets the ball while he’s on the move—and that requires someone to throw it to him, like Steve Nash did in Phoenix.

That’s fine. The Knicks aren’t a team in search of an identity so much as an identity in search of a team. D’Antoni’s high-octane offense calls for players who can run the floor, drive to the hoop, and knock down outside shots in equal measure. And Stoudemire is the prototypical D’Antoni big man. Off the pick-and-roll—the simple old-school play D’Antoni teams run, with a million fluid variations—he is nearly unstoppable. Given the ball with a step of momentum toward the basket, he can dunk in an instant if allowed a sliver of space or use his dribbling and footwork to avoid obstacles. (When you’re atching his highlights, one thing that stands out is how little he has to use his bulk; he catches passes while weaving at full speed, often literally untouched, through behemoth defenders he isn’t even looking at.) If the lane is too packed with defenders, he can pull up and take a fifteen-foot jump shot. On a fast break, if he is coming at you, the best strategy is to duck, to save yourself and your family.

In effect, the Knicks had been building their team around Stoudemire long before they signed him. Their most promising young player is Danilo Gallinari, a loping Italian who made the second-highest number of three-pointers in the league last year, someone who will be able to shoot from the perimeter when teams collapse inside to try and control the lane. One of the team’s other up-and-comers is Toney Douglas, a speedy, hustling guard with excellent shooting range. Meanwhile, the job of passing the ball to Stoudemire will fall mainly to a fellow newcomer, point guard Raymond Felton, who, while not Steve Nash, is fleet afoot, shot 38.5 percent on three-pointers last year and has averaged six-and-a-half assists per game in a career that’s still on the upswing.

And Stoudemire could bring others. The Knicks likely don’t have the assets to trade for All-Star Carmelo Anthony just yet, but he will still be a free agent in a year and has reportedly expressed interest in the Knicks, as has fellow All-Star Chris Paul. Stoudemire and Anthony are longtime friends, and much was made of a joke Paul allegedly made at Anthony’s wedding, held the weekend after LeBron’s “decision,” in which he hinted that the three could come together to challenge the Heat from the Garden.

Is Stoudemire LeBron? No, he’s not. The Knicks signed him, remember, partly as LeBron bait, and—plan B—to ensure they didn’t emerge from the best free-agent market in years empty-handed. Still, Stoudemire is clearly special. At that first workout in Westchester, a noticeable hush spread across the court when Stoudemire took the floor. Assistant coach Herb Williams’s son whistled and began hopping up and down. After a few drills, a short scrimmage was held. During a stop in play, Stoudemire impulsively drove to the basket and hammered down one of his signature dunks, a violent, pathological windmill. Everything else stopped, and the gym roared. By chance, I happened to catch the eye of D’Antoni. He does not know me, but he returned my glance with a raised eyebrow and a “Hoo boy.”


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