Sports

Amar'e Was Real: David Roth's Weak In Review

In his 14 years in the NBA, Amar'e Stoudemire was the future, present, and past of basketball. What's worth remembering about him was how he owned every role.

by David Roth
Jul 29 2016, 9:05pm

Illustration by J.O. Applegate

Either because basketball careers play out like hyperspeed miniature lifetimes or because of the tendency to see them that way, there's a unique sort of melancholy in watching a player grow up, and grow old. Retirement is not death, of course, and players are not born the first moment Charles Barkley struggles to pronounce their surname on "Inside The NBA." Tim Duncan is fine and will continue to be fine; he is alive and well and getting amazing savings on weirdly girthy bowling shirts at Old Navy. But there is an echoing, uncanny feeling that comes with watching a player turn the last page on his career and realizing that you were also there at the beginning.

The internet sells a pasteurized version of this feeling in the form of Want To Feel Old? listicles, where the answers to that rhetorical question are all mostly about how the kids from Jurassic Park have different haircuts now. But with Amar'e Stoudemire, who was so vividly young and then so cruelly old before his time, it's different. It's different because Stoudemire was different, and even for a little while a player seemingly without precedent or peer. But it's also different because his relationship to the non-negotiable passage of time was different—he was so forceful and so multiply big at such a young age, he recovered from a surgery that no one quite recovers from and somehow stopped the clock on the inevitable, and then it all rolled up fast. He's still just 33.

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Stoudemire has also been, over the last few seasons, a more-than-serviceable frontcourt backup; he didn't draw much interest as a free agent this offseason, and plays a lot lower to the earth than he used to, but Stoudemire can still play, and surely could if he wanted to—in Europe or Asia or with a NBA team that doesn't know it needs him yet. But it makes sense to end things here, a little early and idiosyncratically. If you were here for the complete Stoudemire Cycle—14 years, with at least that many subsidiary microseasons and identity shifts within them—it's the only way it could go. The defining thing about Stoudemire's career was abruptness, the way different personal eras spiked up and then receded. This is how it should end.

That Stoudemire made it to the NBA at all was both miraculous and inevitable. His early life was marked by an almost implausible amount of hardship, but also he was just so undeniable, even though he entered the NBA knowing how to do not much more than catch and dunk. He was a mystery manchild in the draft, and an infant in the sport when he debuted. His development, in those first years, scanned as a series of growth spurts; he seemed, even game by game, to have picked up some sudden new virtuosity. The fun of watching him, beyond the dunks and the impossibly light-footed grace and everything else, was watching him figure out his own genius on the fly. The Suns system was built to give him space, and he filled it.

Rage, rage against the dying of the... actually, that's probably not a great shot attempt. Photo by Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

But another of his Stoudemire-ian epochs was already ending by the time Stoudemire was 22 and lighting up the San Antonio Spurs in the 2005 Western Conference Finals. The Suns lost that series in five games, but Stoudemire averaged 37 points per game in the series; as Danny Chau noted, no player ever treated Duncan and the Spurs so rudely. He signed an extension with the Suns afterwards, and underwent microfracture surgery eight days later. This was always how it was, and how he was. Stoudemire was never one thing for more than a couple of years. Sometimes it was because his body betrayed him, and in happier times it was because of the way his talent seemed to surprise him by opening new ways to be. Either way, he never got to stay in one place—or be one type of player—for very long.

Or that is one way to read it. Another is that Amar'e Stoudemire grew up in public, as an athlete and a person, and that no one really ever stays the same for very long. Very few of us will wake up one day realizing that we now have a devastatingly effective back-to-the-basket game—Stoudemire himself didn't, although he picked these things up so rapidly that it could look that way from the couch—but we wake up a little bit different every day, and are forever in the process of becoming. If you're LeBron James, this all plays out in epic Cinemascope, and every evolution has the heaviness of one of those Robert Caro doorstop histories. If you're like anyone else, it just happens moment by moment; we spend our lives figuring out new ways to be, not in lightning-strike moments of inspiration, or not often in that way, but breath by breath and quite naturally.

Because Stoudemire started so young, and because he covered so much ground, he evoked a deeper empathy than the average superhuman. He figured out his game and refined it; he went from being a kid to being an adult; he decided he wanted to be a star, then figured out what kind of star he wanted to be. Everyone does something like this, but it happens in private; we don't even notice it ourselves, usually, until sometime after it happened. Stoudemire did it at his own pace, and on a different scale, and right there where everyone could watch.

When you see the writing on the wall. Photo by John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Stoudemire signed a one-day contract with the Knicks so that he could retire as a member of the organization, and seemed authentically hurt at being blown off by the Suns when he angled for a reunion there this offseason. As a player, his best seasons were in Phoenix. But there were moments in New York, especially during the liminal pre-renaissance period before New York traded half its roster for Carmelo Anthony, when Stoudemire seemed most headily and happily a superstar. Stoudemire had been plugged back into Mike D'Antoni's adrenal offense, and was orbited by the young players who would go on to become the core of the post-Melo Nuggets. That team wasn't quite great, or even consistently good, but it was the most fun Knicks team to watch in ages, and Stoudemire was transparently having the time of his life as its centerpiece star.

As always, as for him and everyone else, it wouldn't last. But there was a moment, there, that has stuck in the memory longer than that team's middling record would suggest. It was a few hours of sunshine interrupting the honking midnight hailstorm that is the ordinary state of things in Madison Square Garden, but also it was Stoudemire at his zenith, not just bigger than life but seemingly bigger every day than he was the day before. I remember being in the visiting locker room after Stoudemire ground down the Timberwolves. I joined the trembling on-deadline horde around Kevin Love's locker and held out a recorder like everyone else. Someone asked Love about defending Stoudemire and he said "we knew he wasn't going to pass it," and trailed off.

What I remember best about this moment, though, was Michael Beasley whistling to himself at his locker as it happened. The Knicks had played Kanye's "Power" as a prompt to get the crowd keyed up, and Beasley was whistling the chorus. It's a grandiose chorus, even by Kanye standards, but hearing it whistled brought it down to earth; it was a better answer for Amar'e Stoudemire, at his graceful apex, than anything Love or anyone else could have offered. No one man should have all that power, sure; no one ever gets to keep it for long anyway. The question is how well you wear it.