A friend of mine went to the Knicks-Rockets game last month. He told me that midway through the second quarter, a bunch of fans began to heckle Amar’e Stoudemire, who at the time was terribly ineffective in his very limited minutes. The fans insulted his play. They talked about his notoriously balky knees, the ones that have derailed his career. They yelled at him for his 5-year, $100 million contract, which might be the worst in the NBA. Stoudemire was upset by the taunting, and quietly asked a security guard to remove the fans, or at least tell them to quiet down. The security guard ignored his request.
Amar’e Stoudemire is playing well. Really well, in fact. Unburdened by the minutes limit that made him uncomfortable, STAT has had four great games in a row — over 24 MPG, 71 percent shooting, 14.3 PPG.
Perhaps more tellingly, he has looked good. With Amar’e this year, it seems you can tell instantly. Some nights, he looks listless — three steps slow on defense, no lift on his knees on offense. In those games, he looks fruitlessly for fouls when his drives baseline result in a block, unable to get any sort of separation. He forces the issue, turns it over. He looks lost.
But these past four games, particularly last night, he’s looked like a different guy. He was active, springy. His help defense, a major liability his entire career, was phenomenal, particularly in the second quarter. He hit several of his patented elbow-extended jumpers and made the Bulls pay on the low block. In the first half, he finished with 10 points and two rebounds on 5-7 shooting, a +13 in just 13 minutes.
While he slowed down a bit in the second half, STAT hit a massive jumper in a tie game with less than three minutes to play, putting the Knicks up for good. His final line: 30 minutes, 14 points, 9 boards (3 offensive), two steals, one block, one assist, 7-11 shooting.
Amar’e takes charges now. It’s weird. He’s really good at taking them.
Earlier in his career, when he was an insanely athletic powerhouse, he used to get blocks. Two a game in his first season as a Knick. STAT is a poor defender, analysts used to say, but he makes up for some of it with sheer athleticism — often meaning highlight-reel, weak-side blocks. This year, he is averaging less than one block every two games.
Instead, he takes charges. He’s taken 8 of them this year, according to Knicks beat writer Chris Herring. Eight in 271 minutes. This is an entirely unreasonable rate, particularly for a historically bad help defender.
My high school basketball coach was obsessed with charges. A missed charge was a blown opportunity and we paid the price in sprints. Our team was small and not very athletic. In one particular practice drill, our coach could “fire” the defense at any point, banishing them to a quick sprint and back. On one occasion, I stood in the paint and missed a charge, opting to contest the shot instead. “Fire,” he screamed, after blowing his whistle. “Topaz,” I heard him say as I began my sprint, “do you actually think you’re going to block that?”
His celebrations make me smile. Have you noticed them? They are kind of nerdy. After a successful defensive series — perhaps he draws a charge or induces his man into a travel — STAT will pump his first like a tennis player. Or perhaps let out a scream, but not a triumphant one like LeBron engaging the crowd on a dunk — his outbursts are for himself. Keep going, they seem to say.
These are celebrations are about his game within the game, about a guy defending his honor and clawing his way back anyway he can and trying to contribute to a team and wanting desperately to do so.
These celebrations are funny and joyous and sad, all at the same time. At one point in the second quarter, a quarter in which he had played exemplary offense and shockingly great defense, STAT coaxed Carlos Boozer into a travel. Before I even knew what I was doing, I stood up and started laughing and yelled out a scream at the TV, like a crazy person.
After a fist pump, Amar’e clapped his hands and looked down at the floor as he walked to the other end, ready to keep it going on offense.
He doesn’t have to do any of this, you know. The minutes limit, the garbage time play, the embarrassment and the pain and the unthinkable frustration that must invariably arise when you have to play as a shell of your former self. This isn’t the NFL. The money is guaranteed.
Play-by-play man Mike Tirico said last night that STAT has had 8 surgeries during his career. When Knicks fans saw he was going to have knee surgery in September — his third knee operation in 12 months — we rolled our eyes and cursed our luck. We didn’t, or at least I didn’t, even think for a second how painful and difficult that must be. Or how depressing the setback must be for him and how hard he’d have to work just to be able to play.
In his halftime interview last night, after his great first half, STAT was almost a broken record. He said “hard work” three or four times. This is usually a platitude, but you could see he meant it.
Not to go all Good Will Hunting on you, but it’s not his fault. It’s not Amar’e’s fault the Knicks gave him a $100 million contract. It’s not Amar’e’s fault they wasted their amnesty on Chauncey Billups after they already picked up his $14.2 million option, instead of buying him out at $3.7 million and making a couple cap-clearing moves to sign Tyson Chandler outright. It’s not Amar’e’s fault Mike D’Antoni irresponsibly used him for huge minutes in 2010-2011, including a 14-game stretch in November and December where STAT played at least 37 minutes per night (he played 54 minutes in a double-overtime game that started that stretch, which was on the second night on a back-to-back.) It’s not Amar’e’s fault he has bad knees and a bad back.
These are obvious points, but they bear repeating. In this country, we boo the guy with the big contract and enjoy SportsCenter top ten lists ranking the biggest draft busts — we burden people with the mistakes front offices have made. We yell at them from the comfort of plush seats and with the lubricant of $12 Bud Light, without realizing or caring that they can hear us loud and clear.
He’s not going to keep it up.
He doesn’t know this yet. Or maybe he does, but he’s too proud to admit it. After the game, STAT said it was great to be “back to my old self.”
But he is a 31-year-old player with two awful knees, a 12-year-veteran who was on a 10-minutes-per-game limit just a couple months ago. He has always been a bad defender, and despite his efforts, his declining athleticism will make him worse. On his bad nights, like that game against the Rockets, his knees give him nothing and he looks completely done. Games like last night, where he plays well, are perhaps even sadder to watch — glimpses of what once was but can never really be again.
I hope more than anything that I’m wrong. Other than Jeremy Lin, I’ve never rooted for a Knick harder than I’m rooting for STAT right now. But the knees, and the injuries, and the setbacks, and the statistical decline, and the years, and the mileage and the track record — they all point to more health problems and a steady performance decline down the line.
Watching him right now, it’s everything. During last night’s atrocity of a game, I found myself only watching him. Every moment on help defense, every blown assignment, every nice low-block move, every jog down the court, every awkward fist-pump.
He wants it back so badly. All of it. The explosiveness, the dominance, the athleticism, the love from the fans, the relevance. He’s gone through so much in an effort to get back. And it’s breathtaking and beautiful and heartbreaking to see him try.