PHOENIX -- Amar'e Stoudemire was stretching in the New York Knicks locker room an hour before tipoff when a reporter asked the former Sun if he had brought any gifts for his old friends in the Phoenix media.
Stoudemire chuckled ominously.
"I got a gift, alright," he said.
The present was a trip down memory lane.
|Amar'e sticks it to the Suns for the first time since they traded him. (Getty Images)|
"My hard work and what I bring to a franchise and to a team may have gotten overlooked," the NBA's second-leading scorer said.
Following Friday's 121-96 New York win, it was obvious what Stoudemire brings: relevance.
The Knicks have it. The Suns do not.
While New York (21-14) is the toast of the town and a surprise contender for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference, Phoenix (14-20) is a ghost of the plucky team that pushed the Lakers to six games in last season's Western Conference finals.
"We needed someone to grab hold of New York and bring us out of the ditch we were in," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Amar'e has the toughness and the heart and the desire. He's one of the guys that was not afraid to do it."
The Suns' reasons for letting Stoudemire escape have been well chronicled. Phoenix's five-year, $96.6 million deal offered only $56 million in guaranteed money with the rest based on playing time. The Suns had concerns about Stoudemire's knees and right eye, all of which have required surgery.
The Knicks voiced no such concerns. Their five-year, $99.7 million offer was fully guaranteed.
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It's impossible to say who was right and who was wrong just 35 games into Stoudemire's contract.
"Only time will tell," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said.
But Stoudemire made it clear which side of the fence he occupies by scoring 19 points in Friday's first half, mostly on jumpers and runners because the Suns elected to defend him with Grant Hill.
"I had one objective and that was to dominate from the start," Stoudemire said.
It's no secret Stoudemire felt more than underappreciated in his final season here. He felt unfairly blamed for the team's failure to win an NBA championship, despite three Western Conference finals in his eight-year tenure.
While Steve Nash's defensive shortcomings were gladly overlooked, Stoudemire's deficiencies -- rebounding and defense -- were the top bullet point for local radio shows and columns.
There were also those who questioned his ability to lead once Nash retired -- assuming he ever does.
While the jury is still out on Stoudemire's five-year prospects, the Suns' look dismal. The team has Nash, a bunch of complementary players, Vince Carter's semi-expiring contract and nothing on which to build a contender.
"We lost an All-Star power forward and didn't replace him," Nash said.
Instead, owner Robert Sarver spent all of that saved money on Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick, Josh Childress and the re-signing of Channing Frye, then admitted the main move was a mistake when the Suns dealt Turkoglu in the Carter deal.
Logic dictates the Suns deal Nash while he still has trade value, but Sarver seems more inclined for quick fixes that maintain ticket sales than he is with hitting rock bottom and rebuilding through the draft.
So why not keep Stoudemire?
"It's definitely a risk," D'Antoni said. "But you're risking on a guy who's overcome a lot of challenges in his life -- a guy that has proven it time and again."
As he walked away from the post-game media throng in the dark, gray halls of the arena, Stoudemire wore a look of satisfaction.
And as he passed out of sight he whispered one word that scarcely anyone heard.