PHILADELPHIA -- It seems like a lifetime or two ago when Amare Stoudemire slipped on that fresh cap, accepted the challenge that sent LeBron James fleeing to South Beach and announced to New York something more stunning than a Tim Tebow trade to the Jets.
"The Knicks are back," he said.
He was reminded of those first words after the Knicks punctuated a long, crazy day in New York sports with a decisive victory in Philly over the first-place Sixers. Stoudemire was sitting at his locker the way Patrick Ewing always sat at his, white towel wrapped around his waist, large ice packs wrapped around both knees, waiting to be asked about the burdens a big man must bear.
He'd called himself a "pioneer" on arrival at the Garden, the first star willing to try to save the Knicks from themselves. The Phoenix Suns didn't want to max out on Stoudemire's bum knees, and so the free agent shook Jim Dolan's hand inside a suite at the Four Seasons, signed the uninsured $100 million deal and spoke of starting "a dynasty approach program here."
A dynasty. No, there hasn't been a hint of one with Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony and the rest. The Knicks did come back a bit under Mike D'Antoni last year, disappeared after the Melo trade and then re-emerged last week after D'Antoni surrendered to the fact he could no longer inspire his team.
But in the Wells Fargo Center, pitted against the same opponent that destroyed D'Antoni's system in the Garden and left the losing coach sounding like a beaten man, the Knicks looked all the way back -- back as a legitimate contender in the East -- for one simple reason:
Stoudemire looked all the way back, too.
Mike Woodson is coaching his rump off and deserves as much credit as anyone for the 5-0 record and the defensive intensity that forced Philly to miss its first 14 shots and to go nearly eight minutes without a field goal. Woodson has connected with the players his predecessor couldn't reach, especially Anthony, and it must be tough for D'Antoni to watch.
Sixers coach Doug Collins knows what it's like to be ousted by players who stop listening. "I remember reading 'The Scarlet Letter' when I was in high school," he said. "Hester Prynne walking around with the scarlet A. As a coach, it's a scarlet L. You walk around with 'loser' written on your chest, and it tugs at your very soul."
Woodson felt the pain in Atlanta, and now he's trying to build himself a second career in New York. He's lit Anthony's fire and nurtured Jeremy Lin's confidence in the wake of Linsanity's premature burial. But more than anything, Woodson has resurrected Stoudemire as an explosive frontcourt force.
Why has the power forward suddenly rediscovered his bounce?
"I don't know," Woodson said through a smile. "I'm just happy it is back."
Stoudemire was good for 21 points and nine rebounds in this 82-79 victory, but it was his demeanor that shaped the night. With nine-tenths of a second left in the first half, Stoudemire grabbed a loose ball under the hoop, slammed it home and flexed his arms as he screamed toward a crowd full of approving New Yorkers.
"I was really able to get my point across out there," he said.
Stoudemire chased down Elton Brand for a crucial block in the final minutes, then waved his arms the way a back judge would wave them to signal an incomplete pass. When Andre Iguodala had an open 18-footer with just under a minute to play, Stoudemire challenged the shot that ended up as an air ball.
"My rhythm is back, my strength is back and my timing is back," he said. "I rehabbed my back the whole lockout, didn't play contact basketball for six months, and that's the most I've ever been away from the game since I was a little kid."
But the back injury that benched him during last year's playoff series with Boston has quieted, and a leaner, meaner Stoudemire now weighs in at 250 pounds. "I feel great," he said. "This is my game. This is who I am. I'm an aggressive, explosive player, always have been, and that's not going to change."
It did change for a while. Before D'Antoni fired himself, Stoudemire too often came across as an athletically challenged shell of what he used to be.
"He got his spark back," Anthony said.
So did the rest of this team, and, yes, everyone in the NBA has seen this movie before. A coaching change regularly elevates a team's performance in the short term.
But what about the long term? Will the same Knicks now playing defense like the '85 Bears revert to their soft ways after the first losing streak under Woodson?
"They're loaded," Collins said of the Knicks before describing them as a potentially dangerous low playoff seed. "The cream of the crop is Miami and Chicago, and I guarantee you Miami and Chicago sure don't want to see the New York Knicks at 7 or 8, I can tell you that."
The Knicks don't want to see themselves at 7 or 8, either. This rugged conquest of the Sixers gives them some hope of winning the Atlantic and earning the 3-seed and the favorable first-round matchup that would come with it.
"If we stay focused," Stoudemire said, "we have a great chance to win the division."
Wednesday night, Anthony and Lin combined to shoot 9-for-32 from the floor and the team managed all of two 3-point field goals. But Stoudemire announced again that the Knicks are back, this time by playing the way he did before the Melo deal last year, when the Garden used to chant "MVP" for him.
At a time when Lin is the crowd favorite, Anthony is the biggest star and Tyson Chandler takes his fair share of pick and rolls, this much is clear: The Knicks won't win anything if Stoudemire allows himself to be a forgotten man.