PHOENIX — For 516 games, Amare Stoudemire trotted onto the US Airways Center court and brought passion and electricity to the arena.
Standing tall and talented (STAT), Amare won over Suns fans instantly with his bone-crushing dunks that earned the 19-year-old the 2003 Rookie of the Year award.
Stoudemire eventually helped morph the Suns into a perennial playoff team and Western Conference contender, while earning five trips to the All-Star game along the way. But as the story goes, Phoenix didn’t offer Amare a fully guaranteed contract this summer, and he jetted to New York to team with former maestro Mike D’Anroni in search of superstar status.
He’s done to the Knicks what he did to the Suns — making basketball fun and catapulting New York into the playoff picture. For the first 34 games he’s been able to put his time in Phoenix behind him, gelling with his Knicks teammates and putting his eight years with the Suns in the rear view mirror.
But on Friday night, for the first time since laying an egg in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals (7-for-20 shooting) seven months and seven days ago, Stoudemire will return to the place he called home for eight seasons.
The highlight dunks, team camaraderie, and Western Conference playoff memories will come rushing back to memory, but this time he won’t be catchingbounce passes, he’ll be trying to defend them. He won’t be taking instruction from Alvin Gentry, he’ll be attacking his defensive schemes.
“It’s going to be an exciting atmosphere obviously,” Nash said. “Amare had a big impact on this club so to have him come back, especially with the success he’s had, I think it’s going to be an exciting night.”
Stoudemire will come out of the visitors tunnel in US Airways for the first time in his career, as the No. 1 guy he’s been yearning to be. It remains to be seen how he will be received, but he deserves more cheers than boos for what he brought to the city of Phoenix.
“I hope the people really appreciate what he did. He was tremendous here,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “What he did in the community should be appreciated”
D’Antoni is also making a homecoming of sorts, returning to the place where he created the Seven Seconds or Less offense. Gentry said he doesn’t like coaching in games against good friends like this, and hopes the Knicks win every game but the two they play against the Suns.
Phoenix, however, needs a win in the worst way, so all allegiances and friendships go out the window.
“Now do we want to beat him? Heck yeah. Do we want him to have a bad game? Probably his worst game of the year,” Gentry said. “I hope they give him an ovation when he’s introduced and then boo him for the rest of the game.”
The Suns have lost 10 of their last 13 games, while the Knicks are fresh off of a win over the first-place San Antonio Spurs. New York has proven capable of beating any team in the NBA, playing at the highest pace in the league while leading the NBA in scoring — both qualities the Suns used to hold.
While the Sun is setting quickly in Phoenix, the Knicks are rising faster than anybody could have imagined after a 3-8 start.
“I don’t know if anybody envisioned that happening this year but (Amare’s) the guy that’s made all of that happen,” said head coach Alvin Gentry.
Stoudemire is the league’s second-leading scorer (26.4 points) and changed the culture in New York from the moment he arrived in the Big Apple. Everyone knew he could score with anyone in the league, however, and it hasn’t only been STAT who’s producing.
Gentry raved about point guard Raymond Felton (18.2 points and 8.7 assists), dubbing him an Eastern Conference All-Star.
“I think that Raymond Felton is playing as well as any point guard in the NBA right now,” Gentry said.
Swingman Wilson Chandler is also scoring 17.9 points a night and scored 31 against the Spurs, while Stanford rookie Landry Fields is exceeding expectations (10.1 points) in 34 starts as a Knick.
“The other guys, Fields has been terrific, and they’ve put together a team that works,” Nash said. “Mike’s got to ttake a lot of credit as well.”
But the real story is Stoudemire, who will once again put on a show in front of US Airways Center fans, only this time in blue and orange. He felt disrespected and unappreciated by the Suns organization for their lack of interest this offseason, so it will be interesting to see how he translates that onto the court.