Amar’e Stoudemire was shooting jumpers. Practice would not begin for another three hours.
“Leadership by example,” the assistant Phil Weber marveled later, recalling the scene. “There’s no substitute for that.”
From the moment he arrived in July, has been the face of the Knicks, but also their conscience, their work ethic, their grit, their steady voice.
Two more stars, and Chauncey Billups, arrived in February, and the spotlight widened to accommodate them. But Stoudemire remains the Knicks’ foundation, and the primary reason they will end a seven-year playoff drought Sunday night in Boston.
The gratification is evident in Stoudemire’s smile and words, and in the praise that flows from everyone around him.
“I think that he, for the first time, thinks that this is his team, and he was responsible for getting us to the playoffs,” Coach said Saturday, adding, “He took it on his shoulders in good times and bad times, going, ‘It’s me.’ ”
If the Knicks have any chance of upsetting the in this first-round series, it will begin once more with Stoudemire, their fantastically skilled power forward, who averaged 25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks this season.
And if matters grow tense, if the Knicks’ resolve wavers, it will probably be Stoudemire who pulls the group together and steadies them — “the one constant voice,” as D’Antoni said, who keeps pushing them forward.
D’Antoni has long admired Stoudemire’s skills and athleticism, but he was not always so enamored of his demeanor. Nor, it should be said, was Stoudemire always so enamored of D’Antoni’s coaching style.
They spent four mostly glorious seasons together with the , lighting up scoreboards and making deep playoff runs. But as expectations rose, so did the tensions. Stoudemire was never fully dedicated to defense. D’Antoni did not always connect with Stoudemire, who other than Steve Nash was the Suns’ most important player.
There were concerns about Stoudemire’s maturity and his commitment while recovering from a knee injury — issues that were detailed in “Seven Seconds or Less,” the book that chronicled the Suns’ 2005-6 season.
As the book’s author, Jack McCallum, recalled in an interview last week, Stoudemire “was just an immature kid who didn’t do his rehab as assiduously as he should, wasn’t a great teammate, was sometimes selfish and did lock horns with Mike over that, no question about it.”
Some of those who worked with D’Antoni and Stoudemire played down the issues between them. But McCallum, who had unlimited access that season, said the tension was real.
“I’m pleasantly — and emphasis on pleasantly — surprised by what’s happened,” he said of the successful reunion.
Stoudemire was just 22 when D’Antoni began his first full season in 2004. D’Antoni was somewhat of a rookie himself, having spent nearly a decade working in Italy. Both are headstrong.
But they have evolved since their bitter parting in 2008, when each took veiled shots at the other after a shocking first-round loss to San Antonio. D’Antoni was forced out and joined the Knicks for a painful overhaul. Stoudemire and the Suns struggled under a new coach, Terry Porter.
The time apart changed everyone’s outlook.
“I’m much more appreciative of what he brings,” D’Antoni said, adding, “I always had him, so I didn’t know what it was without him.
“You get a little jaded,” D’Antoni continued, “and the pressure’s on you to win a championship and you don’t appreciate all the things that he’s done. I also think that he’s gone to a level that makes you appreciative of it. So it’s a little give-and-take on both our parts. I think the guy’s terrific, and he’s doing an unbelievable job.”
D’Antoni’s private evaluations of Stoudemire have been just as effusive. He told one friend that Stoudemire has become just as strong a leader as Nash is.
Cynics viewed this reunion as a marriage of convenience: the Knicks needed a franchise player after being snubbed by . Stoudemire needed a team that could afford to pay him $100 million.