An Errant Wish

“Once a Knick, always a Knick.”

These are the words emblazoned across a picture the New York Knicks chose to post in celebration[1] of Amar’e Stoudemire signing a one-day contract on Tuesday so that he could retire with the franchise he helped revitalize in the summer of 2010. At 33, the man who once posted a picture of himself bathing in red wine decided he had had enough of basketball, or perhaps that basketball had had enough of him.

Few in the history of professional basketball embody the kind of paradox he does. To a certain generation of NBA fans, he represents one very distinct, dynamic kind of player; to another, ever-so-slightly generation, he represents a broken promise, an undoing not entirely or even at all his own, but a bulky set of talcum shoulders on which to rest blame nonetheless.

During an offseason which has already witnessed the retirements of Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, and may still see the departure of Kevin Garnett[2], Stoudemire’s exit is hardly the most noteworthy, but it is perhaps the most bittersweet. Older fans in Arizona and elsewhere are no doubt walking around and putting up with a dull but inescapable chorus of “what might have been” ringing in their ears.

Stoudemire came out of Cypress Creek High School as Florida’s Mr. Basketball in 2002, drafted by the Phoenix Suns ninth overall in the same class as Yao Ming, Matt Barnes and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. The NBA never totally embraced high school players, as is evidenced by the eventual institution of the age limit prior to the 2006 draft, but Amar’e was a part of a special breed of players expected to be able to handle the league, even in the immediate post-Kwame Brown world.

His early time with the Suns, especially after Mike D’Antoni took over for Frank Johnson 21 games into the 2003-’04 season, were promising anyway, as Stoudemire posted 13.5 and 20.6 points per game in his first two years and netting the NBA Rookie of the Year Award in 2003, but it was nothing compared to what was to come. Steve Nash’s arrival to Phoenix in 2004 immediately put the Seven Seconds or Less Suns at the zeitgeist of basketball, and the teams he directed are almost certain to be comically and perpetually underrated moving forward due to never having won a championship.

With the possible exception of Shawn Marion, no player benefitted more from Nash’s pinball-esque playmaking ability than Stoudemire. In their first season together, Nash and Stoudemire laid the foundation for the following decade of pick-and-roll, motion-based offense. For his part, Stoudemire’s scoring jumped nearly six points, to 26.0, and he nearly hit 56% from the field, up from 47.5%. He became an All-Star, the first of six selections he would receive. He played 80 games as the Suns won 62, clinching the top seed in the Western Conference.

Though Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs closed out the Suns in five games on their way to another title, Stoudemire played phenomenally, averaging 37.0 points and 9.8 rebounds on 55% shooting at only 22, as per BasketballInsiders.com’s Tommy Beer. The best, it was presumed, was yet to come.

Following an injury-stricken season the following year, in which he would only play three games, Stoudemire would return and, for his final four seasons in Phoenix, average 22.6 points and 9.0 rebounds on nearly 57% shooting from the floor, to go along with a tidy 79.4% from the free throw line. Though the Suns never made it to the Finals, Stoudemire was hardly culpable.

With free agency in 2010 came The Decision, and with that came even more expectation than usual from possible suitors. Having missed out on LeBron James, the New York Knicks found their way out of an Isiah Thomas- and James Dolan-induced, nearly-decade-long hangover to sign Stoudemire to a five-year, nearly $100 million contract, the pressure commensurate with the paycheck[3]. For most of his first season, under his old Phoenix skipper D’Antoni, Stoudemire performed to, perhaps even beyond, those lofty Rotten Apple expectations, earning another All-Star nod and again averaging over 25 points and 8 rebounds per game as well as notching a career-high 2.6 assists.

With the arrival of Carmelo Anthony, however, the tide began to turn, as the Knicks catered their offense away from Stoudemire. That Anthony’s arrival coincided with growing injury concerns surrounding Stoudemire’s knees didn’t help either; following 2010-’11, he never again played in more than 65 games in a season, never starting more than 47. Perhaps tellingly, the Knicks enjoyed their best season in decades, a 54-win campaign in 2012-’13, when Amar’e did not start a single game. Picture

His production gradually dropped off along with his health, even as he tried to be a good sport in the ill-fated Big Three front court with Anthony and Tyson Chandler. His positivity was sometimes misguided; many Knicks fans remain uncertain to this day whether Stoudemire’s red wine picture was more a sign of reassurance or a cry for help. Even so, he was mostly a benign influence, a beloved advocate for his community and for a late-blooming Judaism, and the occasional flash of his former self kept alive whatever flicker of hope remained in the eternally frozen hellscape of Madison Square Garden for him.

Eventually, the Knicks tired of him, buying his contract out in spring 2015, after which he hobbled through two, mostly unproductive, contracts, one each with the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat[4]. He is neither an NBA Champion nor an MVP, and his only Olympic experience was with the woeful bronze medalist U.S. team in Athens in 2004.

Once a quintessential pace-and-space unicorn, a colorful cog in a sizzling system that shook up basketball the way Miles disrupted jazz, Stoudemire retires a brittle shadow, a reminder that not every high school player was destined to either be Kobe or Kwame. Amar’e casts a particular shade of grey between those extremes, one perhaps best viewed through a pair of protective goggles and years of hindsight.

*     *     *

 

[1] Highly questionable word choice here, but anyway

[2] Not to mention the brief career closure of Richard Jefferson

[3] It’s becoming more apparent as time goes on, but as the NBA’s reach becomes increasingly universal, geographic appeal to players based on marketing opportunities and/or anything else is rendered null. No matter how New York – or Los Angeles, or Chicago, or anywhere else – positions itself, a transcendent player will sell jerseys and sign endorsement deals worth more than his contract. And no matter what they tell you, any fanbase is the greatest in the world, so long as the gate receipts are adding up.

[4] I hate reducing a year and a half of a man’s life to a single sentence, but really, how much do you remember of Stoudemire in Dallas?

A previous version of this piece listed the Knicks as having cut him in spring 2015; they actually bought out his contract.

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