Land of the Rising Sun

From Associated Press

Amare Stoudemire has an awesome power dunk that could break a defender's arm.

The kid has blocked shots by Yao Ming and David Robinson. He scored 38 points in one game, and grabbed 21 rebounds in another. Eighteen times, he's had double-digit rebounds and points in the same game.

No other player who has gone to the NBA directly from high school has had this kind of first half-season -- not Kobe Bryant, not Kevin Garnett, not Tracy McGrady.

And he's just scratching the surface of how good he can be.

"I'm going to get a lot better," Stoudemire said. "I'd say I've got about 90 percent to improve."

Barely 20, he stands 6-foot-10 and weighs 245 pounds. He has a 38-inch vertical leap and the quickness to run the court with two of the NBA's jets -- teammates Shawn Marion and Stephon Marbury. When he gets the ball down low, he holds it in his massive right hand like a grapefruit.

"I'm impressed," said NBA commissioner David Stern, no fan of high school players coming directly to the pros. "This is a very sculpted young man with an enormous amount of physical talent, and he's doing very well."

Eight teams passed on Stoudemire before the Phoenix Suns selected him in last year's draft. Only three teams -- Phoenix, Houston and Denver -- had him in for a workout.

There is a general caution these days about drafting high school players -- Stoudemire was the only one picked last year. The big concern in his case was his past.

It is a story of survival, of triumph over circumstances that could have ruined his life.

"I could have gone the wrong route, but I didn't," Stoudemire said. "I stayed focused. I used my head. That's not hard to do."

Stoudemire's father died in his sleep when Amare was 12. His mother has been in and out of jail many times, mostly for theft and drug-related convictions. His older brother, Hazell, is in a New York prison for sex abuse and drug offenses.

Since his midteens, Stoudemire has been the rock of his family, relying on his athletic skill to keep things together and someday reap the rewards. With his size and talent, he was constantly the target of those who wanted to take advantage of his ability. He went to six different high schools before finishing up last season at Cypress Creek High School in Florida.

General Manager Bryan Colangelo, and his father, Sun owner and chief executive officer Jerry Colangelo, watched his workout and immediately targeted Stoudemire as the power forward they long had sought. Coach Frank Johnson said his jaw dropped when Stoudemire used both hands to go up for his vertical leap measurement, and when he slam-dunked over a defender who had played four years in college.

"I kind of went out on a limb and said he could be the best player we've ever drafted," Jerry Colangelo said, "and he's certainly living up to that billing."

The plan to bring him along slowly was abandoned when Tom Gugliotta went down with a foot injury 10 games into the season. Stoudemire has started every game since, and the Suns have gone 20-12.

"Anytime you can come from high school to the NBA, obviously you're a pretty special player," teammate Scott Williams said. "But no one thought he was going to have the impact on our ball club that he has had this early in the season."

Until he got to Phoenix, Stoudemire had virtually no coaching, and he's been like a sponge in practice, absorbing all he could.

"When you talk to him, you can see he's in tune to what you're saying to him," Johnson said. "When I've asked him to do things, he's done them. He wants to be very good. That's the thing about it."

In a road loss at Memphis Dec. 4, Lorenzen Wright was able to get into Stoudemire's head, playing mind games that resulted in one of the rookie's worst games -- two points, two rebounds and four personal fouls. When Stoudemire next saw the Grizzlies, Jan. 10 in Phoenix, he had 16 points and 21 rebounds, eight of them on the offensive boards.

Teammate Penny Hardaway says that when he lobs the ball inside to Stoudemire, it reminds him of his young days in Orlando with Shaquille O'Neal -- Stoudemire's favorite player -- in the way the rookie goes up aggressively to get the ball then takes it to the hoop.

"I don't know if I've seen anybody jump that quick with that force and that strength," Minnesota's Kendall Gill said. "In a couple of years, you might have to send three guys at him defensively. He'll bowl right over two. I don't care how old he is, he's a true stud."

He is getting respect from officials who almost never give a break to a rookie. Stoudemire's 239 free-throw attempts are 61 more than any other first-year player.

Fearless aggression is a main reason Stoudemire has emerged as Yao's biggest challenger for rookie of the year.

"That's just me. That's my mentality," Stoudemire said. "I've got a passion for the game."

About a month ago, Stoudemire's mother, Carrie, finished a jail term for violation of her probation and moved to Phoenix, where Amare's 14-year-old brother already was living. Stoudemire rented a house for her just down the street from his, and bought her a Mercedes.

The Suns are monitoring how Stoudemire is dealing with the flood of attention that has come his way. So far, so good.

"It's on top of him," Johnson said. "I don't know how well he'll handle that, but he seems to have a very good head on him."

Stoudemire already has stopped talking about his tough younger days.

"I've told it to just about every reporter," he said. "I'd rather focus on basketball."

For now, Stoudemire is getting along mostly on ability and attitude. He is learning how to pass out of double- and triple-teams, and dealing with defenses that have quickly learned he prefers to go to his right. His defense needs improvement, he is working to improve his midrange jumper and he sometimes forgets to block out on the boards.

But already his breathtaking moves have brought excitement back to America West Arena.

"This young guy, with his God-given talent, with his heart, if he continues to work on his game, how exciting is it to think about what he can become in just a few years?" Jerry Colangelo said.

Stoudemire will take part in the slam-dunk contest at the All-Star game, and he will play with the other top rookies in the future stars game.

"I always knew I was good," he said. "I think everybody else is surprised, but I'm not."

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