Amare Stoudamire and the Plan B Career

Six summers before Amare Stoudamire was drafted by the Phoenix Suns, a teenage kid, a 17 year old, worked out in Phoenix. The GM for the Suns, Jerry Colangelo, was overwhelmed by the kid’s ability and was certain Kobe Bryant was going to be a dynamite player. Cautiously optimistic, Colangleo expected Bryant, the steal of the draft, to fall in his lap.

The Suns had the 15th pick in 1996. Colangelo had a good pulse on his peers. Although Bryant’s talent was extreme, he would be the first high school guard ever drafted, a scary proposition for most GM’s who worried about keeping their jobs. Colangelo’s plan to draft Bryant would be seen as experimental.

But when the Lakers traded for Bryant at number 13, Colangelo was stunned. Jerry West had never hinted he had his eye on Bryant and that he was willing to trade his All-Star center to get him. As disappointed as Colangelo was, it taught him a lesson. If he wanted a high school player, he would have to become tone deaf and not listen to the critics. Furthermore, he had to go out and get him and not depend on fate.

Amare Stoudamire entered the 2002 Yao Ming draft with a lot of baggage. Family problems had him moving from high school to high school. It marked Stoudamire with the label of troubled when it wasn’t Stoudmaire at all, but his mother who had struggles.

Stoudamire entered the league at 19, a physical specimen, an athletic freak. He was drafted ninth and by the end of his first year would win Rookie of the Year-nearly 14 points and 9 rebounds. In a glorious moment that first year, he dropped 38 points on the Timberwolves. He entered the playoffs with Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson as teammates and a shell of himself Penny Hardaway. They were beaten by the Spurs which would be a familiar ending to Stoudamire’s NBA story.

His second year, the Suns didn’t win. But Stoudamire was exceptional, 20.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.6 blocks. Against Utah, he set a team record of 10 blocks, six in the first quarter. But his 29 win season was a sober reminder that the NBA is a talent delivery business. Mid-season the Suns changed coaches and by the fall Mike D’Antoni instituted the 7 Seconds or Less offense. Steve Nash was on board and Stoudamire’s career looked to be Hall of Fame worthy as he and Nash pick-and-rolled teams into submission.

Stoudamire was a 26 point per game player in 2004-05. He dropped 50 points against the Blazers, 42 points against the Celtics and Jazz and was a first time All-Star. The Suns made it to the Western Conference Finals where Stoudamire destroyed Tim Duncan and the Spurs, averaging 37 points a game. But the no-defense Suns lost in five games.

Beginning in year four and ending in year fourteen, the Stoudamire career would take a precipitous turn as injuries reshaped his basketball Hall of Fame narrative.

Microfracture surgery changed the Stoudamire altitude, robbing him of his athleticism and impacting his efficiency around the rim. Prior to surgery, Stoudamire had never been a player whose game was predicated on offensive versatility. Athleticism was his bread and butter and he wasn’t the same post-surgery. The defining Stoudamire trait- his explosiveness- was scaled way back. He was still very good but he was no longer dominant and more importantly, teams didn’t fear him.

Two years after microfracture, Stoudamire made the All-Star team and was nearly the MVP (Kobe Bryant won the award). It was in that same year that Stoudamire became a focal point in the playoffs but for the wrong reasons. First, he called Manu Ginobli and Bruce Bowen dirty players; the Suns and Spurs were once again dueling in the playoffs. And then in Game 5 against the Spurs, after Robery Horry shoved Steve Nash into the scorers table, Stoudamire left the bench to come to his teammate’s defense. He was suspended and the Suns lost the next two games and the series despite Stoudamire once again owning the Spurs, 25 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocks.

But his lack of composure in that one moment changed the outcome for Phoenix.

At the end of the year (2007), after the Spurs became the champs, Stoudamire found out he was voted to All-NBA first team, one more validation and told you so  to his critics. After the microfracture surgery when everyone said his career would be done, here he was. No, he wasn’t the same player as before, the explosive dunker and highlight reel athlete was gone. This was Plan B and it was working.

Only the exceptional have a steady career pendulum. For Stoudamire, there were more All-Star appearances and more playoff losses.

A bitter defeat to the Spurs in 2008 when the Suns only won 1 game continued the narrative that Phoenix couldn’t beat the Spurs. A demoralizing loss to the Lakers in 2010 added one more notch to the losing in the playoffs column. Stoudamire scored 42 points in game 3 and the Suns evened the series against L.A. in game 4, but too much Kobe Bryant, the player Colangelo had coveted all those years ago, sent the Suns on vacation.

The 2010 playoffs was Amare Stoudamire’s last for the Phoenix Suns and would wrap up his career as the fourth leading scorer in franchise history, third in rebounds, fifth in blocked shots.

Across the country, he was revitalized. Amare Stoudamire was an All-Star for the Knicks. His year in New York was reminiscent of his Suns glory years: 25 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks and a career high in assists. All of a sudden he was draining threes. But his recurring theme, injury, reared its ugly head in the playoffs, and the Knicks didn’t win a game.

Adding insult to injury, Stoudamire would continue to be haunted by uncontrollable impulses. He punched a fire extinguisher in the locker room during the playoffs in 2012 which required him to miss a game because his hand had to be stitched up. The Knicks would win one game in the series. The rest of Amare Stoudamire’s career would be as a journeyman player trying to hold on.

Now that it is over and you can reflect back, was Amare Stoudamire’s career a disappointment?  Yes, in the sense that he came in as this athletic God who dominated his position. He whet our appetites for more, a reminder of the brilliance of Shawn Kemp. But he was not a disappointment in the sense that he could not remain healthy. He extracted every bit out of his career that he could considering his injury troubles, the knee, the back, the eye, the hand betraying him. The whole of it in the record books, there is perspective.

Stoudamire’s career was a cautionary tale about athleticism. Once it goes, you are no longer special. A good year or two may follow but consistency will never be the norm again. You die and you are reborn.

It’s easy to forget Amare Stoudamire was a high school player like Kevin Garnett was a high school player, like Kobe Bryant was a high school player, like LeBron James was a high school player. Those three won 10 NBA titles. They were explosive and they were skilled and they were lucky. Injuries came Garnett and Bryant’s way at the end, LeBron has been injury free. Garnett, Bryant and James  played on teams that were complete and versatile, that embraced details of offensive and defensive excellence.

The Amare Stoudamire career wasn’t entirely fair but nothing in life is. So be it. His career was good for a Plan B. It took him to the depths of despair and to moments of brilliance. There were highlight reels and emphatic dunks and punking Tim Duncan. There were playoffs demoralizations and too soon vacations and chasing what he used to be. It was good to be Amare Stoudamire, NBA All-Star; he will be remembered in Phoenix for a very long time.

But note to the world: every high school player isn’t special enough to be great.