It's just after 11pm on Thursday, and Amar'e Stoudemire is on a stage in a banquet room at the W Hotel accepting a humanitarian award for his work in Sierra Leone—building water wells, fact finding, spreading the game of basketball—this past offseason. The high-minded event, thrown by 944 Magazine, is an atypical opening to NBA All-Star Weekend festivities, and one that might suggest a toned down and buttoned-up four days ahead.
But when the applause dies down, the Phoenix Suns big man descends from the stage, claps his hands together, and bellows a question for all to hear.
"Where the party bus at?"
The bash has begun, but getting there won't be easy. En route to the exit, Stoudemire will glad-hand with local politicos, slap fives with Raptor Chris Bosh, hit up the red carpet for interviews with the celebrity rags, and graciously pose for countless photos with fans.
It's all in a day's work for one of the hosts of this year's All-Star weekend, whether he likes it or not.
"I don't like a lot of attention," Stoudemire says. "If nobody noticed me, that'd be phenomenal. But when you're blessed with a 6-10 frame, you can't hide. And especially not this weekend."
Outside the hotel, we climb inside Stoudemire's ride. What he calls a "party van" is a chauffeured, blinged-out mini-tour bus with neon lights, a liquor cabinet and, if the thumping bass is any indication, a very capable sound system. But it isn't exactly a party. Slumped in the back amongst childhood friends and a few employees, Stoudemire asks the driver to turn down the music.
"This is pretty much I how roll, man, with a small, close group of friends and a chill vibe," he says.
"The ladies might come," he kids. "But not until the end."
That's because there are many places to be and much work to be done—recession or not. These are tough times and All-Star weekend is feeling it. The number of traveling media at this year's festivities is down. Ditto the number of parties. (Brand Jordan is one conspicuous absence.)
But there are signs that things are more or less as they've always been. The All-Star itinerary is loaded with events co-hosted by captains of commerce and heroes of the hardcourt. Among the parties: a bash from Steve Nash and vitaminwater; one from D-Wade and his pals at T-Mobile; and the annual Two Kings party thrown by LeBron James, Jay-Z and Sprite Green.
Thursday's main event was the always reliable EA party, where DJ Jazzy Jeff rocked the house and NBAers like Danny Granger and Jameer Nelson rocked NBA Live '09. (Sort of. Nelson and Granger, playing with the virtual Magic and Pacers, respectively, might've set a record for most bricked jumpers in one sitting. "My defensive strategy," said Granger, "is to let Jameer shoot.")
Nobody, though, has a busier schedule than Stoudemire. He's been tapped to co-host at least two events per night, including two with rapper T.I. And right now, we're on our way to Stoudemire's Downtown, Amar'e's namesake restaurant across the street from U.S. Airways Center, for a party held in honor of his Stoudemire's new music label, Hypocalypto Records.
"I'm trying to live up to my responsibilities," Stoudemire explains. "With all these celebrities coming to Phoenix, we wanna show them a good time. When out-of-towners come here, they think it's a desert, scorching hot. But it's an amazing city. Great weather, clean environment, great golfing, great sports teams like the Cardinals and Diamondbacks, and it's one of the greatest party cities in the country."
"It's beautiful," he says. "That's why I want to remain a Phoenix Sun."
Ah, yes. Stoudemire is tipping his cap to the swirling trade rumors that have him leaving town before this month's trade deadline. He's asked if the rumors have dampened his spirits on a weekend that he was supposed to own.
"No, not at all," he says emphatically. "Not at all."
"When you play in the NBA, you hope for a long, healthy, prosperous career with your team, but you never know what the next day may bring. So the time I'm having now, hosting the All-Star game and playing for the Suns, you can't help but have fun."
And there's more fun ahead. We swing by Stoudemire's Phoenix condo to pick-up a few more of his pals and, a few minutes later, we're curbside, outside Stoudemire's Downtown, before a throng several hundred strong. Immediately, Amar'e is swarmed, fielding fist-bumps, backslaps, and plenty of pleas from ladies with hiked-up skirts.
"Amar'e, get me in!" yelps one. "Please? I'm your biggest fan!"
Tonight, Amar'e Stoudemire is the favorite Sun.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.