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Raising Arizona Straight out of high school, forward Amare Stoudemire has soared toward the top of the rookie class and boosted fortunes in Phoenix

Of all the reactions you'd expect from a 20-year-old NBA rookie
whose coach just told him, "You got Shaq," a canary-swallowing
grin is not one of them. But unmistakable joy, even mirth, played
over the face of Phoenix Suns power forward Amare Stoudemire as
he planted a forearm in Shaquille O'Neal's back late in a recent
victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. Earlier in the season the
6'10", 245-pound Stoudemire had delivered a vicious dunk over the
L.A. Clippers' 7-foot Michael Olowokandi, dominated All-Star
Kevin Garnett in a 38-point, 14-rebound performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves and leveled Paul Pierce as he drove to the
hoop, leaving the Boston Celtics' swingman with two broken front
teeth. But Stoudemire didn't know if he'd be so fearless when he
finally confronted his hoops idol. "If I was going to be intimidated
by anyone in this league, it would have been Shaq," says Stoudemire. "But I wasn't. I enjoyed every minute."

After a boyhood turned upside down by the death of his father and
by his mother's many run-ins with the law, after attending six
high schools in two states, Stoudemire (pronounced STODamire) has
finally found a stable home: in the paint, facing down the NBA's
most intimidating post players. Since replacing an injured Tom
Gugliotta in the starting lineup on Nov. 23, Stoudemire has given
the Suns their most potent inside force since a decade ago, when
Charles Barkley was in his prime. At week's end Stoudemire's 12.5
points and 9.1 rebounds per game were better than the rookie
stats of fellow high schoolers turned pros Garnett (10.4, 6.3),
Kobe Bryant (7.6, 1.9) and Tracy McGrady (7.0, 4.2), and his
precocious play had helped Phoenix (24--14), which failed to make
the playoffs last season, rise to third place in the Western
Conference.

"To say we expected this from Amare this soon would be silly,"
says Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo. An outspoken opponent of
drafting high schoolers, Colangelo set aside that opinion long
enough to watch Stoudemire work out last spring. After 15 minutes
he was sold. "Every once in a great while a player wows you,"
Colangelo says. "The only other [high school] player who did that
for me was Kobe Bryant. Kobe had it all: athleticism, skills,
work ethic, charisma, maturity and a certain look in his eye.
When I saw all that in Amare, I was moved. I knew he was our
guy."

Taken with the ninth pick last June (and the lone high schooler
to be drafted), Stoudemire has been a perfect fit on a rebuilding
team--a diligent, energetic presence who, with a vertical leap of
38 inches, can dunk with the quickness of a cobra strike,
regardless of which All-NBA player is guarding him. "Sometimes I
worry that the rest of the team is just watching to see if he'll
do something jaw-dropping," says Phoenix coach Frank Johnson, who
admits he is afflicted by the same anticipation. "He wows us all
the time."

Stoudemire's game is raw, instinctive. When he declared for the
NBA draft last May, he had played slightly more than two full
seasons of high school ball and received little real coaching. He
has no left hand, little range on his jumper and no clue against
a double team. He readily admits that his free throw
shooting--67.3% through Sunday--"needs work." Already, though,
Stoudemire has added a jump hook and a hanging one-hander. Last
Friday, in a 96--90 home win over the Memphis Grizzlies, he
snatched 21 rebounds, a team record for a rookie and the most by
a Sun in seven years. "Every game he does something that
surprises you," says Eddie Johnson, a 17-year NBA vet who is now a
Phoenix broadcaster. "And that tells me that he is picking things
up. Most rookies don't."

Nor do most 20-year-olds get veteran calls--at week's end
Stoudemire had been to the line 199 times, 40 more than the next
closest rookie, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming--or strike terror
into the hearts of seasoned players. "I'm not going to name
names, but I've seen guys get out of his way," says Eddie
Johnson. "I've seen guys hold back and not try to block his dunk.
You don't see a young guy intimidating veterans. But guys know
they're going to get posterized, that he is going to try to break
their arm. That's the way Shaq does it."

