Outside of winning championships, there are so precious few ways to transform the labels fastened to the young, immature basketball player. For years, Amar’e Stoudemire maddened everyone with the Phoenix Suns. He was a bewildering blend of talent and moodiness, a prolific scorer forever devoid of desire on defense. His moods were legendary and leadership was a lost cause.
Then everything changed in Stoudemire's final season with the Suns three years ago. “And it was dramatic,” Steve Kerr, the Suns' former general manager, said by phone Tuesday. “I felt like he figured it out at the end in Phoenix, and carried that right into New York, where he really learned how to be the man for them.”
Stoudemire had been magnificent in New York, a leader, a monster scorer and rebounder with a young team. He was willing to sacrifice his game upon the arrival of Carmelo Anthony. When his back was too stiff to bend, he played hurt in the playoffs. And then in a fit of frustration and anger, he sent his fist through the facing of a fire extinguisher Monday night. The blood of a lost Knicks season – the blood of a lost legacy – was on his hands.
His best days behind him, his body betraying him, Stoudemire doesn’t have the time to undo the damage. He’s done in these playoffs for the Knicks and done as a popular, respected figure in the franchise’s modern history. As soon as Kerr heard the details of that self-destructive act, he remembered a former teammate with the scars still to show for his own unforgettable mistake.
“I think Scottie Pippen’s decision not to go back into that playoff game spoiled his image among the fans, and I wonder if that will be the same case now with Amar’e,” Kerr said. “Ask anyone on the Bulls, and everybody loved Scottie. He was a phenomenal teammate. But he lost his mind for one moment and it cost him his reputation with a lot of people.”
Stoudemire doesn’t have the six championships, the top-50 player status, to fall back upon the way Pippen did. He doesn’t have near the body of work, and yet Pippen never truly escaped the stigma of refusing Phil Jackson’s orders to return to that playoff game in 1994.
In his own moment of insanity, Stoudemire undid so much of the good he had done. For him, the maddening part is that he'd come so far to obliterate the stereotypes that people wanted to attach to the troubled, drifting prep-to-pros phenom. He had no college education, but Stoudemire truly became a student of the world. He is intellectually curious and traveled to the Middle East to study the roots of Judaism. He’s a good guy, a good representative of the NBA.
Yet, the Knicks paid Stoudemire $100 million to win playoff games, and he took himself out of this series in most historic fashion. The Knicks return to New York down 2-0 to the Miami Heat, and Stoudemire returns a tabloid back-page pariah. He's nearing his 30th birthday, and the reasons teams were fearful of signing him to long-term money have showed themselves with the increasing loss of games, explosion and production because of the brittleness of his body.
Perhaps a younger player could have the time to repair the damage, but that probably won’t be possible for Stoudemire. Suddenly, Carmelo Anthony gets the pass, and Stoudemire gets the blame. It wouldn’t have been this way, but Stoudemire changed everything Monday night.
“I keep seeing people say that this was such a selfish act, but it wasn’t selfish at all,” Kerr said. “Selfish is when you know what you’re doing is going to hurt the team. But Amar’e hurt the team by accident, out of his frustration with the game. Hey, he made a poor decision on what to swing at.”
Amar’e Stoudemire had done the hardest thing in the NBA for a young player: not only changing people’s perception, but truly changing the reality. It was wonderful to watch unfold, and heartbreaking to see undone. Out of nowhere, out of misplaced rage, the blood was suddenly on Amar’e Stoudemire hands, and that stain will never go away.
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