Stoudemire put Knicks back on center stage

The Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire goes to the hoop against Dallas defender Brendan Haywood.
The Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire goes to the hoop against Dallas defender Brendan Haywood.
Posted: February 04, 2011

NEW YORK - The New York Knicks, being who they are, never quite became irrelevant.

Operating in the world's media epicenter, playing inside the self-proclaimed world's most famous arena, the Knicks were never un-talked about, like other bottom-dwelling NBA franchises. Rather, the Knicks spent a decade playing in a haze of folly and frustration, years that included bumbled free-agent signings and regrettable coaching hires.

It's not so much that the Knicks weren't in the headlines, just that they were in the wrong kind of headlines. And those headlines existed for so long.

But then came Amar'e Stoudemire, the superstar piece missing from this franchise for more than a decade, a guy who opted out of his contract with the Phoenix Suns and signed with the Knicks basically at the stroke of midnight on the NBA's first allowable day. Essentially, the Knicks had found their leading man, and he took a red-eye to arrive by sunup.

On July 5, 2010, the Knicks formally introduced Stoudemire at Madison Square Garden - he had signed a contract worth approximately $100 million over five seasons.

The 76ers' stint of irrelevance does not quite mirror that of the Knicks. The Sixers have legitimately toiled in the NBA's shadows since Allen Iverson's trade to the Denver Nuggets in 2006. They have never held a fire sale, like the Knicks did before the summer of 2010, but rather determinedly clawed their way to low playoff spots, promising their fans that their youthful talent would blossom into something special. In recent weeks, Sixers fans are seeing some of that promised potential.

On Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center, the Knicks play the Sixers. It should be the most interesting game between these teams in about a decade. And on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, the teams will play again, a quirk in the scheduling that produced a back-to-back matchup.

'MVP! MVP!'

Ask anyone who knew Stoudemire as a youngster with the Suns - then also playing underneath current Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni - and they'll tell you he was an uphill mile away from being a leader. Fast-forward to a Knicks 93-88 victory over the Miami Heat on Jan. 27, and Stoudemire is consulting with D'Antoni about endgame defensive strategy.

"They took their big guy out and had all of their little guys in there," D'Antoni said of the Heat's lineup on one endgame possession. "Amar'e looked over to me and said, 'Who am I guarding?' And I'm seeing who's out there, and it's a lot easier if Wilson [Chandler] comes in, and we just switch everything."

Stoudemire is averaging 26.2 points and 9.0 rebounds a game. When he takes free throws inside Madison Square Garden, fans chant "MVP." When he warms up before games, the early crowd presses on him like young girls on Justin Bieber.

He is his team's leader, regardless of his youthful immaturity back in Phoenix, or whatever came before he wore blue and orange.

"We got STAT," said teammate Shawne Williams, using Stoudemire's nickname (tattooed on his right arm, for Standing Tall and Talented). "So we stay within ourselves as players."

Still, the Knicks are not there yet. They are inconsistent and can lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers as easily as they can defeat the Heat. One night after beating Miami, the Knicks lost to the Atlanta Hawks and then were blown out by the Dallas Mavericks a few days later. But for D'Antoni, and for anyone else who was part of the Knicks' pre-Stoudemire era (New York has not won 40 games since the 2000-01 season), this season feels like a stroll on the bright side of the road.

The Knicks, 25-23, are on pace to win about 44 games and hold the sixth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Asked if he could imagine life without Stoudemire, D'Antoni told the New York Times: "Oh, I can imagine it. We just did it. We still have battle scars."

The Knicks will have a starter in the NBA All-Star Game for the first time since 1997, when Patrick Ewing started for the Eastern Conference.

"The fans are really ecstatic about the way we play and how hard we play," Stoudemire said. "Our confidence and the way we are willing to learn and become a better team. So the fans have taken notice of that, and they're smart. They're great. So the voting just happened to turn out that I'm a starter in the East."

Difficult task

According to Forbes Magazine, the Knicks are the NBA's most valuable franchise at $655 million, which is up from $586 million a year ago. That 12 percent increase helped the Knicks leapfrog the Los Angeles Lakers, a jump that many attribute to Stoudemire's arrival. This summer, the Knicks sold out their full season-ticket inventory for the first time in a decade.

While LeBron James and Chris Bosh were joining forces with Dwyane Wade in Miami, Stoudemire was happily lifting New York onto his broad, G.I. Joe-like shoulders.

"The resurgence of the Knicks has to do with Amar'e," James said before his team's 93-88 loss. James was then asked about the Denver Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony, who has been surrounded by as much speculation this season as James was last season. Anthony, it has been reported, wants to play only in New York.

But for now, Stoudemire is anchoring a young, bipolar squad.

"We're a very young team so we have to figure out a way to play consistently for a full 48 minutes for the rest of the year," Stoudemire said. "That's a difficult task for us because we're so young."

Before last week's game against the Heat, the team's white board contained all the necessary numbers and goals needed to produce victory. Above this basketball jargon was a drawing of a yellow sun, representing the Miami Heat, being frozen out by the ice-cold blow of Mother Winter, the New York Knicks.

"Miami Heat meet New York Freeze," was scribbled above the drawing.

Knicks fans can thank Stoudemire for making them cool once again.


Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at kfagan@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/DeepSixer3, and read her blog, Deep Sixer, on Philly.com.

 

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