One way or another, Stoudemire has gotten inside heads around the
league. Chicago Bulls forward Jalen Rose likes to goad 7'1"
teammate Tyson Chandler, a high-school-to-pros rookie last season
who averaged only 6.1 points and 4.8 rebounds despite being the
No. 2 pick, by extolling Stoudemire's numbers. (Chandler, who got
a technical for taunting Stoudemire in a preseason matchup,
admits that he "loves" Stoudemire's game.) After that 38-point
outburst at Minnesota--a record for a rookie straight out of high
school--Phoenix point guard Stephon Marbury took a jab at his
former teammate, saying that Garnett "doesn't even compare to
Amare. It's like Michael Jordan and Mario Elie."

Marbury later clarified that he wasn't comparing Stoudemire with
the veteran Garnett, who is one of the top talents in the league.
But as a rookie? "Amare's the kind of player who comes along once
every 20 years," says Marbury. "He's a different breed. He makes
basketball plays that he doesn't even know he's making. When he
learns the game and puts that together with what he does
instinctively, he's gonna be scary."

Stoudemire is reading Barkley's book I May Be Wrong but I Doubt
It, but Sir Charles's brashness has yet to rub off on him. He is
direct and polite in interviews though not often inclined to
elaborate. Except for the occasional burst of soft laughter,
Stoudemire's face remains impassive, his eyes wary. He performs
the required rookie duties without complaint, fetching doughnuts
before shootarounds and racking balls afterward. As Suns forward
Bo Outlaw puts it, "Amare's a good dude."

If Stoudemire seems unmoved by the hype surrounding him, it may
be because he has been in the middle of a recruiting circus since
he was 14. His adolescence was so turbulent, it was the subject
of an award-winning HBO Real Sports segment in 2001. His father,
Hazell Sr., a saxophonist and Pop Warner football coach from whom
Amare inherited his broad shoulders, long arms, large hands and
nickname--STAT, for Standing Tall and Talented--died in his sleep
when Amare was 12. His mother, Carrie, has been in and out of
jail since 1978; her convictions include grand theft, forgery,
prostitution and check fraud. In 1999 Amare's brother Hazell Jr.,
25, a once-promising basketball player, began serving a sentence
of three to nine years in Gowanda, N.Y., for criminal sale of a
controlled substance and sexual assault.

Amare started to dream of playing basketball professionally as a
14-year-old, when he shot up to 6'6". As the Stoudemire brothers
picked their way through the drug-infested neighborhood to the
playground in Lake Wales, Fla., Hazell Jr.--who, according to
Amare, is now 6'10" and 315 pounds--kept the dealers at bay.
"He'd tell them, 'Don't talk to my brother; he's going to the
court to play basketball,'" says Amare. "And they never bothered
me." Perhaps they, too, recognized the kid's talent: At Amare's
first AAU tournament he was named MVP. "I knew I was good," he
says, "because I was the only 14-year-old who could dunk
backward."

But Stoudemire's itinerant high school career cost him valuable
playing time. His freshman season at Lake Wales High was cut
short by academic ineligibility. The following year he joined
coach Joel Hopkins's squad at Mount Zion Academy in Durham, N.C.,
an Adidas-sponsored juggernaut that McGrady had played for before
jumping to the NBA. Midway through the year Hopkins started a
rival school, Emmanuel Christian Academy, in the basement of a
Durham office building and spirited away the Mount Zion team to
serve as his student body. "Hopkins made us feel like it was a
very good thing," Stoudemire told HBO. Even though Emmanuel was
considered a national power going into the next year, the school
folded before the team played a game.

Stoudemire returned to Florida, where his life became even more
tumultuous. He started living with Travis King, a coach on the
summer basketball circuit; attended summer school at Dr. Phillips
High in Orlando before his junior year; briefly reenrolled at
Mount Zion, where, Stoudemire claims, his transcripts had been
doctored to keep him from playing at another school (the school's
athletic director, Don Fozard Jr., declines to comment); sat out
a year at West Orange (Fla.) High for academic ineligibility
stemming from the Mount Zion transcripts; learned that Nike rep
George Raveling had given Carrie $100 while she was in jail; fell
out with King and came under the influence of the Reverend Bill
Williams, who soon after claiming to be Amare's legal guardian
entered prison, for the fourth time, on a bribery conviction;
enlisted the help of publicist Marc Little, a colleague of
Williams's, who accompanied Stoudemire to the 2001 Nike summer
camp in Indianapolis, where he handed out glossy pictures and
press clippings to the media; and committed to Memphis. Had
Stoudemire honored that commitment, his association with Little
and the money Raveling had given his mother would have certainly
set the NCAA hounds abaying. But after a senior season at Cypress
Creek High during which he averaged 29 points, 15 rebounds and
six blocks and was named Florida's Mr. Basketball, few believed
college was in his future.

