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King of the Valley

Amar’e Stoudemire’s Phoenix apex, and the invention of the point center position

Getty images
Getty images

It took only a day for the Suns to regroup after losing to the Spurs in the 2005 Western Conference finals. Like everything during that era of Phoenix prosperity, the team’s plans for the future moved in warp speed. Internally, the Suns imagined a new positional prototype for their high-octane system, to be unleashed in the following season. Point center, they called it. Amar’e Stoudemire, the 22-year-old future of the franchise, was to be its apostle.

“Once I polish my game a little more,” Stoudemire said, “I’ll be able to take us to the promised land.”

I’ve thought about this an unhealthy amount for the past 10 years. I’ve come back to the same East Valley Tribune article year after year, revisiting the impenetrable optimism that somehow shined brighter amid defeat. I thought about it when Amar’e first left the valley in 2010 for New York. I thought about it in 2015, when Blake Griffin played the best playoff series of his career against the Spurs, and when LeBron James and Draymond Green stepped up as centers for their respective teams in the Finals the first time around. I thought about it during the Warriors’ unprecedented winning streak at the start of last season.

And I’m thinking about it now, only a day removed from Stoudemire’s decision to retire from the NBA at 33, after 14 years in the league. The point center concept (or at least its modern iteration — shout-out to Bill Russell) has gone from being a conciliatory gesture, intended to keep Stoudemire happy at the 5, to becoming not only a reality, but a damn near necessity in today’s NBA. There is a thrill in seeing an idea come to fruition; a melancholy, too. Changes in attitude mark the passage of time as vividly as anything.

Of course, I think about Amar’e Stoudemire: Point Center so often because it is a figment of my imagination that I never mustered the will to bury. Four months after Phoenix gave a sneak peek into a brave new world, doctors discovered a lesion only a centimeter wide in the articular cartilage of Stoudemire’s left knee. He would miss all but three late-season games in 2005–06; the point-center template would be filled by Boris Diaw, who was tacked on as a consolation in the Joe Johnson sign-and-trade with the Hawks. The Suns would rise again, and so would Amar’e, but he’d never have that season — the true follow-up to one of the most dominant individual performances ever seen in a playoff series, the season that scared the wits out of both Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich.

Stoudemire averaged 37 points and 9.8 rebounds in five WCF games against the Spurs, with Duncan as his primary defender. After Game 5, Pop was asked if anyone had ever done to the Spurs what Amar’e had done. “Never,” he said. “I don’t know what to do with him. I mean, he’s just unbelievable. He’s a real unique player. He’s only going to get better. I don’t know how.” In the Tim Duncan era, no one has ever had a better playoff series on a per-game basis against the Spurs than Stoudemire; if you include their three 2004–05 regular-season games, no player has ever played a better season on a per-game basis against the Spurs. And now no player ever will.

In the final 10 seconds of the 2005 Western Conference finals, with the Spurs leading 101–93, Stoudemire grabbed a rebound off a Manu Ginobili missed free throw and took the ball coast to coast himself. He executed a hesitation crossover on Duncan, and scored at the rim with minimal resistance. Duncan inbounded the ball, the final buzzer sounded, and he and Stoudemire immediately embraced. Duncan patted him on the chest and told him, you played a heck of a series and there will be plenty more times that you’ll be back in this position.

Stoudemire would return to the Western Conference finals only once more, in 2010. A little more than a month later, he’d leave Phoenix for New York, the other career-altering decision in his life — but at least that time it wasn’t nature deciding his course for him. Maybe that’s why he chose to retire as a Knick — maybe it didn’t have anything to do with where he was most successful, but where he felt the most control over his own person.

But I choose to remember Stoudemire in the days after losing Game 5; in the moments at his apex, where the precarious intersection of raw potential and raw productivity gave us the gift of the perfect Shawn Kemp, the Stromile Swift that our dreams had us believing in, or, if we want to keep this local, a blend of Charles Barkley’s imposing physicality and Richard Dumas’s world of talent, before the fall. The 22-year-old who had already become the league’s most physically dominant player, and still was growing into himself. I’ll remember Stoudemire in those summertime moments when you realize it can get better, when you believe it can only get better.