Amaré's Burden

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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty