NEW YORK -- They say New Yorkers are among the most unforgiving critics anywhere, and Amar'e Stoudemire represents proof to the contrary. Knicks fans have forgiven him for being brittle, for being overpaid, even for being foolish enough to ram his hand through a fire extinguisher case during a playoff series with the Heat.
They forgave him for his silliness in another playoff series, too, when he hurt himself in Boston trying a schoolyard dunk in warm-ups. The Garden crowd cheered Stoudemire when he made it back for Game 4, just in time for the Knicks to get swept.
The fans even looked the other way when their favorite $100 million man returned from the lockout in less than optimal shape. In the end, Stoudemire could wear a Red Sox cap to Yankee Stadium, a Tom Brady jersey to a Jets game, or LeBron James' championship ring to the Garden, and he still wouldn't be able to pay for a drink in this town.
New Yorkers have a long memory, and they'll never forget what happened in the summer of 2010, when LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson said no. Stoudemire? He said yes, and the fans were too giddy to care that his affection came at a nine-figure price.
"The Knicks are back," Stoudemire said on arrival.
He brought them back to respectability, averaged more than 25 points and eight rebounds per game, and made the Knicks a credible option to Carmelo Anthony just as Pedro Martinez once made the sadsack Mets a credible option to the stars who followed him to Shea. Never mind that Stoudemire had no competing $100 million bids to choose from, that he had no other franchises willing to give him a deal without insurance, that Mike D'Antoni had walked into a breakfast meeting with his former center in Phoenix fairly certain he didn't want any part of a reunion.
Stoudemire won over his old coach over breakfast, and then won over his new fan base by calling himself a "pioneer" and by declaring that his Knicks would "start a dynasty-approach program here."
The Garden crowd is still waiting for that dynasty. In fact, the Garden crowd doesn't need a dynasty, just its first title in 40 years. Stoudemire has yet to deliver a first-round playoff victory, never mind a parade, and he's yet to prove he can stay healthy and productive from the opening tip of the regular season to the final playoff horn.
The fans still adore him anyway. They stood and stomped for him on his New Year's Day return from knee surgery, when he all but shed a tear at the scorer's table before scoring six points in a loss. They cheered extra loudly for him Sunday when he checked out of a victory over Philadelphia with 8:36 left, his 22 points in 22 minutes on 9-of-10 shooting amounting to the line of the night, the line that ended a four-game losing streak.
The most efficient player in the house, Stoudemire watched the endgame unfold without him. A big-name, big-contract star had delivered a near-perfect performance, and so he needed to be asked how difficult it was to sit through those eight minutes and 36 seconds.
"As long as we're winning," he said in that familiar baritone voice. "We were winning at that point, and we kept the lead. If we keep winning, then we're good."
And if the Knicks don't keep winning with Stoudemire on the bench?
"When we start losing a little bit," he said, "then you start thinking about it."
Oh, Stoudemire definitely thinks about it. He was here first, remember? He wasn't the center of the Knicks' universe; he was the Knicks' universe, at least until Anthony swooped in and took it all away.
Sunday night, Melo said this of Stoudemire: "On that second unit he's our go-to guy." Amare always intended to anchor the Knicks' first unit, not the second. He was wary of endorsing the team's pursuit of Anthony, according to a league source, especially after fielding unflattering scouting reports on Melo the teammate from a couple of players who were with him in Denver. Stoudemire ultimately decided to play along in public, and two years later here's where we are:
Anthony is the Knicks' undisputed franchise player, and Stoudemire is a super sub on some nights, and just another 30-year-old reserve with declining skills and athleticism on others.
He threw down a nice spinning dunk early against the Sixers, and showed off a few of those post moves Hakeem Olajuwon taught him in the summer. "I feel like those moves are natural now," Stoudemire told reporters. "I practice every day on every single move, and there's 15 moves and you guys only saw the ones that are just easier at this point."
Stoudemire said that he feels strong, and that Mike Woodson's limit of 30 minutes of court time is keeping him fresh. Music to the fans' ears. On Oscar night, the Garden crowd wanted to see Stoudemire score the upset for best actor, and got what it paid for.
The slip-sliding Knicks had to have this one, too, had to have Stoudemire play big around the rim. "That's what we're going to need him to do the rest of the way," Woodson said.
Funny, but this was the same player the Knicks rightfully tried to trade away. Stoudemire's judgment had hurt them in two straight postseasons, and they didn't want to grant him a strike three.
But there were no takers for the balance of his monster contract, and the same New Yorkers who booed Kevin Brown and A.J. Burnett out of town for (among many other things) slamming their hands into walls and doors, warmly re-embraced Stoudemire after he lost a bloody fight with the fire extinguisher case in Miami.
Maybe Amare doesn't realize how lucky he is, and maybe he feels he deserves the unconditional love for accepting the same 2010 challenge that scared off LeBron. Either way, this much is clear:
Stoudemire should do everything in his power to be the player he was against Philly for the rest of the season. He should work like he's never worked in practice, play defense, crash the offensive glass, remain professional 24/7, and continue to accept without complaint any role Woodson assigns him.
New Yorkers have given Stoudemire more than they've given almost any star in any sport who's disappointed them. The big guy owes them one, owes them a spirited run through the playoffs, even if he was once a pioneer who took the Knicks' money when nobody else would.