This was going to be a comeback season for Amar’e Stoudemire. At least that’s what he had hoped, and that’s what the following story (that ran in SLAM 163) was about: The former superstar coming off what he says was the most difficult season he’s ever had in the NBA—on and off the court—trying to rediscover himself and his game. As you know, though, things have not gone according to plan for STAT. Preseason knee surgery has kept him off the floor this season, and no one is really sure when he’s going to be back on the court or what his role on the rising Knicks will be once he finally does return. But, as we covered in the feature below, obstacles are something that Stoudemire has been forced to deal with his entire life. Death, poverty, family members in jail, injuries…Stoudemire has overcome it all. Another knee injury and finding his place on a good basketball team? Should be no sweat.
by Yaron Weitzman / @YaronWeitzman
I’m told that this is a book tour. And I know it is, because as I speak to Amar’e Stoudemire in a Lincoln Center Café on a rainy August afternoon, the children’s book that Stoudemire has written, STAT: Home Court, is lying on the table next to us. Also, before joining me in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, Stoudemire was on Live! With Kelly and Michael—he lost to Michael Strahan in Pop-A-Shot—to promote his book, and tomorrow, I am told, he will be making the rounds on ESPN. So yeah, this is most definitely a book tour.
Except it all feels and sounds like something different. Like something more. Amar’e Stoudemire is coming off of the worst and most difficult basketball season of his career, a season that also turned into, and coincided with, one of the worst and most difficult years of his life. On the court, the one-time perennial All-Star looked like anything but. Off the court there was tragedy and frustration and stupidity. This was never going to be just a book tour. Not after a year like that. And even though he won’t explicitly say so, for all intents and purposes, the 6-10 man sitting across from me wearing a fitted dark pink shirt tucked into a pair of trim navy pants that probably would not have fit him just three months ago—“I’ve been training like a mad man for the past two-and-a-half months,” he says—is on a comeback tour.
“The past year was up and down for me,” Stoudemire says. “We (the Knicks) didn’t have a lot of success, plus, you know, a death in the family is never a fun thing to go through. But this summer, things are going great. The family situation—I’m engaged. I’m healthy and feel great, and I think this is going to be a great year for us.”
Two years ago, no one paying attention to the NBA would have guessed that by the summer of 2012, Amar’e Stoudemire would be forced to answer questions about his status with and role on the New York Knicks. After signing a five-year, $99.7 million contract with New York in July 2010, making him the first marquee player to voluntarily join the Knicks in his prime since, well, Allan Houston? Bernard King? Ever? Stoudemire began his Knicks career by doing something that few athletes, in any sport, seem to ever do after signing lucrative contracts with New York’s sports teams: He performed at the level he was being paid to.
In his first season in orange and blue, Stoudemire was a scoring machine. He set a franchise record by scoring 30 or more points in nine straight games and became the first New York player to start the All-Star Game since Patrick Ewing. Most important, the Knicks were winning. On February 16, ’11, a Knicks team that was starting players like Timofey Mozgov, Landry Fields and Raymond Felton was two games over .500. The Knicks were on the way back, just like Stoudemire said they would be when he signed with them six months earlier.
And then, on February 21, Carmelo Anthony became Stoudemire’s teammate, meaning that the Knicks were now employing two offensive geniuses, both of whom needed the ball in their hands. A few months later, while warming up for a Playoff matchup against the Celtics, a series the Knicks would lose in four games, Stoudemire hurt his back. Then there was the lockout, which gave way to a season that, when rehashed, toes the line between comical and absurd. “Last year was the craziest season I’ve ever experienced,” Stoudemire says. “First of all, not being allowed to train with your team’s training staff right off the lockout, I don’t understand that rule. And then with my back injury, I couldn’t really get into shape before the season. And then the coaching change, and we didn’t really have a point guard most of the year, and I was still hurt during the year. It was kind of mayhem the entire year.”
The mayhem affected STAT’s performance. Three of his teammates (four if you count Jerome Jordan) had a higher Player Efficiency Rating than his 17.7. Stoudemire also averaged just 17.6 ppg, and shot 48 percent from the field. It was the first time since his rookie year in ’03 that he averaged less than 20 ppg, and the first time since ’04 that he missed more than half the shots he took. “My first year with the Knicks was successful,” Stoudemire says. “Last year wasn’t.”
