By now, even the casual professional basketball fan knows that Amaré Stoudemire is making a very risky comeback from October 11 surgery on his left knee. Eight days after signing a $73-million, five-year contract extension, the Phoenix Suns superstar underwent the tricky "microfracture" procedure that has ended the careers of other NBA stars.
Needless to say, the surgery doesn't always work.
The operation is just the beginning. The complicated procedure is followed by an exacting and arduous recovery period. Just two weeks ago, Stoudemire was saying his chance of returning to the Suns this season was 50-50.
But he suddenly shook off the post-operative blues after a private March 17 meeting with Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo.
The prodigy knew full well that it was Colangelo, the franchise's godfather, who'd plucked him out of an obscure Florida high school in the 2002 NBA draft to become the league's Rookie of the Year.
In the kiss-the-ring meeting, Colangelo reportedly told Stoudemire it was time for him to make a decision about playing this year -- and then left it up to his star player to make the right call.
Spurning the advice of former Suns great Charles Barkley and others to sit out the remainder of this season to make sure his knee completely heals, Stoudemire returned to the Suns starting lineup on March 23 with an impressive performance; he scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 19 minutes against the lowly Portland Trailblazers.
Whether Stoudemire made the right decision for his long-term health and for the Suns, who are in first place in the NBA's Pacific Division, remains to be seen.
But what's clear is that Stoudemire is a long way away from being the dominating player he was a year ago in the NBA playoffs, when he dazzled fans and intimidated the game's best players with explosive moves to the hoop.
Two nights after his debut against the Trailblazers, Stoudemire appeared tired and disconnected from the flow of the Suns' fast-paced offense, scoring only six points in 16 minutes in the Suns' winning effort against a much stronger opponent, the Denver Nuggets. In his third outing, the Suns were demolished by the New Jersey Nets on the road, and Stoudemire had zero points in 14 minutes.
For most athletes trying to recover from a major injury that threatens to end a career, a quiet, stable, supportive family can facilitate a complete and quick recovery. In Amaré Stoudemire's case, he's got his mega-millions, but the stable family atmosphere has been harder to come by.
Not only is the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Stoudemire carrying the hopes and dreams of Suns fans on his prodigious shoulders, he must also deal with another monumental task this spring:
He must try to keep his mother out of prison in Arizona.
It now appears that Carrie Stoudemire's habitual problems with the law have had a direct effect on Amaré Stoudemire's relationship with the Suns. Amaré failed to show up for the Suns' March 15 home game against the Los Angeles Clippers -- a serious violation of team rules.
"I missed the game for family reasons," he was quoted as saying. "I needed to be somewhere else."
David Griffin, Suns vice president of player personnel, was quoted as saying the team needed to "gather some data" and wouldn't comment on whether Stoudemire would be fined or disciplined for missing the game.
"[But] it's always a concern when you're not available to your teammates," he told the Arizona Republic. "It's a concern to them, and it's a concern to us. I'm sure there's a good explanation for it."
So far, neither the Suns nor Stoudemire has given an explanation for the unexcused absence. So it goes in the NBA, where teams don't have to play straight with the public and the press.
Suns management has long been concerned about how Carrie Stoudemire could be affecting the star player.
Even if her serious legal problems are not the reason he skipped the game, there is no doubt that events unfolding in the next three months will have a profound effect on Carrie Stoudemire's life and, likewise, on her fiercely loyal son.
If history is any guide, Amaré Stoudemire will look beyond his mother's legal problems, get better and improve his game. At least that's what those who know him best predict.
"He's one of those people who has intestinal fortitude," said Carrie Stoudemire's ex-husband and Amaré's stepfather, Artis Wilson, who lives in Phoenix and is very close to the Suns center-forward.
"He's going to rise to the top every time something happens. That's him. That's his character."
"Ms. Stoudemire, I will tell you that when I got the phone call yesterday and learned that you were no longer at the Meadows, frankly, I was furious!" thundered Maricopa County Superior Court Commissioner Aimee L. Anderson at the beginning of Carrie Stoudemire's hastily called March 14 probation hearing.
Commissioner Anderson was angry that Amaré Stoudemire's mother had left the substance abuse treatment center in Wickenburg without permission from the court or written approval from the county Adult Probation Department.
