- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- His first words -- "The Knicks are back" -- came off like a punch line LeBron James might have delivered at a cocktail party.
Yeah, the New York Knicks are back. Back to throwing bad money after bad.
Inside a suite at the Four Seasons, Amare Stoudemire had just engaged in a $100 million handshake with Madison Square Garden chairman Jim Dolan. If it seemed like a panic move on the Knicks' end, well, they were terrified of coming away empty-handed from the historic summer sale of 2010.
Dolan about fell over when Amare said yes -- "Jim got emotional," said the player's agent, Happy Walters -- and suddenly Stoudemire was standing under a Knicks cap outside the Garden, talking about winning championships and sounding like a damned fool.
"We're going to start a dynasty-approach program here," Stoudemire said, "and today's the first step."
A dynasty. Stoudemire had never reached the Finals with Steve Nash in Phoenix, and now he was going to erect a dynasty out of the rubble of a 29-53 team?
Stoudemire called himself a "pioneer," and it sounded like another joke. He promised to help in the hunt for James, and yet LeBron wouldn't even return Stoudemire's calls or texts in the final days of his own free agency, funneling Amare off to assorted minions and reps.
Great. Just great. The Knicks had all but tanked two seasons for a chance to court the King, and their $100 million recruit-turned-recruiter wasn't even worth the King's time.
Knicks general manager Donnie Walsh had all kinds of plans at the start of free agency, and a dreamy one was to convince James, Stoudemire and Joe Johnson to take less-than-max money to play together. But LeBron had a different holy hoops trinity in mind, one that would draw up plays in the sands of South Beach, and Johnson went for the payday in Atlanta.
So this is what the Knicks were left with in July: an undersized and overpaid center who hadn't won a ring and who hadn't loved the experience of playing for Mike D'Antoni while chasing one. Oh, and his knees might give out at any time, too.
Five months later, with the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Miami Heat making their first trip to the Garden, this is what the Knicks are left with now: a motivated megastar who embraces the challenges of New York that chased away LeBron, and who appears hell-bent on winning a championship or two, not to mention the title of greatest Knick of them all.
"Our fans were heartbroken when we didn't get King James," Willis Reed said from his Louisiana home. "I don't know if Amare's totally making up for that, but he is making people forget a little about LeBron. He's given all of us hope."
Reed is the most beloved Knick, and he has watched from a distance as New York has fallen for another center who appreciates the value of a hard night's work.
"I always figured we weren't going to get LeBron," Reed said, "but I would've been totally destroyed if we didn't get Stoudemire. A lot of people were concerned that he wasn't the right guy to build around, but with the way Amare is playing now, he's telling the fans, 'Hey, I know I wasn't your No. 1 guy, but I can get it done for you. I will get it done for you.'"
"Rise & grind." Stoudemire tweeted those words the morning of Dec. 10, proving he already understood the ethos of New York.
No, nothing better defines the daily experience of New Yorkers than "rise & grind."
Funny, but D'Antoni had his reservations about a reunion with Stoudemire. They did a lot of winning together with the Suns, but they also clashed in the way young players and stubborn coaches often do. Their marriage was stuck somewhere between blissful and turbulent, maybe a few possessions closer to turbulent.
"But at 12:01 a.m., the first night of free agency," Walters said, "the very first call Amare got was from Mike. They had a really good talk. I don't think there was anything major between them in Phoenix, but Amare was young and Mike was sometimes frustrated. It was just coach-player stuff."
Enough stuff for D'Antoni to remain concerned about Stoudemire's maturity, about his ability (or lack thereof) to lead. On Stoudemire's July trip to the city, the coach carried those concerns into a breakfast meeting with his former player.
Wednesday night, before his team surrendered its eight-game winning streak to Boston, before Stoudemire was a tenth of a second too late on his otherwise epic 3-pointer, D'Antoni said of that breakfast's purpose: "It was just to make sure that everything was cool, and just to make sure that this is what he really wanted to do. And that's what we got out of the meeting, that he did want this challenge."
D'Antoni said that he knew Stoudemire wouldn't be intimidated by New York, that he knew Stoudemire had the requisite talent and personality to thrive in the big city, and that the reports of their tense relationship in the desert were exaggerated.
"But each year in the league I think you learn how to handle different things," D'Antoni said. "So I think we're both in a better place now."
Back to that breakfast: Stoudemire said the right things, with the right conviction. D'Antoni walked out of the meeting and told his bosses and co-workers to forget his earlier reservations -- Amare needed to be signed.
Stoudemire caught a game at Yankee Stadium, attended Dolan's big Fourth of July bash, and then greeted the Garden chairman and his men late the next morning at the Four Seasons. The July 5 meeting lasted about three hours, and the Knicks' video presentation was similar to the one that didn't work with LeBron, including a personalized "Sopranos" scene acted out by Tony and Carm.
Stoudemire told Walters to cancel their scheduled trip to see the Bulls. "Hap, I'm good here, so we don't even need to go to Chicago," Stoudemire told his agent. "I want to do it. I want to be the guy here. I want to take the good and the bad."
In the midafternoon, sometime around 2 p.m., Stoudemire accepted Dolan's offer and shook his hand.
The Knicks took their free-agent find to a downtown restaurant that night, inviting along Chris Rock and other celebrities who had been warming up in the bullpen for a LeBron visit that wasn't to be. Stoudemire then spent his entire summer rising and grinding through intense workouts, taking off a mere seven or eight days. He even had his trainer travel with him to Israel, where Stoudemire could hone his game when he wasn't trying to connect with what he believes to be his mother's Jewish roots.
This is why Stoudemire has dropped 30 or more points in nine consecutive games, a franchise record, single-handedly bringing back the Garden from the dead. This is why Stoudemire has done enough to elevate Raymond Felton and to inspire the question:
Did Nash need Stoudemire as much as Stoudemire needed Nash?
"I think we've found out Amare is pretty good on his own," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
We've also found out Amare can lead. When asked to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees game, Stoudemire requested that his teammates also be invited to the Bronx. When asked to participate in the Garden of Dreams charities for children, Stoudemire eagerly rode a double-decker bus full of schoolkids through the city streets.
On the Knicks' preseason trip to Italy, Stoudemire joined Danilo Gallinari as co-host of all team activities. During the Knicks' 3-8 start, Stoudemire publicly warned his teammates that they could never grow comfortable with defeat.
They have grown comfortable with winning ever since.
Before the Boston game, Stoudemire spread his 6-10 frame across the locker room floor as a semicircle of reporters stood a few feet away. He was stretching out his legs while studying papers filled with diagrammed sets.
Stoudemire then went out and again honored the Knicks' investment, inspiring the Garden crowd to chant for his early candidacy as league MVP. On the same night Stoudemire placed the heavy hopes of an awakening basketball city on his back, LeBron James was telling reporters in Miami that he didn't consider New York any more seriously than Wade or Bosh did.
"It's all about winning," James said. "It's not about saving a franchise."
Through his goggles, Amare Stoudemire clearly saw something LeBron couldn't see.
Winning games or saving a franchise?
Sometimes it can be about both.
Amare Stoudemire is making good on promise LeBron James wouldn't consider.