"I never had a doubt that I would make it to the NBA, even when I
wasn't playing," says Stoudemire. "I always stayed focused
because my family was going bad, and I wanted to be able to take
care of them."

After signing a three-year, $5.7 million contract, he can do
exactly that. He owns a house and a Cadillac Escalade, and when
Carrie was recently released after 19 days in a Bartow, Fla.,
jail for a parole violation, he bought her a Mercedes and settled
her and his 14year-old brother, Marwan, into a rented house near
him in Phoenix. Though the presence of Carrie has some people
close to Amare nervous, he's happy to have her around. "It feels
like home now," he says. "It feels like it used to be. A lot of
people think I grew up with just my brother and me, but mom was
there even when she wasn't. We had a good household."

Last week, in the Suns' 88--81 victory over the Trail Blazers in
Portland, Stoudemire struggled against double teams and had just
four points and six rebounds. "I'm going to have to adjust," he
said, donning a black sweat suit and a black knit cap. "I've been
trying to overpower everything. It's time to break out my finesse
game." In other words, more surprises await.

Stoudemire then left the locker room and headed for a team bus
surrounded by fans. He stopped to sign autographs, a velour-clad
figure standing tall and talented.

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA [T of C] ARM WRESTLER Cavs forward Carlos Boozer (between Efthimios Rentzias and Greg Buckner) is one of the NBA's toughest rookies (page 48).

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH ON BOARD Having survived a turbulent childhood and a six-high-school odyssey, Stoudemire is feeling at ease in the NBA.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK [See caption above]

COLOR PHOTO: NOREN TROTMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (WILLIAMS) Williams

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Wagner

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Hilario

COLOR PHOTO: GARRETT ELLWOOD/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (DUNLEAVY) Dunleavy

COLOR PHOTO: CATHERINE STEENKESTE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES O, MY! Stoudemire's 38-inch vertical leap served him well in this oft-replayed jam over the Clippers' 7-foot center.

Bumper Crop

In a strong class of rookies, here are nine of the most prominent
ones. Who's had the greatest impact?

Though he may be the most fearsome dunker of the bunch, No. 9
pick Amare Stoudemire is not the only first-year player drawing
attention around the league. An NBA scout takes a look at the
progress of nine prominent rookies in order of the impact they've
had (draft order in parentheses).

7'5" Yao Ming, Rockets (1)
13.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.86 bpg, 54.2 FG%

"He should be Rookie of the Year--he's the best player of the
bunch, and he's going to be the best for a long time. He's really
intelligent, has a soft enough touch [Yao is second in the NBA in
field goal percentage], is a terrific free throw shooter and is
already one of the top passing centers in the league, behind
Vlade Divac and Arvydas Sabonis. Yao's blocks show up in the box
score, but that stat doesn't reflect all the guys who are trying
cockeyed layups instead of going hard to the hole against him.
Teams don't drive on the Rockets anymore. They can't. He could
burn out later this season, but Houston is keeping his minutes
down."

6'7" Caron Butler, Heat (10)
13.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.58 spg, 40.3 FG%

"He was more ready for the pros than most other guys coming out
of the draft because he was 22 and had two seasons at
Connecticut. He plays bigger than his size, and he's starting to
shoot better. He's a bit of a tweener, though. Not the biggest or
fastest, a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. His defense is
O.K., but playing the three, he sometimes has trouble defending
the bigger threes in the post. He reminds me of Paul Pierce in
that he was polished coming into the league and went lower than
he should have."

6'10" Drew Gooden, Grizzlies (4)
12.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, .79 spg, 47.0 FG%

"In his three years at Kansas he would disappear for long periods
of time, so his fast start worries me. When he's on, he can score
almost at will. A big-time post-up threat, he can shoot the
face-up jumper and is athletic going to the basket. He's still
got to learn that in this league, even if you're putting up
numbers, it doesn't mean you're playing great. You still have to
be unselfish and play defense straight up. He tries to play
centerfield too much, going for steals and coming off his man to
try to block shots."