Anderson had sent Carrie to the Meadows on February 24 at the request of her high-powered Phoenix defense attorney, Larry Kazan. Anderson cut the 50-year-old Carrie a huge break by releasing her from the county's decrepit Estrella jail, where she had been held since her arrest on DUI charges last October 21 -- 10 days after Amaré had undergone his surgery.
During the March 14 hearing, Anderson chastised Carrie for complaining about being unhappy during her three weeks at the Meadows.
"This is not an issue about being happy," Anderson scolded. "This is a term and condition of your probation."
Anderson said she was surprised that neither the Maricopa County Attorney's Office nor the probation department was seeking to revoke Carrie's probation and immediately return her to jail after she left the Meadows without permission.
Instead, Assistant County Attorney George Kelemen agreed to defense attorney Kazan's request to move Carrie to yet another drug and alcohol treatment center, this time Journey at Sundance, a "holistic healing center" in Scottsdale.
Kazan had already cleared the way with Sundance to accept Carrie before the court hearing. Anderson wasn't happy. The commissioner said that unlike the Meadows, where judges frequently send defendants, Sundance's reputation is relatively unknown to the court system.
But since neither the county attorney nor the probation department was seeking to revoke Carrie's probation, Anderson agreed to allow her to be transferred to Sundance rather than be returned to jail.
"I order that you are to remain there," Anderson barked at Carrie at the conclusion of the half-hour hearing. "I order that you are not to leave without a court order!"
As an added assurance that Carrie won't take off from Sundance as she did from the Meadows, Anderson placed her on house arrest to be served at the center, which means that she must wear an electronic monitoring device.
"This is in lieu of being locked in the county jail," Anderson emphasized.
But Carrie Stoudemire's visit to the cushy, well-manicured grounds at Sundance could be short-lived.
After decades of scrapes with the law -- she's been arrested more then 23 times on charges ranging from theft to finance a former crack-cocaine addiction to prostitution -- Carrie is now facing the likely possibility of serving several years in an Arizona prison.
Carrie moved from Florida to Arizona in the middle of Amaré's amazing first season, when the then-19-year-old became the first player directly out of high school to win Rookie of the Year.
Earlier in that 2002-03 season, while Amaré was flying high above the rim crashing spectacular dunks, his mother was getting released from a Florida prison.
After she came to the Valley, Amaré set her up in a nice house near his home, lavished her with jewelry and gave her a Mercedes-Benz. Despite no longer needing to struggle on the streets to provide for her family, Carrie had serious problems adjusting to her new life as the mother of one of the NBA's rapidly emerging superstars. The income of $7,000 to $10,000 a month she received as CEO of Amaré Stoudemire Enterprises didn't keep her out of trouble with the law.
Not long after coming to town, she was arrested on February 23, 2003, and charged with two felony counts of aggravated DUI after Phoenix police pulled her over for weaving and erratic lane changes. She was accused of drunk driving with a child under the age of 15 in the vehicle -- a felony offense. Her 14-year-old son, Marwan, was in the car. Carrie was found guilty of two felony DUI counts on September 11, 2003, and sentenced to 10 days in jail and five years on probation.
Less than a year later, Carrie was again in trouble with the law. She was arrested on July 25, 2004, in Scottsdale after attempting to shoplift more than $1,100 worth of items from Neiman-Marcus. She was convicted of misdemeanor charges in that incident on February 25, 2005, and sentenced to 10 days in jail.
The shoplifting incident triggered an investigation by the probation department that found Carrie Stoudemire had violated several other terms of her five-year probation, including driving with a suspended license, failure to submit to drug testing, leaving the state without permission, and failure to install an ignition interlock device in her car.
In August 2005, Maricopa County sought to revoke Carrie's probation, which would have sent her directly to prison. But her defense attorneys successfully argued that she should remain on probation and undergo psychiatric examinations. She was later diagnosed with depression.
Maricopa County Commissioner Shellie Smith reinstated the five-year probation and sentenced Carrie to 30 days in jail. On October 14 -- three days after Amaré's operation -- the court deferred Carrie's jail sentence until February 2006.
Despite getting yet another opportunity to comply with the terms of her probation and avoid serious consequences, Carrie was almost immediately in trouble once again. Late on the night of October 20, she was driving westbound on Interstate 10 and drove into a construction barricade.
