The Amar'e Moment

For a brief moment Amar'e Stoudemire was at the center of something great in New York. He's still there, but the moment is gone.
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The New York Knickerbockers once traded a random Brazilian with a goofy name, Maybyner Hilario, for Antonio McDyess, all awesome and breathtaking. McDyess was an explosive power forward, the kind with a depth and breadth of brilliance so profound as to make the game appear unfair. With broad shoulders, a lean but substantial body, and sufficient vertical to win a dunk contest, McDyess appeared as if he had been assembled in a superstar factory. It seemed obvious that McDyess should become a 20-and-10 man not too long after arriving in the NBA, and it was unsurprising when he did. Someone like that should not be available in a trade when the player on the other end is a mysterious foreigner, no matter how promising the foreigner’s workouts and intel. But McDyess was broken, some of his parts defective. He had ruptured a Patellar tendon the season before he was traded, and his return from injury was clouded by uncertainty. Hoping a star that had once shined brightly could do so again, the Knicks abandoned their search for a new constellation.

McDyess's arrival in New York was energizing. Prior to it, the Knicks had steadily descended from the heights of the 1990s, and with each anti-milestone, enthusiasm became harder to muster. Ewing was traded, Van Gundy resigned. McDyess carried promise, so long as he was healthy. Were this duality which attended Antonio not already saddening, the way in which McDyess quickly emerged as a considerate, sensitive, thoughtful fellow only made the specter of his failure more wrenching.

McDyess failed, of course. It was terrible. Those defective parts gave out during the third preseason game of the 2002 campaign, and Antonio was lost for the year. New York finished 37-45 with Othella Harington starting 69 games and Clarence Weatherspoon 19. The next season, Isiah Thomas arrived and traded Antonio for Stephon Marbury after McDyess had played just 18 games as a Knick. The thrilling power forward, the one-time once-in-a-generation specimen undone by injury and further revealed as worthy of our hope and sympathy, was gone. In his place was a celebrity with great talent (and a horrible penchant for dominating possessions) who was trailed by the gathering concern that he could never win a championship. That was, at the time, the thing that made people most nervous about Stephon Marbury. It feels like a lot longer than 10 years ago.

***

And now the Knicks are doing it again, this time with Amar'e Stoudemire cast as the tragic protagonist. Like McDyess, Stoudemire was a sensation, the rare power forward blessed with uncommon athleticism and a potent set of skills. Stoudemire was even better, at his best, than McDyess was. He possessed a dangerous jump shot but was so aggressive that, during his best years, “unleashed” seemed a more apt word than “assertive.” Amar'e, too, was easy to root for: he is a personable and admirable guy, and the survivor of a background that featured six high schools, a mother who was in and out of prison, and a father who passed away before Stoudemire was a teenager.

Just as his talent recalled but exceeded McDyess's, so did Amar'e's injury history. By the summer of 2010, when the Knicks signed Stoudemire, he already had endured microfracture surgery on one knee, two arthroscopic procedures on the other, a torn iris, and a detached retina. Incredibly, he averaged 23 and 9 in the 2009-10 season once on the other side of so many physical impediments, which was perhaps the greatest testament to his natural ability and will to recover. But all those injuries—particularly those knees—engendered enough lingering skepticism that Stoudemire's $100 million contract with the Knicks was uninsurable. Stoudemire’s talent invited Knicks fans to lose themselves in fanciful championship dreams. His injury history reminded them that one awkward step could leave Knicks fans awake in a nightmare.

The invitation was particularly seductive because it came at a time when the Knicks were to begin executing on a years-long plan to assemble a super team thanks to ample cap space, the siren song of its media market, and the presumption—shared by Knicks fans, if not necessarily the rest of the world—that New York just matters more. Stoudemire played along. At his introductory press conference, Amar'e proudly and unequivocally asserted that a new era had arrived, and that he was planning on winning a championship. Stoudemire didn't stop there, either; he was unembarrassed to lead, let alone endure, a media frenzy. In that first week, he conspicuously wore a Yankees hat to "Rock of Ages" on Broadway and gave a post-show interview about recruiting Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James to New York. By the end of the month, he was off in Israel tracing his Jewish heritage. The only New York thing Stoudemire failed to do upon first signing with the Knicks was find a way to hang onto his grandmother's rent-controlled apartment. In every other way, he embraced both the city and the mantle of savior.

