That’s Amar’e

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Could a stint in college have led Amar’e Stoudemire to the career he was destined for?

By Andrew Pridgen

The tragically-departed-to-the-point-of-being-the-plot-of-a-recent-Law-&-Order-SVU New York Knicks released Amar’e Stoudemire Monday leaving him to join Mark Cuban’s mid-’00s dream team for a pediatrician’s salary.

The Dallas Mavericks’ new part-time center spent All-Star weekend not partaking in the festivities at MSG, but in his agent’s office negotiating a buyout. Phil Jackson’s listing ship owed the 32-year-old $23.4 million this year for being the guy who spends his post-notice two weeks reading The Onion and checking his fantasy teams.

Stoudemire’s new deal with the Mavs is worth $477,150 and a trip to the set of Shark Tank.

The six-time All-Star attended almost as many high schools (five) as Sarah Palin did junior colleges. He matriculated at age 37 from Cypress Creek in Orlando and declared for the 2002 NBA draft. The 9th overall pick for the Phoenix Suns played at the doorstep of the Tonto National Forest for eight years before he was exported to New York.

When the Knicks brought on Stoudemire in 2010 for five years and just a hair shy of $100 million, the town was bubbling with almost as much anticipation as the 8th Ave. Chipotle opening. Nevermind they missed out on Steph Curry (taken 7th overall in the ‘09 draft, the Knicks picked Jordan Hill 8th), the answer was in Amar’e anchoring the front court and, in less than a year’s time, Carmelo Anthony joining to dominate the backcourt.

Nothing materialized beyond Spike Lee’s goatee getting more speckled and the Knicks’ most futile half decade in franchise history.

Why?

Carmelo and Amar’e came of age when a jump from the preps to the pros was possible, inevitable even. While Amar’e made the leap direct, Carmelo had the courtesy to grab an NCAA title his freshman year at Syracuse before turning in his orange headband for powder blue in Denver. Both remain Post-it® reminders for the NBA to adopt a rule similar to the NFL’s that allows eligibility a minimum of three years after high school.

In 2006 the NBA, whose game was being watered down by McDonald’s All-Americans who could barely dunk a Chicken McNugget, instituted what is known as the “one-and-done” clause: No player may sign with the NBA until he has been eligible for at least one draft.

Was it enough? No.

Back on campus, no top-flight coach has built a dynastic program since the one-and-done rule was enacted. A pair of schools have taken home two titles in that time, Florida and UConn. They’ve also boasted sub-30 percent graduation rates for basketball players (surprisingly an improvement for the Huskies who were down to sub-8 percent in the early ‘00s).

While North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and Louisville have remained viable on the hardcourt each institution has become a sub-40-percent graduation factory for a player to grab a slice and a double-double to-go before Dick Vitale can even pronounce his first name. The prospects are bound for 2.5 seasons as 11th man at the next level before a European tour and then it’s back to the Boys and Girls club to preach what they didn’t practice. College hoops as drunken one night stand staggering in the unforgiving light of day back to curl up on the couch and hope there’s a half a Gatorade in the fridge and You’ve Got Mail is on one of the Turner networks.

Even venerable Duke (90-plus percent graduation rate along with BYU, Marquette, Notre Dame, Villanova and Wake Forest), has only checked in with a pair of lacquered-and-etched-glass trophies for Coach K since 1992.

The tell-tale decline? Look no further than Westwood which has seen NBA rising stars present and future—Zach LaVine, Trevor Ariza, Jrue Holiday, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook— banged the maple at Pauley for fewer minutes than it took Rambo to manhandle David Caruso at the Sheriff’s substation. Sadly, the 2015 tourney tip off will commemorate the 20th season since the West Coast epicenter of roundball got a confetti shower.

As Kyle Magin pointed out last week in his tribute to Dean Smith, college hoops used to be a place where essentials of the game and lessons in manhood were imparted with equanimity. Longevity doesn’t seem to mean much these days as professional careers in the states have shortened to an NFL-length three years or fewer.

For a decade, the NBA was able to cover the shortcomings of rushing to the draft by shouting scoreboard and pointing to the jersey sales of prep-to-pro superstars LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, each of whom set foot on college campuses for burritos and BJs only.

That’s three out of hundreds who tried the same path and failed. Whatever happened to Jonathan Bender and Leon Smith (1999), Darius Miles (2000), Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry and DeSagana Diop (2001), Lenny Cooke and DeAngelo Collins (2002), Ndudi Ebi (2003), Robert Smith, Sebastian Telfair and Shaun Livingston (2004)? How ‘bout Korleone Young, Leon Smith, Ellis Richardson and Taj McDavid? Not to mention the  hundreds of one-and-dones from big NCAA programs who slunk into the ether faster than Warriors super-breakin’ mascot Thunder (DerMarr Johnson anyone)?

And while everyone who stays in school (Jay Williams) is not a sure thing, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Steve Nash, Shane Battier, Grant Hill and Vince Carter—hell, Shaq’s just a dissertation defense away from his PhD and Steph Curry was subject of an NPR series based on his classroom time at Davidson, have shown that long and productive NBA careers are built from long and productive college careers (hint: pay college athletes).

That Stoudemire, 13 years into his first job out of high school, is still being given a chance speaks more to the Mavs’ desperation for wingspan and a six seed in the West. The Instagram poet limped away from the Big City of Dreams after having missed a combined 70 games over the last two seasons because of nagging knee, ankle and wrist injuries. A known headcase going back to his pre-draft workouts, not every night Stoudemire was benched resulted from problems below the neck.

While his career could have a third act in Dallas, the current narrative on Amar’e is he was one of the greatest players in the game to have never played like he was one of the greatest players in the game.

Something similar could be said about the program of the college he never attended.

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