She was arrested by a state Department of Public Safety officer a few minutes past midnight on October 21 and charged with aggravated DUI. Carrie added to her problems by giving police false identification.
The DPS officer's report stated: "During [the] breath test I asked the defendant for [her] name and she said 'April Harris.'"
Further police reports stated that Carrie allegedly used her friend April Harris' identification to obtain a false driver's license in August 2005. She allegedly gave this bogus ID to the DPS officer.
It wasn't the first time Carrie Stoudemire had used a fictitious name. Court records show that she has gone by other aliases over the years, including Deliah Lewis, Mar Williams, Gwendolyn Hayes, Carrie Palmore, Carrie Palhorn, and Carrie Wilson.
Carrie was locked up in the county jail on the morning of October 21, and she remained in custody until Commissioner Anderson ordered her released on February 24 and sent to the Meadows.
She has since been indicted by a Maricopa County grand jury stemming from the October DUI arrest and is now facing two felony DUI counts and a felony charge for taking the identity of another person.
Her next hearing on the latest DUI charge is scheduled for April 11, the same day that Amaré and the Suns travel to Sacramento, California, to play the Kings. No hearing date has been set on the identity theft charge.
A source close to the investigation tells New Times that the county attorney's office is expected to seek a lengthy prison term -- five to seven years -- if Carrie is convicted of the new aggravated DUI charges.
Carrie's DUI trial could begin in June, around the time of the NBA finals.
The Phoenix Suns were well aware of Amaré Stoudemire's childhood hardships.
Stoudemire's inspiring story had been chronicled in an HBO Real Sports special while he was still in high school. It was the classic tale of a determined young man who overcame all odds to succeed in the competitive world of pro sports.
Amaré's father, Hazell, died when he was 12, and his mother struggled to keep the family together in a drug-infested, poor neighborhood in Lake Wales, Florida, south of Orlando. She spent time in and out of jail on mostly theft-related charges while her children often were left to fend for themselves.
"My mom had to do what she could do to survive," Stoudemire told USA Today in a 2002 interview. "That's what made it even tougher. I guess she had to do what she had to do, and that got her incarcerated."
Amaré's older brother by eight years, Hazell Jr. (Amaré swears he's the best basketball player in the family) couldn't escape the mean streets and ended up in a New York prison on drug and sexual-abuse charges.
His older brother, however, never wanted Amaré to turn out as he had. He shielded his little brother from street crime, encouraging him to dedicate himself to sports.
Football was Amaré's first love, but by the time he turned 14, he was 6-foot-6 and could dunk on any of his much older opponents. During this time, he received strong encouragement and support from a local police officer, Burney Hayes, who made bunk space available for Amaré and his younger brother in his trailer.
Hayes also encouraged him to focus on basketball, and Amaré began his single-minded quest for the NBA.
Amaré bounced through six high schools in five years and lost one year of eligibility before finally settling in at Cypress Creek High School near Orlando for his senior year. By this time, Amaré was widely considered to be among the best high school basketball players in the country. He led the unheralded Cypress Creek squad to a winning record and was named Florida's Mr. Basketball for 2002, after averaging 29 points, 15 rebounds and six blocked shots per game.
Amaré's chances for a college scholarship were dashed after Nike shoe representative and former college coach George Raveling deposited $100 in his mother's jail account. This virtually assured that any university offering Amaré a scholarship would come under NCAA investigation. Amaré had been flirting with the University of Memphis, but after that he set his sights squarely on turning pro.
Many teams were worried that Amaré's unstable family background -- that is, growing up with no father and a mother who was in and out of the slammer -- left him woefully unprepared for the rigors of the NBA. Also, Amaré had surrounded himself with con men and hangers-on who saw a potential multimillion-dollar meal ticket.
One of these men, the Reverend William "Bill" Williams Jr., was a career swindler who cozied up to the then wide-eyed 18-year-old as a professed spiritual and professional adviser. Unknown to the young Stoudemire was that Williams had an extensive criminal background and was about to be sent back to prison.
Amaré didn't learn of Williams' dubious past until a reporter told him.
