PHOENIX – If anyone wondered, and plenty did, whether Amare Stoudemire could thrive without those slick passes from Steve Nash, nobody is wondering now.
Stoudemire brought "his" New York Knicks to Phoenix for the first time Friday night and at the morning shootaround acknowledged that he felt his efforts weren't fully appreciated in his eight-year run with the Suns.
"There's been injuries to where my perseverance may have gotten overlooked," he said, "just my hard work and what I bring to a franchise and to a team may have gotten overlooked. But it's a matter of staying professional and playing the game of basketball and ultimately doing whatever it takes to win a championship for your teammates."
Suns fans sure appreciate him now, after how the team has struggled since his departure. He got a standing ovation when he was introduced before Friday night's tip-off. Then, in a triumphant return, he scored 23 points in a 121-96 rout, matching Phoenix's worst home loss in 11 seasons.
With the Suns, Stoudemire was a five-time All-Star and all-NBA first team in 2007. He made it to the Western Conference finals twice, including last season, but never beyond.
In New York, Stoudemire said, he feels like "a rock star."
"It's unbelievable how the fans there are so appreciative to the hard work and we've brought to the city so far," he said, "and it's still early. We're a young team, but so far the fans there are out of control."
Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said that's a fair description.
"When we signed him and he declared 'New York's back' he backed it up," D'Antoni said, "and the brashness of it endears people. He came, he looked at the challenge of it and he accepted it."
The Suns, then under the ownership of Jerry Colangelo, chose the 19-year-old Stoudemire out of high school with the ninth selection overall in 2002.
Over the next eight seasons, Stoudemire averaged at least 20 points five times. The exceptions were his rookie year and 2005-06, when he played only three games because of microfracture knee surgery. He also missed the final eight weeks of the 2008-09 season because of a torn retina.
D'Antoni, who coached Stoudemire in Phoenix from 2003 to 2008, was asked how the big power forward had changed.
"I think he's more patient," D'Antoni said. "He sees the game better, offensively and defensively. He understands what it takes to win. Probably the biggest thing is he doesn't get frustrated at all. He just keeps telling the guys hang in there, even when we were 3-8, hang in there and let's keep playing."
Stoudemire entered Friday night's game second in the NBA in scoring at 26.4 points per game. Kevin Durant leads the league at 27.9.
Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry does not begrudge Stoudemire's desire to escape Nash's shadow.
"There's nothing wrong with that," Gentry said. "I don't see anything negative in that. He just felt being here that it was going to be Steve's team a lot, and I think he felt he would like to have a team that was his, that he was the focal point."
Still, Stoudemire might have stayed had Suns owner Robert Sarver been willing to guarantee the final two years of a new contract. The long-suffering Knicks, desperate for a big name after failing to land LeBron James, were more than willing to give him the maximum, five-year, $100 million deal with each year guaranteed.
"I can't be critical of that," Nash said. "That's not my money. Obviously, I wanted Amare to stay and I think, maybe foolishly, I thought he would, that somehow we would get an agreement."
While the Knicks are 20-14 and on the rise, the Suns are 14-19 and have lost 10 of 13. They are 1-6 since they sent leading scorer Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark to Orlando for Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, Marcin Gortat the Magic's 2011 first-round draft pick and cash.
Even with the addition of the 6-foot-11 Gortat, the Suns are short on size and overloaded at the wing position.
"We lost an All-Star power forward and didn't replace him," Nash said. "We have no real power forward."
That makes the Suns' trademark pick-and-roll, so devastating with Nash and Stoudemire, more than problematic and defending Stoudemire nearly impossible.
Nash said he has been impressed with Stoudemire's performance with the Knicks.
"For me it's more than points, assists, rebounds," Nash said. "It's just the way he has taken on the challenge and fought and won games under a difficult situation."
Even though he had some sour feelings, Stoudemire said Phoenix always would be his home.
"Oh man, I have so many memories here," he said, "since I was drafted, since the late, great Cotton Fitzsimmons figured I was the best player the Suns ever drafted," he said, "to the latest, sweeping the Spurs, all those memories are phenomenal."