PHOENIX – Out of a broken home, Amare Stoudemire had been one of those raw recruits who reached mythical lore in his high school days, raising suspicions of his staying power with transfers upon transfers. Everyone was fast to label him as a problematic prep star spit out of the system.
Four years ago, the rest of the NBA feared it would be drafting a head case, but then-general manager Bryan Colangelo of the Phoenix Suns had been granted a private workout, done his research on the kid and made him the biggest draft day steal of the past decade.
Stoudemire has come back from a devastating knee fracture to become a first-time All-NBA player this season, and now, he makes one more dramatic return to the basketball season in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs.
He hasn't gotten good and loud, like everyone else, about injustices done to him in this series. When everyone else was ripping David Stern and Stu Jackson, Stoudemire watched the video of himself leaving the bench in Game 4 and understood why they suspended him. Yes, maybe he wished Bruce Bowen had been punished in this series, too, but he couldn't consider his own consequences unfair.
"I was never mad at the NBA," Stoudemire said Thursday. "It's the rule. I'm over it."
He watched Game 5 at his downtown restaurant and had a terrific time until everything fell apart on the Suns in an 88-85 loss. Then, he just had the emptiest feeling. "It wasn't as hard watching the whole playoffs last year," said Stoudemire, and perhaps part of the reason is that he understood that San Antonio couldn't end Phoenix's season with him on the bench.
So Stoudemire resumes his run at Tim Duncan and the Spurs on Friday, trying to get back to the US Airways Center for Game 7 on Sunday. This is the kind of game, the kind of opportunity that can elevate Stoudemire's stature. He needs a playoff moment, a passage with the world watching, and this weekend could go a long way toward starting to shape his Suns legacy.
He has done more scoring (23.9 points per game) and more rebounding (12.1) in the playoffs than the regular season, rising with the responsibilities of a championship chase. After that microfracture surgery a year ago, no one could be sure if it might take a season for Stoudemire to be himself again. Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni estimates that it was the 10th, maybe 11th, game of the season when "we knew he was coming."
He hasn't stopped. Kurt Thomas has alleviated the stress of defending Duncan, allowing Stoudemire to stay out of foul trouble and on the floor. San Antonio hasn't found a defender to control him. He goes inside and outside, and the best defensive team in the league is lost stopping him. Of course, that's true of everyone else in the NBA. For everything the Spurs do well defending the Suns – such as crowding Steve Nash and guarding the three-point line – Stoudemire remains a puzzle.
"Our team was interrupted," Nash said. He wasn't trying to use Stoudemire's and Boris Diaw's absence as the ultimate crutch in Game 5, insisting, "Most of us didn't give a (bleep) who was on the floor. In no way did I go home saying, 'We didn't have two guys.' I went home saying, 'I should've made more plays.' "
Still, Stoudemire gives Nash the chance to make those plays again. He gives the Suns hope to survive Game 6, get this series back to Phoenix on Sunday and complete an improbable comeback on these Spurs. This has been Amare Stoudemire's season of comebacks, and he and these Suns get to try one more Friday.