While Amaré's selection of advisers and friends raised concerns about his judgment, there was no doubt that he had great physical attributes, including a three-foot vertical leap. He was a raw basketball talent whose understanding of the game was lacking only because he had received so little quality coaching.
It took only a few minutes for the Suns' Jerry Colangelo to size up Amaré Stoudemire's potential. After watching him participate in a workout, Colangelo was convinced that Stoudemire was the future of the Suns.
"I told our people: That's our guy," Colangelo recalled to the Associated Press in May 2005. "He just stood out like a diamond."
The Suns worked closely with Amaré's then-agent, John Wolf, to keep him under wraps from other NBA teams in the weeks leading up to the 2002 draft. The Suns had the ninth pick in the first round and when Stoudemire was still available, they signed the high school kid to a three-year, $6 million contract.
Stoudemire wasted no time making his mark in the NBA, drawing headlines in the pre-season of his rookie year over his astounding leaping and dunking ability. He quickly became a fan favorite and drew high praise from players and coaches across the league.
But concern that Amaré Stoudemire's mother could become a major distraction for the young man began to surface in his rookie year. Shortly after Carrie's arrival, Stoudemire's agent quit after the player took away his marketing responsibilities. Carrie Stoudemire was miffed that John Wolf hadn't negotiated a better shoe deal for her son.
The split with Wolf soon escalated into a lawsuit filed in October 2003 in U.S. District Court in Minnesota. The suit alleged that Wolf and his company, Big League Sports, had advanced Stoudemire $206,000 between October 1, 2001, and January 2003. The payments came while Stoudemire was still in high school.
The money had paid for expenses incurred by "Stoudemire and his mother, including airplane tickets, car rentals and hotel rooms," the suit alleged.
Wolf claimed that Stoudemire agreed to repay half of the advances when he received his signing bonus from the Phoenix Suns and the balance as he got paid under his initial contract with the Suns. Stoudemire received his signing bonus in July 2002. Other than repaying $10,000 in July 2003, Wolf claims Stoudemire stiffed him on the balance.
The agent won a default judgment against Stoudemire in the Minnesota case in February 2004. Wolf, who once had been very close to Stoudemire, then began proceedings in federal court in Phoenix to garnish Amaré's paycheck.
Stoudemire finally hired an attorney who filed a lawsuit in Minnesota that succeeded in getting the judgment vacated. It's unclear whether Wolf is continuing to seek repayment of the advances or whether the matter has been settled out of court.
Neither Wolf nor Stoudemire returned telephone calls seeking comment.
In fact, the Phoenix Suns, after becoming fully aware that Carrie Stoudemire's legal travails would be the focus of this story, refused to allow an interview with the superstar. After first promising that New Times would have access to the Suns locker room, where Stoudemire would be available -- a privilege that is afforded to all the sports media -- the Suns suddenly pulled back a writer's media credentials at the press entrance to U.S. Airways Center immediately before the Nuggets game on March 25.
As for the legal fray with Wolf, it demonstrates the powerful role Carrie Stoudemire has played in Amaré's life.
Within months, Amaré was slapped with another civil suit involving his mother.
While non-basketball issues continued to nag Amaré during his first two seasons, he continued to steadily improve as a player. He finally reached superstar status with the addition of Steve Nash at point guard during the 2004-2005 season.
Because of Stoudemire, Nash and forward Shawn Marion, the Suns jelled into one of the top teams in basketball and reached the Western Conference Finals last season before being ousted by the San Antonio Spurs in five games. At the end of the final game, Spurs great Tim Duncan praised Stoudemire as the most dominant player he'd faced all season.
The 2005-2006 campaign was expected to be the Suns' run for a championship. But hopes were seemingly dashed when the team learned last October that Stoudemire would need knee surgery and would miss most of the regular season. The off-season departures of two of last season's starting five (guard Joe Johnson to the Atlanta Hawks and forward Quinten Richardson to the New York Knicks) didn't help matters. As the season started, there was serious doubt that the Suns would even make the playoffs.
Amazingly, the Suns have put together another tremendous season because, in large part, of the prowess of last year's NBA Coach of the Year, Mike D'Antoni. Johnson and Richardson haven't been missed with D'Antoni's working new acquisitions Boris Diaw, Raja Bell, Tim Thomas and Eddie House into the lineup. The team is headed toward the number two slot in Western Conference playoffs that begin next month.