It was always a curious, aspirational ploy. While playing for the Suns, Stoudemire was regarded as a supreme talent, but not as a leader. He was more likely to be a championship team's second- or third-best player than its primary element. Some Knicks fans surely looked past this history, content to trust in hope. Others may have suspended their wariness in light of Stoudemire's enthusiasm for his new home and challenge. Perhaps his authoritative air off the court heralded a coming change for the better on it. Fans, being fans, wanted to believe.

***

The early part of the 2010-11 season rewarded a fan's faith. New York hadn't signed LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, but that didn't matter. Stoudemire set a torrid pace on his own and thrived as the focal point of the Knicks. His dives into the paint were exuberant (I see you, Clyde Frazier), his elbow jumpers pure, and his rediscovered mastery of the pick-and-roll reliable. The Knicks were not a great team and Amar'e was far from perfect, but they were promising. For the first time in years, New York played freely, unburdened from the weight of onerous contracts, the scorn of frustrated expectations, and the fatigue of traveling along a bridge to nowhere. Stoudemire was a symbol of this renewal every night, and he fought so hard to deserve the distinction that there were moments when he all but proclaimed it. A young Knicks team with Stoudemire as its focal point and leader was playing fun, fast basketball and heading towards the playoffs. Maybe history was not going to repeat itself, and maybe New York basketball would finally have a feel-good story to tell.

Then again, maybe not. These are the Knicks, after all, and they are still owned by James Dolan.

Dolan, a petulant rich-man's son who has been New York's biggest problem for as long as he has owned the team, always gets his way. That's the thing with owners, and while Dolan has proven outrageously inept and abrasive while steering a signature NBA franchise into one wreck after another, he's also beyond firing. He can, at times, be appeased by the promises of rational men, or at least distracted by temporary improvements. In the end, though, he is too impatient and myopic to get things right for very long.

Donnie Walsh, Mike D'Antoni, and, most sadly, Stoudemire were the victims run down last season. Just two years earlier, Walsh had inherited Isiah Thomas's basketball brownfield, diligently pulled on his hazmat suit each day, and steadily remediated the property. He slashed and shed salaries, instilled a culture of accountability in the front office, and promised that by the summer of 2010, the Knicks would be well positioned to seize upon a landmark free agent class. D'Antoni was the coach Walsh enlisted as his partner. Each of Walsh's constituencies—the strong-willed coach whose assistance he sought, the fans he entreated to be patient, the owner whose random wrath he sought to avoid—entertained the fantasy that New York would acquire a championship foundation after Walsh finished making everything tidy for 2010. Only one of those parties had power to exercise the frustration if Walsh's plan went awry. That's what happened.

Promised two superstars, Dolan sought to collect. It did not matter that wing scorer Danilo Gallinari, utility forward Wilson Chandler, emboldened point guard Raymond Felton, and several more productive, if limited, young pieces had coalesced around Stoudemire. Nor did Dolan demonstrate any regard for the cap room New York had banked or the extant contracts that could accommodate roster reconfiguration. Least persuasive was Walsh, whose warnings against a rash decision were first disregarded and later, as the objects of Dolan's insecure and bellicose paranoia, recast as impudent challenges. Dolan wanted two superstars, Denver's Carmelo Anthony had been agitating for a chance to play in New York, and Dolan believed that Anthony offered the scoring prowess and marketing potential that had stayed his hand while New York waited for the summer of 2010.

***

On February 22, 2011, the Knicks acquired Anthony from Denver in exchange for Chandler, Gallinari, Felton, Timofey Mozgov, and a 2014 draft pick. There were other details, but they are immaterial; the trade was only about Anthony. It certainly wasn’t about Stoudemire.

In a basic and limited sense, acquiring Anthony was brilliant: New York was pairing an assertive low-post scorer with a preternatural wing scorer, each regular All-Stars. In a burgeoning era of putative championship triumvirates, New York had secured the first two elements of its own. But that reasoning neglected a number of complicating aspects. People don’t mix orange juice and milk simply because they’re both cold and staples of the morning.

