He only turned 20 in November, but there's very little boy left in Amare Stoudemire.
At 6-10 and 245, the rookie forward for the Phoenix Suns has the thick, mature frame of an athlete 10 years his senior.
Stoudemire has traveled a rugged path, too.
He has had no father in his life. His mother, Carrie, has served jail time for shoplifting and check fraud. His older brother, Hazell, is serving the fourth year of a five-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. Amare lived with three different families during his childhood and changed high schools six times.
'Amare has persevered,' says his agent, John Wolf. 'He has seen adversity that people do not experience in a lifetime.'
Stoudemire has beaten the odds and, along the way, has acquired the look of a once-in-a-generation power forward.
'He's a freak, you know what I mean?' teammate Shawn Marion says.
Adds L.A. Clippers coach Alvin Gentry: 'He has a young Karl Malone body.'
And a game to match.
'Players like him come along once every 15 years,' teammate Stephon Marbury says.
Stoudemire's considerable talents will be on display tonight in the Rose Garden. Given the opportunity to start when veteran Tom Gugliotta was injured early in the season, Stoudemire has emerged as a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year honors. He is 14th in the NBA in double-doubles with 12 and rebounding (8.9 per game) and sixth in offensive boards (3.2). He is averaging 12.6 points, and that figure is on the rise.
In last Monday's loss against Minnesota, Stoudemire used an array of dunks, hooks and post-up moves to score 38 points, two short of the franchise rookie record set by Walter Davis in 1978. Afterward, Marbury Ñ ex-teammate and ex-friend of Kevin Garnett with the Timberwolves Ñ was asked to compare the two at the same point in their careers.
'Not even close,' Marbury said. Garnett 'doesn't even compare É it's like Michael Jordan and Mario Elie.'
Stoudemire being Jordan.
Marbury told the Phoenix media that Garnett was 'scared to death' of getting close to Stoudemire and his monster dunks. 'He didn't want to go next to him. É It seemed like he was fading away.'
Garnett figures that Marbury is merely throwing brickbats at an adversary. 'He is using a young fella to come at me,' says Garnett, who as a rookie in 1995-96 averaged 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds.
In the Minnesota game, coach Frank Johnson was unhappy that the Suns didn't feed Stoudemire the ball more down the stretch. Go-to guy a rookie on a team with Marbury and Marion? That says something. A spot in the February All-Star Game isn't out of the question.
'With Amare playing like an All-Star, it's hard to beat us,' Marbury says. 'If Yao Ming is going to make it, then Amare for sure should make it Ñ that's not even close.'
Malone averaged 14.9 points and 8.8 boards as a rookie with Utah in 1985-86. Stoudemire appreciates any comparisons.
'Malone was a great player, and he's still pretty good,' Stoudemire says. 'He is always in great shape. Hopefully, I can stay in the league as long as he has.'
Stoudemire comes from humble beginnings in Lake Wales, Fla. Asked about his family before the Suns' recent win over the Clippers, he looks the reporter in the eye and says this:
'Mom got in trouble doing things to try to support our family. We weren't wealthy, and she had three boys to worry about.
'Hazell, I think he's in for selling drugs. We were close, real close. I always looked up to him. He played ball in high school, too. I stayed away from stuff because of him.
'In order to get to the basketball courts, I had to walk down the streets where a lot of guys sell drugs. Hazell is real big Ñ like 6-10, 300 Ñ and if a guy would try to speak to me, he would just tell me to keep going and play ball at the court.
'My younger brother, Marwan, is living in Phoenix now. He is 14 years old and is doing good. I'm showing him the ropes. I'm pretty sure he looks up to me.'
Amare is supporting the family now and doing a nice job of it Ñ remarkable since he didn't play organized basketball until he was 14 and played only two years of high school ball. Before that, he was a football wide receiver.
'But I grew four inches the summer between my eighth- and ninth-grade years, from 6-0 to 6-4,' he says. 'When I got that tall, it made the decision (to switch to basketball) pretty easy.'
A year ago, Stoudemire was averaging 29.1 points, 15 boards and six blocks for Cypress Creek High School in Orlando, Fla. Even Shaquille O'Neal stopped by to watch him play. In June, Phoenix made him the ninth pick of the draft. Now it looks like a steal.
He is the biggest reason why the Suns, who used 6-6 Dan Majerle at power forward at times last season, boast the West's third-best record at 21-12.
Marion says: 'Amare provides energy in the paint for us, causes havoc down there. Since I have been here, we have never had the post threat. He's always in there banging, lending that physicalness. And he's playing on raw talent right now.'
Marbury says: 'Once he learns the game, it's all over. He is stronger than the guys he's playing now, and he hasn't even touched the weights.'
Minnesota General Manager Kevin McHale is impressed, too, but cautions that work ethic will be critical to Stoudemire's growth.
'He can be a heck of a player,' McHale told the Phoenix media. 'He has tremendous physical abilities. And he has a presence about him, a little edge, a little attitude, all the positive stuff.
'Will he work on the things he needs to work on? Or will he join the long list of guys in our league who listen to people who tell them how good they are? I have seen a lot of 'meteors' come through this league. If he goes home and reads his press clippings over the summer, he'll be this good (but no better) next season. It's up to him.'
Stoudemire is working on a
daily basis with Tim Grgurich, the former Blazer assistant now with the Suns. And he shrugs off comparisons with Yao.
'I think I am doing as well as him,' Stoudemire says. 'He just seems to get a lot more hype than I do, which is good. I would rather not have that much hype and just do my job.'