ATLANTA - Amare Stoudemire wanted to ask Michael Jordan something.
Never mind that the Suns and Washington Wizards were in the middle of a game, Shawn Marion was bringing the ball upcourt and coach Frank Johnson was trying to call out a play.
Stoudemire's 20 years old. He couldn't wait.
“What's the key to success?” Stoudemire asked Jordan.
The game's greatest player ever looked at the rookie and smiled.
“You're going pretty good so far,” Jordan said. “I think you have it already.”
If there was any doubt about the imprint Stoudemire has left on the NBA after just 50 games, it has been erased this All-Star weekend.
Stoudemire may not be the talk of the town — this is Jordan's goodbye party — but he's the talk of the league.
Not even Yao Ming is getting the kind of love being shown Stoudemire by the NBA's cognoscenti. Listen:
Los Angeles center Shaquille O'Neal: “Don't get me wrong. Yao is good. Damn good. But Stoudemire is already dominating more guys who have been in the league for several years, and he's going to get much better.”
Seattle guard Gary Payton: “He can be a beast, I mean a beast. You see what he's doing now. If he keeps working at his game he's going to be unstoppable, a Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett-type player who can take over a basketball game.”
Indiana coach Isiah Thomas: “A lot of guys coming out of high school can be overwhelmed by the hype. His willingness to step in the ring and compete has been very impressive.”
Sacramento coach Rick Adelman: “This kid is just so strong. If he keeps his head on straight, keeps working hard and understands that the great players get better every year, he has a chance to be one of the best power forwards in the league.” Stoudemire has been a featured attraction since he arrived in town. Only Yao got more attention during the media session Friday for players participating in the Rookie Challenge. Reporters were at least two-deep around Stoudemire's table for the entire hour.
Stoudemire has done solo interviews with Canadian television, Sporting News Radio, ESPN, ESPN Radio, TNT and every other alphabet media organization with a credential, it seems.
Julie Fie, Phoenix's vice president of basketball communications, said no Sun has been more in demand at an All-Star weekend since Charles Barkley.
Stoudemire has handled the onslaught well, showing off a maturity reflective of his game — “you got guys out here that can take more money from you with a pen than you can going into a bank with a shotgun” — a playful sense of humor — “my bowling score is higher, but my golf score isn't too far behind” — and, thank goodness, some wide-eyed wonder that he's part of all this.
When a reporter relayed a compliment from O'Neal — “He said you're going to be scary” — a wide smile creased Stoudemire's face, as if he couldn't believe his favorite player was praising him.
Told that O'Neal also said he had big hands, Stoudemire smiled again and said, “big hands run in the family.”
Stoudemire was smart enough to deflect a silly question about him picking up where Jordan is leaving off, saying, “Michael is the best player ever. I really don't like to be compared to any other player. "I just do what I have to do.”
That's good enough for the Suns. Stoudemire is averaging 12.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, the best rookie numbers of any of the 15 active players who jumped directly from high school to the NBA. Imagine what he'll do when he develops a couple of post-up moves and a reliable 15-foot jumper.
“I think I surprised everybody with my quickness and strength,” Stoudemire said. “I guess they didn't think a high school guy could be so strong and quick.”
What's truly impressed Stoudemire's contemporaries is not so much his physical skills — although, at 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds, with a 38-inch vertical leap, they're jaw-dropping — but his mental approach to the game. He's the rare rookie, said Memphis Grizzlies guard Wesley Person, who isn't intimidated by any player or situation.
“I was talking to a couple of his teammates the other day and one of the things they said is that he doesn't even realize who he's going against,” said former NBA center and current Fox Sports Net analyst Jack Haley. “It could be Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett, and it makes no difference. He's just out there to dominate the game.”
Ask Stoudemire about this and he shrugs. “Just staying focused allowed me to be successful so soon,” he said. “I guess that's the main key right there.”
Perhaps a clue to Stoudemire's emergence can be gleaned from his reason for picking Miami's Caron Butler as Rookie of the Year. Stoudemire said that when the Suns visited the Heat in late January he went to the weight room to work out. The only other player there? Butler.
“I like that,” Stoudemire said.
“He has that one great quality about him, the determination that he is going to make good,” said Suns vice-president Cotton Fitzsimmons, who coached the rookie players Saturday. “He's going to do the things he has to do in order to win in the NBA and be a star in the NBA.”
That day, Stoudemire promises, is coming soon.
“Right now I have more of a power-type game,” he said. “I'm the Windex man, clean the glass.
"Later on, it's going to be that and something.I still have a lot of improving to do. I have to get better.”
Like Jordan says, he's got it.