Challenges Nothing New for Stoudemire
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 22, 2002 12:00 AM
The welcome wagon rarely visited Lake Wales, Fla., so Amare Stoudemire was befuddled last month when a neighbor near his new Phoenix home greeted him with cookies.
What's the protocol here? A thank-you note? Nothing?
The Suns forward, then 19, did what he does best. He improvised, walked to his neighbor's house and offered a pair of his basketball shoes, autographed, in return.
Stoudemire's life has become less about post-up moves than it has been about choices. How does a 6-foot-10 basketball prodigy six days removed from his teens handle the expectations and temptations that come with a guaranteed three-year, $6 million contract when most of the role models in his life have delivered nothing but flagrant fouls?
"He's seen the people at the corner before," said Micheal Walker, 19, a boyhood friend who lives with Stoudemire. "The ones who will give you money if you play good basketball. And he knows nobody gives you nothing if they don't want something back. He's been making choices all his life, and he's mature enough to make the right ones here."
The athlete growing up in adversity has become one of the most tired cliches in sports, but in Stoudemire's case, the evidence was so tangible that some NBA teams were afraid to touch him. Not the Suns. After a thorough background check, the team put together a list of the six players they thought would be available with the No. 9 pick in the June draft.
"He was at the top," Suns general manager Bryan Colangelo said.
If the early returns are any indication, the pick was a steal for a team in need of instant gratification. Of the draft's top nine picks, Stoudemire is first in rebounds (7.2), second in minutes (24.7) and fourth in points (7.7) - behind Drew Gooden, Jay Williams and Nene Hilario. He has been receptive to coaching, has been accepted by his teammates and seemingly is cautious with his finances.
"OK, he's not perfect," coach Frank Johnson said. "He's been late for a few things."
The true value of all these picks won't be clear for several years. The cynics still expect Stoudemire to self-destruct, believing that you can't spend your life as a soldier in urban warfare and expect to come out unscathed.
Hard day's nightmare
In July, on the day of her sentencing in a Florida courtroom for a probation violation, Carrie Stoudemire pulled Johnson aside and shared some information about her son.
"He hasn't cried since his father died (when Amare was 12)," she said. "He doesn't express himself emotionally. He doesn't know how to anymore."
For all his hardships, Stoudemire strikes observers as surprisingly level-headed. He is polite and accommodating, but there is always a distance. It's the product of a life of a vagabond, of a youth surrounded by adults, shoe companies and a sport hoping to capitalize on his drop step to the basket.
Stoudemire was enrolled at six high schools in two states, in part because Carrie Stoudemire was often in jail during that time - 27 visits at last count - for charges including felony grand theft, passing bad checks, lewdness, drug possession and prostitution.
"She's a good person at heart, she really is," Artis Wilson said. "She did a lot for those kids, making sure Amare had name-brand shoes and name-brand clothes. She did it so they wouldn't go out and sell drugs. The way she did it wasn't always the right way, but her intentions were good."
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Wilson, 41, knows of what he speaks. He was once married to Carrie Stoudemire. Even after their divorce, he remained close to the family and watched as Amare and Amare's younger brother, Marwan, lost their fathers within a month of each other: Amare's of a heart attack and Marwan's in a boating accident.
He moved to Phoenix with Amare so that Marwan, now 14, could come, too, and be near his brother. Wilson and Marwan share a condominium in Scottsdale.
"I'm proud of my mom, I'm not embarrassed by her," Stoudemire said. "Everything she did, she did for us."
Without parents to shelter him, Stoudemire bounced between adults. Some had his best interest at heart, but many didn't. The latter became an issue when it grew clear that Stoudemire had game.
People had different ideas about where he should attend school. One was Mount Zion Academy, a controversial boarding school in Durham, N.C., that has produced stars such as Tracy McGrady but also has raised eyebrows for its contract with a shoe company and its unconventional recruiting methods.
Another private school in North Carolina, Emanuel Christian, had a student body made up entirely of its basketball team. A segment on HBO's Real Sports revealed it to have just one teacher and one classroom that all students shared throughout the day, regardless of age. It quickly folded.
Hence the red flags.
Passing the test
The Suns loved what they saw in workouts when they brought in Stoudemire before the draft.
"He was here for a second day, and long before that second day expired, we were pretty sure Amare was the guy we wanted to see in a Suns uniform," Colangelo said.
The struggles faced by last year's young draft picks - four high school players were among the top eight selected, but none averaged more than 6.7 points - didn't trouble the Suns.
They were comfortable with what they found - and didn't find - in Stoudemire's background.
"What we found is that he never got in trouble," Johnson said.
Rarely, anyway. Yes, Stoudemire had a challenging childhood. Yes, he bounced from high school to high school. But he rarely was a disruptive influence and wasn't found to have had any encounters with the law. His biggest offense may have been trusting the wrong people.
"I think he's so grounded now because he had to rely on himself quite a bit," said John Wolf, his agent. "He doesn't know whom to trust. And when you don't know whom to trust, you put quite a lot of burden on yourself.
"It made him listen a little bit longer, made him pay attention. It made him ask: 'Why are these people talking to me, and what do they want from me?' I don't wish that upon a lot of people, and I say that because he had to get mature in a way that was very difficult."