In fact, Amar’e and Carmelo were mismatched from the beginning. Both prefer to hold the basketball, either for strategy or rhythm (and sometimes both). Given that Anthony typically handles the ball earlier in a possession and that he arrived with a presumed superiority in the team’s hierarchy, Amar’e has steadily seen his touches diminish, and has not been a regular offensive priority when Anthony is on the floor with him. They make a good show at times, but it’s just that. Worse, Stoudemire thrives in the pick-and-roll, something Anthony doesn't much like, and consequently cannot execute with a distributor's generous instincts. Carmelo can pass effectively and conduct an offense for stretches, but he will always be a scorer by nature. Anthony, who loves to handle the rock, is ill equipped for the burden that inheres to playing alongside Stoudemire, and so unable to tap the benefits that are every bit as much a part of the Stoudemire experience.

There are other problems, too. Amar’e dribbles into traffic too often and does not reliably pass out of double teams. Anthony does not always cut to the right spaces when someone else is controlling a possession, and he is not a catch-and-shoot player when coming off screens. Neither Anthony nor Stoudemire is an enthusiastic or proud defender, and no reasonable person operated under a contrary misapprehension when Anthony was still a Nugget. Those ominous tendencies speak ill of these players and cast some very reasonable doubts upon their capacity to collaborate effectively. But Dolan had to have a celebrity like Carmelo, and Carmelo was there to be had, and so the deal got done.

Most unfortunate is that Anthony’s polarity is stronger than Stoudemire’s, and Carmelo has effectively shifted the Knicks away from Amar’e. Anthony arrived as a hostage freed from prison, albeit one of his own making. His pouting and psychodrama were so plain and public by the end of his time in Denver as to both squander his claim on fan sympathy and suggest that he inherently deserved leeway for his petulance because he was Just That Good. Carmelo was perceived to be many things that Amar’e wasn’t—a long-suffering offensive auteur, an Olympic champion, a heralded standard-bearer of the NBA’s redemption generation, a winner if finally given the chance. Accordingly, when the Knicks acquired Anthony, they all but gave up on Stoudemire. It's a lousy way to treat a hero.

***

Gone since the Anthony trade are mentions of Stoudemire’s cultural curiosity; In their place is some kind of reality show about a bad former MTV host. So, too, are the heroic performances, like the December 2010 game when Amar’e took it upon himself to serve notice on Boston that New York was stirring. An energized upstart team is now—delirious Linsanity episode aside—tedious, slow, grim and groaning under its own weight. Capped out and good enough merely to see how far they are from great, the Knicks are again a mess.

Sure, Lin was a fun, engaging distraction. However, he struggled against elite teams, thrived with Anthony off the floor, and relied on Tyson Chandler more than he did Stoudemire. He did not restore harmony so much as he swapped out the sheet music. And yes, Amar’e has been impeded by the very knee and back problems that always made saddling him with expectations a risky decision. These twists in the redemption narrative don’t invalidate its beginning, though, or short-circuit any future promise. Instead, like Anthony’s arrival, they only emphasize how sad Stoudemire’s story has become. He is Antonio 2.0, another flawed demigod undone by his humanity. But just as Stoudemire at his best was superior to McDyess at his, Stoudemire's story at its low ebb is worse—when the Knicks no longer had any use for McDyess, they at least had the decency to send him away. Amar’e, with a failing body and a toxic contract, must suffer the indignity of being present for his own basketball emasculation.

As this inescapably sad reality emerges, so does the equally regrettable truth that Amar'e Stoudemire was always the hero that the New York Knicks deserved—proud and outsized, ill-considered, something and somewhat less than great. Consider that since 1973, The Knicks organization has not been able to clear the game's highest hurdle. For the preceding decade, it had stopped even trying to get over it. Instead, with a fool's vision of championship riches but little regard for the work required of them, New York has sought out every gimmick and shortcut. The most audacious of these gambits came in 2010, when the Knicks banked on signing James and boarding a glass express elevator from which they could sneer, on their way to the top, at everyone else taking the stairs. That didn't work, of course; it yielded only Amar’e. And, as if he were being punished for ever having been in on the ruse, Stoudemire and the Knicks were relegated to yet another contrivance: a wedding toast.

This surpassingly Knicks-ian tale—set amid opulence but driven by down-market scheming—can, someday, introduce the depressing article about the next Next McDyess, once the current version is fully gone. He's already well on his way.


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