PHOENIX — Tonight’s matchup between the New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns is more than just another game for Amare Stoudemire — it’s a chance to make a statement.
Amare said on Thursday that he felt unappreciated by the Suns’ front office, and his return back to US Airways Center is an opportunity to show Robert Sarver and company exactly what they’re missing out on.
Stoudemire wasn’t quite as upfront about being undervalued in Phoenix when talking to the media at today’s shootaround, but he did say this: “I might have gotten overlooked at times. There were injuries where my perseverance may have gotten overlooked. Just my hard work and what I bring to a franchise and to a team may have gotten overlooked.”
When asked how nice it would be to have a big game against the Suns in Phoenix, in a professional manner, Amare said that winning the game was all that mattered. But it’s clear that there’s far more motivation than just coming out on top at the end of 48 minutes.
“I would say that’s at the top of his list,” said Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni when asked how badly Amare wants to play well against his former team. “He’s like that.”
“It will be exciting,” he added. “I think he’s looking forward to it more than anything. I think it’s fun for him, obviously familiar surroundings, a lot of fans, and friends and family. I’m sure he wants to play well.”
Alvin Gentry also dismissed the notion that it’s just another game for both teams.
“It’s not just another game on the schedule and that’s where everybody says that and they’re lying when they say that,” Gentry said. “Obviously Amare coming back is big.We’re playing against a guy that was an ex-player here.”
Why Amare left
Although Gentry said the Suns offered Amare a “max contract” and he felt he left because he wanted to be the No. 1 option and have his own team, Stoudemire made it clear that Phoenix was where he wanted to be.
“My first option was to re-sign here in Phoenix,” Stoudemire said. “That challenge would have brought along, contending for a championship. That was my first option. It didn’t work out that way so I moved on to New York.”
He also said that playing second-fiddle to Nash wasn’t a problem, as every team needs a “one-two punch.” Stoudemire still seemed genuinely sad he and the Suns couldn’t reach an agreement and thought the Suns could have done big things this season with him as their power forward.
“I don’t know what happened. Last year we was in the Western Conference Finals, this year we would have had a chance to contend for a championship,” Stoudemire said. “I went to New York and things kind of went in the opposite direction.”
Amare’s maturation process
D’Antoni talked at length about how much Stoudemire’s matured since he first coached him in Phoenix. Here’s what he had to say:
“He’s been unbelievable. On and off the court he’s been the best leader and the best player you could ask for. He’s kind of taken New York by storm. He’s done the right things off the court especially and endeared him to the city. I just couldn’t ask for anything better.
“I think he’s more patient. I think he sees the game better offensively and defensively. He understands what it takes to win. Probably the biggest is that he doesn’t get frustrated at all. He just keeps telling the guys hang in there. Even when we were 3-8, hang in there, lets keep playing, let’s go, let’s go. That’s invaluable for a coach and he’s been doing that since training camp. I kind of knew (with this) challenge he would rise to the occasion, but I didn’t know that he could rise this high.”
Stoudemire agreed he’s grown in all different aspects over the years.
“No question. It’s been like that over the last four years,” he said. “Just really growing as a person, growing as a player, growing as a father.
Reception from the fans
Alvin Gentry said he thinks that after eight stellar seasons in Phoenix Stoudemire deserves an ovation from the Suns fans, and D’Antoni agreed.
“He did everything he could to try and stay here. Even when he left he insisted in a sign-and-trade to help Phoenix out as much as he could,” he said. “It just was business, but he loved Phoenix and the fans. I think the fans will show him tonight they love him.”
When asked how he thought the fans would receive him, Stoudemire was unsure, but he went on to discuss how loyal Phoenix fans are and were to him during his time with the Suns.
“One thing about the Phoenix fans is they’re loyal. They really appreciate the hard work you put forth,” he said. “Hopefully tonight they appreciate my perseverance through injuries, to come back and play hard for the fans here and the hard work I put forth in the offseason and during the year to ultimately win a championship.”
Although STAT’s always spoken highly of Suns fans, he said that Knicks fans are a completely different animal. He’s treated like a rock star, which Stoudemire absolutely eats up.
“It’s unreal. New York City right now you feel like a rock star. It really does,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how appreciative the fans are for the hard work and what we’ve done so far and it’s still early. So far the fans there are out of control.”
Amare on the current state of the Suns
Stoudemire said he knew it wouldn’t be the same in Phoenix without him, but he didn’t expect the Suns to fall out of contention this badly.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be the same once I left. I just didn’t know how quick the impact was going to be,” he said. “I figured the team was still going to be successful in the regular season, also make the playoffs. I find it hard to see them making the Western Conference Finals unless they get another big-time All-Star player. I didn’t think it was going to be this big of an impact.”