He has made mistakes. He was suspended for 10 days at West Orange (Fla.) High School for a confrontation with a physical education teacher, but those who know him say it was an isolated incident and that he's a far different person from the one he was even three years ago.
On paper, at least, the marriage of team and player is a solid fit.
"This is the best organization he could have landed with," Wolf said.
Some poor judgment calls in the past, such as Richard Dumas and William Bedford, have prompted the Suns to put in place a structure to help young players adapt to the NBA lifestyle. When the team hired Mark West as assistant general manager, it was specifically to focus on the areas of player development and player relations.
West has become a mentor of sorts for Stoudemire. If someone thinks Stoudemire is spending too much, West hears about it. If someone thinks Stoudemire has his priorities skewed, West hears about it. Sometimes the two meet for lunch. Other times, they chat casually at practice.
"He's pretty open to it," West said. "He's like a lot of young kids. He takes a little bit, he learns, and sometimes he has to learn the hard way.
"I try not to saturate him, but to make a strong point when I think it's necessary to make a strong point, and in my opinion, I think that's when he's listening. 'If you're saying it now, it must really be an issue.' "
Another piece of the support system has been his teammates, particularly veteran Scott Williams, who Colangelo acknowledges was signed in part because "his professionalism, experience and know-how would help Amare along the way."
Williams has embraced the role and requested to have a locker next to Stoudemire's.
Although Stoudemire is grateful for the support, one senses that he's not convinced he needs it.
"This isn't hard," he said, smiling. "I know hard. This isn't it. I'll be fine."
It's mid-afternoon on a non-game day, and Stoudemire and roommate Walker have just polished off a plate of chicken wings at Hooters restaurant at Arizona Center. He is polite to those who recognize him and almost always accommodates autograph requests, but he seems just as happy blending into the woodwork.
The discussion turns to money, and Stoudemire insists he isn't frivolous. His biggest splurge has been his car, a Cadillac Escalade with a Gucci-lined dashboard and other perks.
Caution with money is one of the messages West hammers home most.
"It' s hard when you come from a certain background and you want some things and you see other people with them. You want to keep up with the Joneses," West said. "Well, a lot of the Joneses, they earned theirs, they got huge contracts. This is your first.
"There are a lot of players who think X amount of dollars is going to last a lifetime, and it is a lot of money, but . . . the wolves out there want to transfer the money from your hands to theirs. You can be left with the glitter but don't have the gold."
Wolf set up Stoudemire with a financial management company that also manages Shawn Marion's money and that of many other NBA players. The company has put Stoudemire on a budget.
"I'm not a yes man," Wolf said. "I'm not going to say, 'Great idea, great idea, great idea.' We had a conversation where he said, 'I'm thinking of getting another car.' (I said) 'Another car? We just got you one. Let's wait, we can see what happens. We can always get it.' And he was agreeable. But he should also be able to have fun. He worked hard for this."
Stoudemire said he will spend money on his family. His mom, whom he talks to daily, will be released from prison soon and expects to move to the Valley in early December. His brother is attending a private Phoenix high school and seems to be enjoying the area, "except there are no theme parks," Marwan said.
It was important to Stoudemire that his brother move here. He wants to be the primary influence on his brother's life.
"Amare wanted him close," Walker said. "A lot of things other people can't get through to him, Amare can."
Although Stoudemire has been the focus of much attention and the Suns even run a video showcasing his best plays during games, he doesn't seem to be the source of animosity among his teammates.
They take him shopping. Penny Hardaway introduced him to his barbershop, a popular site in south Phoenix that Stoudemire and numerous other athletes visit weekly.
There is little bravado to him other than a matter-of-factness about his abilities and potential. He's not intimidated by competition, although he admits to being a bit star-struck when his favorite player, Shaquille O'Neal, came into the Suns locker room in the preseason looking for him.
Stoudemire appears to be taking care of business on the court, too.
He still looks lost sometimes. Only six years of competitive ball and minimal coaching will do that. But he is physical in a veteran sort of way, quick and makes jaw-dropping moves on offense and defense - he had three blocked shots against Portland recently. Some in the organization believe he could be the best Suns draft pick ever.
"The thing that jumped out at me was he's physically capable of being in the game with anyone," Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "That's not typical of rookies."
The past two games have revealed Stoudemire's rookie colors. Against Houston and Utah, he shot a combined 1 for 12 and scored seven points.
Players such as Utah's Karl Malone and Houston's Maurice Taylor have taken advantage of his relatively short basketball education by posting up on him.
"There are times his inexperience will show through," Johnson said.
But so does the potential, and Wolf believes Stoudemire's off-court potential is high as well.
"He already is (endorse-able)," Wolf said. "He's such a young, exciting player. He's athletic. He has a wonderful personality. . . . He's not going to endorse Solomon Smith Barney, but he will with shoes companies, with (soda companies), with car dealers.
"He is a hot commodity who is getting hotter."
Stoudemire already has several trading card deals, and Wolf is in discussions with several other companies.
"What can I say," Stoudemire said, smiling. "I'm living my dream."
Reach Boivin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 444-8956.
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