To many, this decline was partly the result of an obvious mathematical equation, one that involves the presence of last month’s SLAM cover subject, Anthony. Stoudemire, however, says that his migration out of the MSG spotlight was partially by design. “When you’re a true leader, you allow your teammates to also lead, so when new guys come in, you definitely want them to feel comfortable and have the confidence to play well,” he says when asked about whether stepping aside for Anthony was a conscious decision. “So, even though I was the first guy to sign with the Knicks, which is something that everyone knows and that won’t change, and even though I’m a natural born leader, which is something that also won’t change, you still want the rest of the guys to lead also, so that the team is better.”
Stoudemire is also quick to point out that he, a player who signed with the Knicks just two years ago, is the longest-tenured player on the roster. That fact, he says, has made it nearly impossible for him, Anthony and the rest of the team to develop any sort of chemistry. Knicks legend and analyst Walt “Clyde” Frazier agrees. “It can work if they want it to,” Frazier says. “You saw it with me and Earl Monroe. When he (Monroe) first came to the Knicks, they said it would never work. You got to forget about egos and stuff that are causing the problems and play together. And I think these guys want to, and now that they have the same coach and a training camp to work together, they will.”
Of course, there could be a different explanation for Stoudemire’s struggles last season. A more human explanation, one that has nothing to do with Xs and Os or explosiveness or Carmelo. Last February, Stoudemire’s older brother, Hazell, died in a car crash in Florida. He was 35 years old. Understandably, this tragedy left the 29-year-old Amar’e somewhat unable to summon the most important feeling for a professional athlete. “When my brother passed away, my confidence dropped for a while,” he says. “It was just hard to get in the groove of the game. I couldn’t get into it. So then you have one or two games when you’re not attacking, and then your confidence goes down, and you’re still in mourning and it’s just tough to get it going.”
Childhood was not an easy or fun time for Stoudemire. His father, Hazell Sr, died of a heart attack when Amar’e was just 12 years old. His mother, Carrie, was always in and out of jail. Stoudemire also attended six different high schools in five years. “My upbringing was unstable, and it wasn’t smooth,” Stoudemire says. “I had to grow up extremely fast. I went to multiple high schools—that wasn’t fun at all. If I could do it all over, I would stay at one high school if I could. And my parents would live in the same household.”
Naturally, as a child in this environment, Amar’e emotionally latched on to anyone he could. One of those individuals was Hazell Jr. So when he died in February, Amar’e lost more than an older brother. He lost one of the men who helped raise him, one of the men who, in Stoudemire’s words, “gave him the manly advice that he needed” after his father died. Even though Amar’e’s relationship with Hazell Jr wasn’t always perfect—Hazell had some of his own run-ins with the law—in the atmosphere that Amar’e grew up in, the mere fact that he and his brother had a relationship made the relationship special.
But while he’s open about the fact that Hazell’s death affected his ability to perform on the hardwood, Stoudemire is less willing to reveal whether he thinks that Hazell’s death had anything to do with two controversial, and out-of-character, moments that occurred last season: the infamous fire extinguisher incident and the direct message containing an anti-gay slur that he sent to a Knicks fan on Twitter. (The message was a response to a tweet that Stoudemire received from the fan saying, “you better come back a lot stronger and quicker to make up for this past season.”)
The grief that Stoudemire felt in the aftermath of Hazell’s death certainly wouldn’t excuse his behavior in these episodes, but it would help explain how a self-proclaimed Civil Rights advocate and history buff, and an athlete who uses his platform to write a children’s book with the intention of encouraging kids to read, could have the type of breakdowns that would lead to such incidents.
Now, though, Stoudemire says he’s happier than he’s ever been. Over the summer he got engaged to the mother of his three children, Alexis Welch. He also spent some time in Houston working on his post game with Hakeem Olajuwon. “Getting engaged, being healthy and being able to write a book and empower the youth, I think it’s just been a great summer for me,” Stoudemire says. “I’m living the dream.”
His teammates have noticed a difference as well.
“I’m so proud of Amar’e and how hard he’s worked,” says Tyson Chandler. “He seems like he’s in great shape and it’s going to really benefit us. Amar’e is really one of the best players of my generation. So now it’s time for all the key pieces to link up and be playing at the same level. I couldn’t be more proud of the work that Amare’s put in this summer.”
Eventually, my interview with Stoudemire ends. The book tour, however, seemingly never does. The next stop, Stoudemire says, is Brooklyn. As he exits the café and makes his way to the black SUV waiting for him on Broadway, no one in the vicinity bothers the tall, well-dressed man who looks like an athlete. Few seem to even notice that he’s there. Stoudemire climbs into the car and pulls away.