A SALUTE TO AMAR'E STOUDEMIRE ON THE OCCASION OF HIS DEPARTURE FROM THE KNICKS
My earliest childhood memory is of basketball, which means that literally as far back as I can remember, I've been a basketball fan. That that first memory was Bernard King blowing out his knee in 1985, and that I've been a Knicks fan all this time means that the world as I have always known it has been something of a Lovecraftian saga of anxiety and doom. I could, however, have walked away at any time; the fact that I still watch basketball (with great passion) and still root for the Knicks (with weary hope) is an indication that it cannot, in spite of my fondness for melodrama and apocalyptic imagery, have been all that bad. The one time I did walk away from basketball—driven away by low-scoring defensive battles and a combination of sadness and guilt over the end of the Patrick Ewing era that exacerbated the petit mal drug problem I was trying to shake—I was drawn back after no more than a season or so by the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns, and inescapably, Amar'e Stoudemire.
The Seven Seconds Or Less Suns, with Mike D'Antoni and his “fuck defense, we're dropping 120” Euro-style coaching, Steve Nash and his terrible hair and beautiful passing and covert tendency to never miss a shot ever, Shawn Marion and his bizarre jumper, three pointers for days and fast breaks and dunking. They had everything. And Amar'e was their best player. His ability to explode from a standing position upward into a dunk was everything that is good and beautiful about basketball. I don't even remember who the first guy I saw him dunk on was. Amar'e dunked on the poor fucker so hard his entire existence on this temporal plane was wiped out.
That season, considering that it started with me high as balls with a friend of mine while watching the Malice at the Palace, passed delightfully. The Suns, aptly named, lit my cold little world and taught me how to love basketball again. Until the playoffs, of course, but being a Knicks fan I was inured to playoff misery, and indeed remained unconvinced I hadn't fucked the Suns with my Knicks-tainted aura. Or if it was karma for infidelity.
Which leads neatly, if not literally, into the next chapter of my life with Amar'e. My 2010 got off to a bad start, due to a spectacularly messy romantic episode that ended my acting career (how one led to the other is a subject for another day, but that it did at all should highlight how spectacularly messy that romantic episode was) and one of the only things I had to look forward to was free agency that summer. I, like many Knicks fans (I never divorced them; we had settled into a nicely polyamorous relationship by this point) was convinced that LeBron was coming to town, because he could make approximately a fucktillion dollars a year in endorsements, and because the small-ball lineup Mike D'Antoni—now coach of the Knicks—could/would roll out with LeBron, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and (this was my wrinkle) Amar'e at center would basically scorch the fabric of the universe and make the planets rotate backwards.
You know how that ended. James Dolan, as usual, did something stupid—from what I heard, he tried some weird trustfund billionaire pickup artist negging thing on LeBron, who said “fuck this shit” and hopped the first plane to Florida—and the Knicks were left to build around Amar'e as the only superstar. And for the first half season, it worked beautifully. The Knicks were fun to watch again, with lots of young talent around Amar'e, and while they still couldn't play defense with a gun to their heads they were well on their way to being good again. And when the season was over and Carmelo's contract was up in Denver, they could pop him into the pre-existing nucleus without having to give anybody up and, hey, suddenly two of the best players in the league are on the same roster with about five other dudes who could really play!
But you know how that ended. James Dolan, as usual, did something stupid, trading all five of those other dudes for Carmelo, midseason, and turning the Nuggets into an instant playoff contender. Carmelo and Amar'e had an awkward time figuring out how to play together, and were basically the only guys on the team (aside from a just-over-the-hill Chauncey Billups) who knew how to play. They got crushed in the playoffs that year, and then Amar'e was never healthy again. There was Linsanity, and the 54 win season where J.R. Smith was a reliable contributor for six months but both of those seasons were like something out of a dream, and we're talking about reality here.
The nature of sports fandom is such that the relationship with a favorite athlete is entirely personal; the athlete has no idea who you are, in almost every case. And so, Amar'e coming back into my life at a point when one career ended and another began will always lead me to associate him with that transition. Additionally, I'd enjoyed being an actor even though I secretly wasn't all that good at it, just as I'd enjoyed the idea of LeBron coming to the Knicks while secretly worrying that he'd be thinking “What's tangibly in this for me? Seriously, if I fuck up here, they'll roll me in a carpet and throw me in the East River.” Just the same, the Knicks signing Amar'e and my turning pro as a writer instead felt the same. Amar'e was always that guy on another team I'd really liked, just as I'd been writing off and on over the years without really knowing quite how to take the next step until suddenly, there it was.
If this is more about me than it is about Amar'e, then such is the solipsism of sports fandom. But the point of this is to say that despite his contract turning from slightly on the high side for someone with his injury history to astonishingly awful after his first season, and despite that first season being his sole contribution to the Knicks from a basketball standpoint, I will never feel anything but fondness for Amar'e as a basketball player and as a Knick. Completely aside from his being instrumental in my still liking basketball at all, how could I not like an injury-prone dude who bathes in red wine and got that excited about meeting Taylor Swift and Anna Wintour? The second I can afford that much wine it's on. (And angels and ministers of grace defend us when the Vine of me saying “Heh, you're tall” and falling over something makes the rounds if I ever meet Ms. Swift.)
Anyway. Long story short: love to Amar'e and best wishes with his next team. May he sign with a contender that plays good enough defense to cover for him so he can focus on dunking like a proper modern gentleman.