We’re enthralled by the bloom of youth in all things, basketball in particular. And with good reason. Anthony Davis evolving into some kind of Gorgonic horror of endless arms and a 3-point shot; Steph Curry going from shooting phenomenon to unstoppable cataclysm; James Harden carving at the edges of the game with brutal, awkward grace like a drunken master. These are players ascending toward – or working at the peak of – their games.
But as Shakespeare wrote, “Every fair from fair sometime declines/By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d.” In other words, age and/or injury will bring low every superstar, so the story then becomes one of perseverance and adjustment – a process, in truth, every bit as compelling and beautiful as the bloom, if less pyrotechnic.
For every Kobe Bryant who refuses to bow as time breaks him slowly, there’s a Vince Carter who transmutes himself into a support role. This is where six-time NBA All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire finds himself with the Miami Heat this year, a team with three other former All-Stars in Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng, a dominant young big man in Hassan Whiteside and a promising lottery pick in Justise Winslow. In a tumultuous Eastern Conference, they could end up anywhere from the second seed to out of the playoffs entirely.
“The adjustment to becoming a team player is far more important when you get to the latter half of your career,” Stoudemire says. “Earlier on I was extremely healthy and I was a phenom on the basketball court, so it would have been unacceptable for me to accept that role in my younger years. But now as you get older and you’re not as athletic or fast as you used to be, you still can be very effective by having less minutes.”
There’s little doubt that when Stoudemire was that phenom – a Rookie of the Year who didn’t play organized ball until he was 14 and was drafted straight out of high school when that was still allowed by the league – his athleticism was way out ahead of his skillset. But he put in the work and listened to the vets around him in Phoenix. In probably his best individual season in 2007-08, he posted an offensive rating of 124 and a defensive rating of 104, a spread comparable to some of the best seasons of players like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Chris Paul and more. At his best, Stoudemire was a beast, a basketball Grendel. And he sees that eagerness to grow in the Heat’s players.
“What’s good about our young players is that they’re willing to learn,” Stoudemire says. “Being a veteran player who’s been very successful in this league is always helpful in any locker room, to spread your knowledge to younger players. And even players who’ve been in the league for seven, eight years still can use the expertise of someone who’s been in the league for 14.”
As rewarding as that mentoring can be for Stoudemire, whose only clear plan right now post-retirement is to provide for his family “from a spiritual and emotional standpoint,” what he looks forward to most is just having fun on the court – especially after four-and-a-half injury marred seasons with the New York Knicks.
“That gets me more excited than anything,” he says. “Just being able to still enjoy the game. Obviously it gets extremely hard to keep ourselves healthy and in shape, but the games become something that’s like a playground for us now.”
That’s something Stoudemire took for granted early in his career; but these days, at age 32, he’s learned to appreciate those moments of freewheeling abandon. You can hear it when he reminisces about the 2004-05 season – he calls it the best of his career – when the Suns won 62 games, were the top seed in the West and torched the league with Steve Nash at point guard, Quentin Richardson at shooting guard, Joe Johnson at small forward and Stoudemire and Shawn Marion in the frontcourt.
“That was probably the most fun I’ve had because we just could not lose,” he says. “We were like rock stars, man, every city we touched down in. Everyone loved us, man, from the girls to the media to the fans. It was truly amazing.
“We transcended the game. There was no team trying to score the ball in the first four seconds of the shot clock. The way we were playing was just electrifying; we were flying through the air,” he continues. “It was so much fun. And you look now and the NBA has shifted and kind of adopted what we started.”
As such, it’s interesting that the Heat have Bosh – who stretched his game out to the 3-point line in the last few years – and Whiteside, a throwback big who’s dominant defensively and on the glass. Bosh’s season-ending trouble with blood clots in his lungs and Whiteside’s midseason explosion meant those two only shared the court for 311 minutes last season. How Miami puts together its aging stars, veteran role-players and promising young guys will determine how far they can go this season, and Stoudemire’s ready to be a part of that process.
“For us to be able to play team basketball and put our egos aside and work toward a common goal, which is to win a championship, it’s a challenge for us,” he says. “But we’re willing to accept the challenge.”