In this week's edition of Throwback Thursday, we do the time warp back to 2002 and relive the rookie season of prep-to-pro phenom Amare Stoudemire.
In the years of 1964 to 1969, one of the best basketball players in the world was ostracized.
He unfortunately had been mentioned in a point-shaving investigation during his freshman year at the University of Iowa, and despite never being arrested or charged with any wrongdoing, he was kicked out of Iowa and banned from the NBA.
The man was Connie Hawkins.
The 6'8 forward bounced from the long-since defunct ABL to the Harlem Globetrotters before finally landing with the Pittsburgh Pipers of the ABA in its inaugural 1967/68 season. Hawkins led the ABA in scoring (26.8) and minutes per game (44.9), added 13.5 RPG and 4.6 APG, won the league MVP award, won the playoff MVP award, and led the Pipers to the 1968 ABA championship.
By 1969, Hawkins and the NBA had finally made nice (to the tune of a $1.3 million settlement offer to Hawkins) and he was sent to the expansion Phoenix Suns as a 27-year-old rookie.
Hawkins led the Suns to their first playoff berth in just their second year of existence, posting 24.6 PPG, 9.2 RPG and 4.2 APG along the way, despite only being a year removed from knee surgery. Alas, the NBA only saw seven seasons from Connie, as he steeply declined after reaching the age of 30.
The Suns retired his No. 42 jersey and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992. It almost makes up for the fact that he was robbed of his prime years by a scandal that he didn't even participate in ... but ultimately, it doesn't.
How disappointed the basketball gods must have been, and how grateful we were when they finally sent us Amare Stoudemire as a peace offering in 2002.
As we touched on a few weeks ago, the early-2000's were not an especially rewarding time to be a Suns fan. The cleansing process after the arrests of Jason Kidd and Clifford Robinson ultimately left us with Stephon Marbury, John Wallace and Jud Beuchler.
The Suns clunked their way to a 36-win season and missed the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. Along the way, however, they made a seemingly innocuous trade that drastically altered their fortunes.
Early in the season on November 16, 2001, the Suns sent Beuchler to Orlando and Vinny Del Negro to the Clippers in exchange for Bo Outlaw. For taking on the $25 million still owed to Outlaw (!!!), the Suns got back their own pick for the upcoming draft, which was sent to Orlando in 1999 in the Penny Hardaway sign-and-trade.
The Suns ultimately used the well-traveled pick to select high school standout Amare Stoudemire.
Stoudemire's potential as a pro was undeniable, but his talent was somewhat overshadowed by questions regarding his character, due in part to a publicized scandal in which his mother accepted cash from a Nike representative. Unfairly, his spotty background directly led to doubts about whether he possessed the proper work ethic to develop his game. From ESPN's scouting bio in 2002:
The question remains, will Stoudemire pick up the nuances of the game and handle the intricacies of the NBA. Was he ruined by the system and will he be committed to become an NBA player and put the time in and work at his game. The Outside the Lines and HBO stories on Stoudemire didnt help his image.
Despite the success of Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady, there was also a growing stigma regarding the maturity concerns of high school prospects, due largely to the sad story of Leon Smith, who was drafted in the first round by the Mavericks in 1999 and quickly flamed out as a pro amidst debilitating psychiatric issues.
The Suns rolled the dice on Stoudemire at ninth overall, taken after the likes of DaJuan Wagner, Chris Wilcox, and Nikoloz Tskitishvili.
No one expected Stoudemire to be a contributor right way. Rarely is such a thing expected from any rookie, much less one straight from high school. Kevin Garnett scored in double-figures once in his first 19 games as a rookie, and didn't hit double-figures in rebounding until game 39. He didn't register his first 20-point game until game 52.
Stoudemire hit double-figures scoring in four of his first seven games. By his 17th game he had registered six double-digit rebounding games as well as the first 20-point game of his career. His breakout performance came on December 30 in Minnesota against Garnett and the Timberwolves. Amare went 16/24 from the field for 38 points and 14 rebounds.
If anyone didn't know, they did by then.
This isn't really about the numbers, though. For the year Stoudemire scored 13.5 PPG with 8.8 RPG. Great for a rookie, but otherwise only a step above average for a starter. It was the way he was doing it. The fearlessness, the aggression, the dunks ... oh lordy, the dunks.
Since I'm convinced that Amare Stoudemire was why YouTube was invented, here is a video that can describe it much better than I can.
This kid wasn't just interested in the two points. He wanted to crush some souls on the way.
He was young, fierce, and nasty. And he was ours.
The timing couldn't have been better. We were still trying to warm up to the idea of a Stephon Marbury era. The recent landscape had been dotted with things like Tom Gugliottas and Luc Longleys and Jake Tsakalidises. The gray floor paint, the brushes with the law, Scott Skiles' hairline ... it was a damn depressing time for the Suns.
Stoudemire went on to claim the 2002 Rookie of the Year award, and the Suns picked up 44 wins to earn a playoff berth. They lost to the top-seeded Spurs in 6 games, with Amare banking in a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime in Game 1, but no one was calling the Suns' season a disappointment.
Amare Stoudemire had made the Suns interesting again. High school kids don't go around haphazardly throwing it down in NBA dudes' faces and then pose afterwards. These things just don't happen, but here they were happening to us.
For the first time since Sir Charles rode into town, the Suns felt dangerous. For everything Stoudemire achieved in his Suns career, it's for this that I am most grateful to him.
Stoudemire is a no-brainer to join Hawkins in the Ring Of Honor after his retirement. Seeing their names together will no doubt make one wonder would could have been if Hawkins had entered the NBA at 19 like Stoudemire, instead of wasting his prime in basketball purgatory.
For Stoudemire, his game exploded a bit more with each year that passed, until only a microfracture knee surgery could slow him down. And that was all it did -- slow him down a bit. He still managed five All-Star appearances, a first-team All-NBA selection and three second-team All-NBA appearances after the surgery.
Although injuries did their best to stall the legacy of Stoudemire, the image of No. 32 whipping through the lane and dunking the ball off of some poor sap's coconut will be forever burned into the memory of all those fortunate enough to have beared witness.
He also produced the best dunkface of all-time, courtesy of Stephon Marbury.
Thanks, basketball gods.