Hope in Shorts

Stoudemire on the floor of Madison Square Garden for the first time as a Knick. Photo: Finlay MacKay

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.”

Stoudemire is said to be the prototypical big man for the Knicks' style of play. Photo: Finlay MacKay; Grooming by Lisa-Raquel/See Management.

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?
KID: Yeah.

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.

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.”

Two days later, before he heads out to the Madison Square Garden floor for what a handler says is his first time as a Knick, Stoudemire, who has had me following him around all week, greets me by grabbing my arm and giving me one of those complicated handshakes that leaves me completely flummoxed and my arm throbbing for several days. “These are your guys today, right?” he says. They are. He’s here for the photo shoot for this story. “What do you think of the style?”

It’s the first time I, or anyone else, has seen him in a Knicks uniform—or Knicks shorts and T-shirt, anyway—and it is, for a Knicks season-ticket owner like myself, thrilling to see. I lose my breath for a moment.

Stoudemire drives and hammers down one of his signature dunks, a violent, pathological windmill. D’Antoni raises an eyebrow. “Hoo boy.”

We have seen such junk at the Garden for the past ten years, such expensive flotsam. We pay more money per seat than almost any other team’s fans and have been repaid for none of it.

But here is Stoudemire, dribbling between his legs, striding across the Garden hardwood. He is smiling, beaming, really, as if this is where he was supposed to be all along. Stoudemire is not unaware of what the Knicks have been through in recent years; after all, he has reaped the same benefits of playing them as everyone else. But he seems immune to—almost uninterested in—Dolan, Inc. Much of the fan base spent the summer wracked with terror that Isiah Thomas would be returning to the franchise; it was claimed in a few reports that his credentials as a former player helped sway Stoudemire to come here. Stoudemire puts that theory to rest, saying that during his short Knicks courtship, “I never talked to [Thomas] once.” (When asked if he’d even met him, Stoudemire said, “A while ago, I think.”) He says he barely knows Dolan and that it doesn’t really matter. “I’m really not too familiar with the outside situation,” he says. “We can only control what we do from the inside.” At one point, he is surprised to learn that Marv Albert no longer calls Knicks games; Albert split with the Knicks in 2004, in part for being too critical of the team on-air.

Stoudemire trots to the scorer’s table to sign some memorabilia. (His staff has about 100 pamphlets for him to John Hancock with the word STAT; it’s Stoudemire’s self-given nickname, an acronym for “Standing Tall and Talented,” and it’s how he’s addressed by everyone around him.) He notices one of the televisions on the scorer’s table playing highlights of an old Knicks-Suns game. He stops, looks closer, and realizes that it’s the MSG Network airing a half-hour show called MSG Countdown. This episode consists entirely of the 25 greatest individual plays Amar’e Stoudemire has made against the Knicks. This is too much for him to resist.

He walks around the scorer’s table, sits with Max, and watches himself jumping over Michael Doleac, faking Eddy Curry out of his shoes, smashing Malik Rose to the ground. It is a half-hour of the new Knick dunking on the past. He whoops with Max after one particularly kinetic destruction of Renaldo Balkman. “Damn!” they both yell. He smiles broadly. The photographer calls over; he’s ready. Stoudemire stands up. “Let’s do this,” he says, and runs onto the court, and then he is a Knick.

Hope in Shorts