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Stoudemire's background checks out for Suns
by Steven Koek / July 1, 2002

He grew up clean when nearly everyone around him was not.

The number of high schools he attended exceeded the number of years it takes most to graduate.

He is a coachable kid in a man’s body that has never really been coached.

He is a workaholic NBA rookie who is just now beginning to learn the meaning of discipline.

He is a recent high school graduate, yet the same age as Chris Wilcox and Dajuan Wagner, both first round selections with college experience.

He is a young man with trust issues that must put his full trust in a few Italian men in suits who live in a desert.

He is Amare Stoudemire and he is arguably the biggest draft risk the Phoenix Suns have taken in their 34-year history. A 6-10 19-year old paradox who has relied on his religious faith and confidence in his abilities to rise above and through the circles of negative influence that have surrounded him since the age of 14, when it became apparent that he had big league potential.

Circumstances seem to have dictated that Stoudemire would wind up like hundreds of kids who show potential on the basketball court, then get sucked in by those who make a living leeching off the talents of others. Yet Stoudemire has mentally and physically stayed the course to fulfill his dream of playing in the NBA. It is tough to determine what exactly it is that has made him successful in his efforts to stay off the police blotter and on the basketball court.

“I don’t know, it’s just the way God made me,” the shy yet brash Stoudemire says a day after the Suns made him the ninth overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft. “I struggled and that makes me a lot hungrier. It pushed me more to want to be great.”

His struggles have been widely documented, including an ESPN special, chronicling Stoudemire’s adventures through five high schools in Florida and North Carolina in which transcripts were falsified, threats were made, and chaos reigned over coaching and teaching the basics of the game. His family life was no calmer, having lost his dad at age 12, seeing his mother go in and out of prison and an older brother still incarcerated.

“Crazy things,” Stoudemire says, shaking his head.

Just weeks before the draft, VP of player personnel Dick Van Arsdale told HoopsHype that he was against the drafting of players directly out of high school. “I think (high school players coming out) is a travesty. I’d like to see something done where kids had to wait a little bit longer before they entered the draft,” he said at the time.
After drafting Stoudemire, Van Arsdale said, “I’m thrilled. He’s not an immature high school player. His body is ready to play in this league.”

General Manger Bryan Colangelo agrees that on the outside it would not seem the type of scenario that a character-conscious organization like the Suns would be interested in taking a gamble on. “I think that his history would dictate one of potential trouble, but he comes through on a background check squeaky clean.”

It is tough for him to trust anyone beyond his closest friends, but Stoudemire has already considered those within the Suns organization people that he can extend his trust to. “I can’t really trust too many people,” confesses the Florida native. “If you’re not in my circle, I can’t trust you at all. It’s a business with the Suns; it’s totally different from the outsiders. The Suns are like my family.”

There is no denying Stoudemire’s potential. He is quick, athletic and plays above the rim, a seemingly perfect backcourt compliment for Suns high-flying small forward Shawn Marion and grounded center Jake Tsakalidis. “I’ve never seen him play but I hear he can jump higher than me,” Marion said on draft night.

The focus at this point is patience; something a team like the Suns can afford as they continue a rebuilding phase after missing out on the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, and something the organization began preaching minutes after drafting Stoudemire.

“There will be times when he will be lost out there, we understand that. We have to be very patient and he has to be very patient,” emphasizes head coach Frank Johnson. “He has the athletic ability. In terms of learning the game, that’s just going to take a little more time.”

What is not known is how Stoudemire will handle the structure of a demanding practice and training schedule, then the grueling NBA season after going through high school with little or no direction.

“It starts with me,” admits Johnson. “I’ve got to let him know how things operate in our league, how he’s supposed to carry himself. He was away from his family at age 15, and then he was off on his own. It is pretty amazing that he’s been able to remove himself from that situation.”

“As long as we continue to surround him with the right people,” Colangelo said, “and try to get him a positive influence he’s got the right direction. He’ll have the right direction from us but he’s got something from within that keeps him going in a positive direction and that is his desire to succeed, his desire to be one of the best players that’s ever played the game.”

The Suns plan to hire a live-in counselor for Stoudemire to help him with the cultural aspects of the transition, as well as the management of his newly acquired money and any potential pitfalls that can bring. Assistant coaches Mark Iavaroni, Mike D’Antoni and Phil Weber, three teachers of the game, had all been added to staff prior to the draft, and should help in the education of not only Stoudemire, but the Suns other first-round pick, Stanford swingman Casey Jacobsen (22nd pick overall) and second-year guard Joe Johnson, as well as the rest of a relatively young club trying to regain the winning touch.

Whether or not Stoudemire can learn and grow in that system remains to be seen. For Johnson, “My thing with him is just to tell him to compete everyday that he’s on the court, play hard, not to put any added pressure on him to come out there and expect him to score a lot of points, that’s not what I’m asking him to do. I think he will do that.”

Confidence is one thing that Stoudemire is not lacking in. He genuinely feels he can be one of the elite players at the professional level and he can’t wait to get started.

“I just won’t let (anything) stop me from going after my goals. My goal is to play in the NBA and there is nothing that is going to stop me. I’m ready. If the season started tomorrow, I’m suiting up.”

Steven Koek is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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