6'3" Dajuan Wagner, Cavaliers (6)
16.7 ppg, 3.3 apg, 1.14 spg, 37.1 FG%

"He knows how to score, and he's a gritty kid; he'll take it at
you every time. He can create space, catch and shoot, and put it
on the floor. He'll probably put up 25 a night for his career,
but I'm not sure he'll make his teammates better. The problem is
that he's an undersized two guard, and he'll never play the point
in this league. A natural scorer can't be transformed like that.
Look at Tony Delk and Allen Iverson."

6'2" Jay Williams, Bulls (2)
10.1 ppg, 5.5 apg, 1.47 spg, 38.1 FG%

"He's very good with the ball, very aggressive offensively. He
reminds me of Jason Terry: excellent at attacking. For a point
guard, though, sometimes that can be an asset and sometimes that
can take you out of your offense. The triangle just doesn't work
for the Bulls' personnel--especially Williams--and I'll be
shocked if they continue to run it. He's better off on the run
than playing half-court ball, and he's not an effective spot-up
shooter yet. The Bulls have been calling more high
pick-and-rolls, and Williams is much more comfortable with that."

6'6" Gordan Giricek, Grizzlies (40)
11.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 42.8 FG%, 85.5 FT%

"He was drafted in 1999 by the Mavericks, had his rights traded
to the Spurs, then was picked up by Jerry West for a second-round
pick. A typical European kid. Mentally strong, not much rattles
him. He reminds me of Sarunas Marciulionis and Drazen Petrovic
with his toughness. A fantastic shooter, especially coming off
curls, but I don't think he can be as clutch as Peja Stojakovic.
Defensively he's a tad slow, and I'm not sure he has the
fundamentals. His other problem is consistency--he goes from 29
points one night to six the next."

6'11" Nene Hilario, Nuggets (7)
9.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.63 spg, 50.4 FG%

"He's built like a 30-year-old Karl Malone. He and Stoudemire are
the two real specimens in this draft. He'll battle anyone, but
he's foul-prone. Some of it is that he's overly aggressive
instead of technically sound. He needs to become more aware of
what's going on around him, which may come when he learns the
language. He came here from Brazil with a few low-post moves, but
he hasn't found his go-to move yet. He's good at getting deep
seals, but because he doesn't elevate well flat-footed, he has
trouble getting his shot off cleanly in the paint."

6'9" Carlos Boozer, Cavaliers (35)
8.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, .58 bpg, 54.3 FG%

"He's a tough, strong kid. A little undersized, but he has great
arm length, so he plays bigger. Sets real good screens. He's not
on a very good team, but he plays with an outstanding center;
opponents give so much attention to Zydrunas Ilgauskas that
Boozer can exploit the openings. He loves to face up and shoot
the 12-footer, and a lot of big men don't want to go out on him.
He runs the high post well and has some good up-and-under moves.
Ideally, he's not a starter but a Malik Rose type off the bench.
In three or four years people will say he should have gone in the
first round."

6'9" Mike Dunleavy Jr., Warriors (3)
4.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.2 apg, 35.8 FG%

"He plays under control and has only one speed; he kind of hums
along. I think that bothers [coach Eric] Musselman because
sometimes it looks as if Dunleavy's not trying hard. He seldom
makes rookie mistakes, but he's soft: You don't have to worry
about him on the offensive glass. He'd rather catch and shoot, or
flair to the three-point line. Put him on a team like the Jazz,
with a lot of veterans, and he'd fit in and find open shots, just
the way Matt Harpring has. G.M.'s loved Dunleavy because he has a
great basketball mind, but that didn't mean he was ready right
away. The other problem is that the things that Musselman needs
Dunleavy to give him right now--defense, aggressiveness--aren't
his strengths. The Warriors will probably get down on Dunleavy,
and he'll end up emerging somewhere else down the road."

Ahead of the Curve

Of the 17 NBA players drafted directly from high school since
1995, most of those who have made it big showed a growth spurt in
their third season. Amare Stoudemire's Year 1 stats at week's end
already stack up against the Year 3 numbers for the best players
to have jumped from high school to the pros.

PLAYER, TEAM SEASON PPG RPG

Kobe Bryant, Lakers 1998--99 19.9 5.3

Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves 1997--98 18.5 9.6

Tracy McGrady, Raptors 1999--00 15.4 6.3

Rashard Lewis, Sonics 2000--01 14.8 6.9

Amare Stoudemire, Suns 2002--03 12.5 9.1