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Stoudemire hopeful, but cautious in comeback
by Marc Narducci / February 1, 2006

Amare Stoudemire has always been a gambler on the court, who never minded attempting one of his famous high-degree-of-difficulty dunks over some unsuspecting defender. Now the Phoenix Sun high flyer has gone slightly conservative.

We're not talking about the plaid jacket and gray slacks he wore while sitting on the Phoenix Suns bench during a recent 123-99 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. It's just that the guy who always laid everything out on the court is now pulling back – at least when the subject of his immediate future is broached.

Everybody, with the exception of Western Conference contenders, is anxious to see Stoudemire return to the court following microfracture surgery to his left knee on October 11.

There isn't anybody more anxious than Stoudemire, yet nobody more justifiably cautious. When asked if he is looking to return by the playoffs, Stoudemire refuses to make any definite pronouncements.

"I hope so," he said. "It's a matter of how I feel."

Then pausing, he added, "Either this year or next year."

What?

That sounded like Stoudemire suggested that this year could be out of reach. Again, he's giving no timetables, and if that makes others uncomfortable, so be it.

"My thing is I'm making sure I'm 100 percent," he said. "I don't want to come back and re-injure the knee because that is bad on me, the team and the organization."

Make no mistake about it, Stoudemire expects to play this season, but he doesn't want to make any guarantees. His logic can't be disputed. That's because feeling 100 percent doesn't come with a definitive timetable.

When Stoudemire was first injured, the initial prognosis was that he wouldn't be able to return working out until after the February 19 All-Star Game.

"He is way above schedule, but we will stick to the schedule we have because we don't want to risk anything," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said.

According to D'Antoni, every week there will be a new hurdle to clear and Stoudemire and the Suns would know more after each of these tests is taken.

"Next week there will be an MRI and the week after is how he reacts to running without contact," D'Antoni said. "Then the week after that, it's how he reacts to contact."

And Stoudemire must ace each test before moving to the next level.

"If there is any kind of setback it sets the process back," D'Antoni said.

Both coach and player say that has yet to happen.

"I'm getting better and better and there have been no setbacks," Stoudemire said.

D'Antoni, like his injured superstar, won't be pinned down at this point.

"The doctors' educated guess is after the All-Star break he will begin playing competitive basketball," D'Antoni said. "After that we have to wait for him to see if he is psychologically and physically ready."

So again, there is no specific date for his anticipated return.

"It could be the first part of March, and could be the middle or end of March," D'Antoni said. "It's all up in the air now."

Physically, Stoudemire is relegated to doing a little weight lifting, some single-leg hops, along with work on a stationary bike. And there is plenty of stretching.

While his teammates are preoccupied with pre-game shooting, Stoudemire spends time with the trainers, having both his leg and pain threshold stretched to the limit. In the end, the pain, or lack of it, will be the true barometer of when Stoudemire will return to the court.

"It all depends on how I feel," he said. "If the time comes and I don't feel pain, I'll come back. And if I feel pain, I won't."

Microfracture is a common surgical technique used to repair damaged knee cartilage, the material that helps cushion bones at the joints. Stoudemire underwent preventive microfracture surgery, meaning his injury might not have been as severe as others.

Many athletes never totally regain their explosiveness after undergoing this surgery.

A prime example is the 76ers' Chris Webber, who had the surgery in 2003. Webber is still able to put up 20 and 10 on a fairly frequent basis, but he doesn't possess the gazelle-like quickness he exhibited prior to his
microfracture surgery.

"Mine is a little different than some of the others, but microfracture is still microfracture," Stoudemire, said.

The inactivity is eating at Stoudemire. Forget the $70 million contract that has him set for a few lifetimes. He is a competitor and aches to return to the court.

"It's been pretty tough," he said. "These guys made it easier for me because they are winning ball games. If they were losing, it would really be tough on me."

That's the amazing part. The Suns, who won an NBA-best 62 games last season, haven't slipped that much in Stoudemire's absence. The win over the Sixers improved their record to 29-16.

Point guard Steve Nash is actually playing better than a year ago when he earned MVP honors. Shawn Marion, like Nash, is improved over last season when he was an All-Star. Others, such as Boris Diaw and Eddie House, have seen their careers revived in the Valley of the Sun.

Stoudemire hopes to experience a rebirth as well, but he'll do it on his terms and those of the team. In a way, the 23-year-old Stoudemire is intent on taking baby steps, if that is humanly possible for somebody who stands
6-foot-10.

Marc Narducci covers the NBA for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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