Stoudemire's recent return is an important milestone for the team. But the question remains whether he will be a major contributor to the Suns down the stretch. Will his knees (he experienced swelling in his good right knee after he had recovered from surgery) coupled with his significant family problems impede his progress?
As amazing as it seems, until a New Times reporter interviewed Robert Sarver, who signed Stoudemire to that whopping contract extension, the Suns owner apparently was unaware of Amaré's serious non-basketball issue -- his mom.
When asked immediately before Stoudemire's comeback game with Portland if he knew about Carrie Stoudemire's serious legal issues, the man who bought the Suns from Jerry Colangelo and his partners sounded uninterested.
"I'm not following her," Robert Sarver told New Times.
Asked if he thought Carrie Stoudemire's legal problems could negatively affect Amaré's return to dominance, Sarver again sounded detached.
"You would have to ask him that," he said. "I don't know."
This interview took place before the Suns decided to block New Times from any such interview with the star.
Not only did nobody in Suns management below Sarver want a reporter to ask Stoudemire about his mother's legal problems, no Suns official wanted the subject broached to him or her either.
Mark West, the Suns' assistant general manager in charge of basketball player development, did not return several calls and e-mails seeking comment on Carrie Stoudemire's legal problems. Neither did Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo.
In addition to being seemingly unaware of Amaré's family situation, Sarver told New Times he wasn't fully aware of Stoudemire's knee problems before he signed the $73 million, five-year contract extension -- the maximum allowed under NBA rules.
"At the time we extended his contract, we knew he had some pain in his knee," Sarver said. "But the severity of his condition was not known to me. The fact that he needed surgery on his knee -- I did not know that."
Asked if he was surprised when Stoudemire decided to undergo exploratory surgery eight days after getting the huge contract, Sarver said, "Yeah, I was surprised."
The decision to do exploratory surgery came after additional doctors were brought in to study an MRI of Stoudemire's left knee. Sarver told New Times that he was unaware at the time the contract was signed that such an MRI -- which had uncovered a "defect" in Stoudemire's knee cartilage -- even existed.
"We found out in training camp when he went and got a couple of opinions and they went and looked at the MRI that he needed to have that surgery done," Sarver said.
In retrospect, Sarver said he has no regrets about signing Stoudemire to the fat contract:
"The issue that he had with his knee is something we felt totally comfortable with. [We felt] he was going to eventually get healed and be fine."
While Stoudemire may be facing a daunting recovery -- plus dealing with the stark reality that his mother may be going to prison for a long time -- his stepfather isn't worried about the young man.
"You know, when you look at his life, from his childhood on, it's adversity that's pushed him," said Artis Wilson, Carrie Stoudemire's ex-husband.
"Amaré has the maturity of a 30- to 40-year-old," Wilson said, and is coping with his mother's problems. Amaré's deep spiritual faith pulls him through difficult times, Wilson said. It also tempers the thrilling highs of the success that has come his way during his fledgling NBA career.
Wilson said Stoudemire is just beginning to make his mark in the world and predicts that his power and influence will extend far beyond pro basketball.
"We have known and believed for a while that Amaré is bigger than just Amaré, the Phoenix Suns NBA player, because of his spirituality," Wilson said.
"Later in life, Amaré is going to reach out with the same effect he has had with people on the basketball court. He's going to have that effect in ghettos and barrios . . . because he has a love and a passion for people who're hurtin' and especially kids who're hurtin'."
It may sound strange, Wilson said, but Amaré's mother is the reason he's who he is.
"Just because somebody's gotten in trouble doesn't mean they don't have a good heart," Wilson said.
Carrie Stoudemire, who has spent most of her life entangled with the criminal justice system, instilled in Amaré a powerful desire to succeed and, more important, a compulsion to help those in need, according to Wilson.
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"You know, when people read things about his mom, on paper it just looks like she's just this big bad wolf. But in real life, they don't read that it's hard for her to pass by a homeless guy without giving him money.
"They don't read that she's taken a diamond ring off her finger and given it to somebody in need. They don't read that she took a homeless kid into her house. She didn't call the newspaper to tell that.
"But you see," Wilson said, "that same stuff is in Amaré."