COLOGNE, Germany -- This summer, Amare Stoudemire faced his basketball mortality. Instead of living his dream of representing his country at the World Championship, he sat at home wondering whether his days as a professional athlete were over, contemplating a summer in which he pushed himself to recover from a second knee operation in a matter of months.
"I felt sometimes my career was definitely toward the end," said Stoudemire, who underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee last October and, after his short three-game comeback in March, had another operation on his other knee in April to remove a cyst and clean up floating debris.
"You don't know how hard it was this summer to stay motivated. It got to the point where I thought I wasn't going to be able to come back, I thought I wasn't ever going to get healthy. Even at the age of 23, I felt it was going downhill, but I tried to stay focused. I have got the desire to reach my full potential, and that helped me stay focused, stay with my workout schedule.
"It definitely hurt, though, the pain of thinking I might be finished was almost indescribable. It hurts in your heart; it's something you think about day in, day out. You think about the type of player you used to be, the type of player you are now.
"I'm always thinking about something else to do in life," he continued. "Life is more than just a game of basketball. Basketball allows me an introduction to the world. I definitely want to go back to school, experience different jobs, different cultures, just enjoy life.
"But this summer I thought about it more. I was taking more steps toward that this summer, taking steps toward going back to school."
Well, those plans will have to wait a bit longer.
On Tuesday, Stoudemire returned to competitive action, scoring six points on 3-of-6 shooting and tallying six rebounds and one assist in 18 minutes as the Suns blew a 22-point lead and lost 103-100 to the Philadelphia 76ers.
He also committed five turnovers, which testifies that Stoudemire's timing was, indeed, well off. His first touch of the ball was a pass picked off by Chris Webber. At least twice he simply lost control of the ball as he made a move in the paint.
On the plus side, he moved freely, ran the floor well, showed some strong moves around the glass, and reported that a hearty summer regimen of weights and swimming has brought him into the season at a svelte 237 pounds, with 7 percent body fat.
"I'm at about 80-85 percent," he said after the game. "Can I get to 100 before the season starts? There's no doubt about it. I might even have that by tomorrow!
"I don't have any pain at all in either knee; it's coming back, baby. I just need a little more time, a little more work, a little more practice to work the kinks out. It's all about timing right now, knowing my teammates and how they play."
Said point guard Steve Nash: "The last couple of days, Amare has been great. We've seen flashes of his legs coming back. It may not look like much from the sidelines, but for the players, it's exciting. We can all see the old Amare beginning to come back."
Forgive Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, though, if he does not share the same enthusiasm just yet. The training camp has seen Stoudemire sit out a number of days of practice and the opening preseason game at Lottomatica Roma because of knee pain. The fact that medics found no evidence of damage or injury to either knee merely clouded the issue.
Take, for instance, D'Antoni's reaction Monday when asked whether Stoudemire would play in the preseason game against the Sixers:
"What time is it? Five after 12? I'd say 'yes' right now, but don't hold me to it," D'Antoni said. "We'll see how he wakes up. If he wakes up and practices like he did today, he'll play. He doesn't have to be 100 percent. He has to practice hard, practice hard, play hard, play hard; he's got to be consistent. He's done that this week, so he'll play.
"In respect to Las Vegas and USA Basketball, he's a lot better. Having said that, it's a bit of a roller coaster. Right now we're on the upside, and for the last two days he's been great. If he does that for the next 20 days and there are no setbacks, then he should be 100 percent by the time the season starts."
Still, D'Antoni and these Suns are just too darn laid-back to let the uncertainty and constant media interrogation wear them down.
"I don't think we let distractions bother us," D'Antoni said. "It's the same whether it's having training camp in Europe or Amare trying to come back, our guys are pretty focused on what they do. It's not real complicated, our offense, we just play! I think we're, mentally, in pretty good shape right now."
"If I could have received a nickel for every time someone asked me about my knee, my contract would just be a nice signing bonus," Stoudemire said. "It's definitely repetitive, but it's the question everybody is concerned about and I appreciate that and tell them how I feel."
"I feel good. This is my first major surgery, and it's definitely tough to come back from two knee surgeries. Not too many NBA players have come back to reach their full potential after two knee surgeries. But through the grace of God, I definitely will reach my full potential."
And don't think the power forward regrets trying to come back last season, either. "Coming back last year was something that needed to happen to see exactly where I stood. If I hadn't come back, I wouldn't have known where I stood. It was great for me to come back. No regrets."
In fact, the only major concern during the preseason game came before tip when Stoudemire made a point of informing the announcer that he was wearing his new No. 1 jersey, not the 32 that had been read out to the crowd.
"I didn't like that at all," Stoudemire said. "It's numero uno from now on."
Ian Whittell covers the NBA for the London Times and BSkyB.