What’s it like being a retired NBA star on campus? Amar’e Stoudemire heads to college

Amar’e Stoudemire walked into Hillel at Florida International University with a coffee and blueberry muffin.

“No ‘Fortnite?’ ” he asked the guys sitting around the big TV.

“Nah, this is ‘Black Mirror,’ ” said the students trying to keep it cool. It’s a show on Netflix, they explained.

“I’m always down for new shows,” said Stoudemire, rolling a putt across the short practice green in the rec space.

Retired NBA All-Stars — they’re just like us.

Making friends, getting involved, finding parking — they try to fit into campus culture, even if they’re 6-10, former Rookie of the Year and four-time All-Star.

Stoudemire, drafted out of high school in Lake Wales, Florida, to the NBA for a 15-year career mostly with the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks before a final season with the Miami Heat, is now heading to college to prepare for his second career.

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Amar’e Stoudemire, 36, a former Miami Heat player: ‘I feel like I’m 18 again. It’s like a fresh start.’ MATIAS J. OCNER

“I feel like I’m 18 again,” said Stoudemire, 36. “It’s like a fresh start.”

Before he’s even officially enrolled, he’s launching programs on campus inspired by his personal journey as an African American back in touch with his Hebrew roots. Stoudemire was taking microeconomics and introduction to acting this semester as a non-degree seeking FIU student before withdrawing to focus on Diversity University, an effort that seeks to find common ground between Jewish students and black students.

“I feel a great peace with myself,” he said. “I feel it’s important to share that light.”

He also has to take the SAT for the first time to officially enroll in January. He’s found a tutor and bought an SAT prep book.

Stoudemire says he has always had an interest in higher education: He was enrolled in summer classes at Arizona State while playing for the Suns and took classes at the University of Miami. But FIU is easier to get to from his home in Southwest Ranches in Broward County, and he’s familiar with the campus from training in the school’s facilities while in the NBA.

“My first three days I felt a little bit weird, like I didn’t know what to expect. I felt abnormally tall. I feel like I was skying over everyone,” Stoudemire said. “I was uncomfortable at first with freshman students. After day two or day three I got over the nervousness.”

His major? Like any college freshman, he’s still thinking about it. Maybe theater, entrepreneurship or Jewish studies. He already has 95 credits from countless hours studying in the yeshivas in Israel.

Stoudemire told some of his personal story at an inaugural event Wednesday at FIU’s Graham Center: His mother held that they had Hebraic roots. Instead of partying with teammates on the Amalfi Coast in the off-season, Stoudemire visited Israel and was hooked. He saw himself living there one day.

He left the NBA in 2016 to play in the Israeli league, convert to Judaism and become an Israeli citizen. He keeps kosher, opting for lemon pepper wings fries and two cans of Dr Pepper from the kosher food truck on campus.

Students and professors alike recognize him around campus. Stoudemire engages them, giving a friendly nod and posing for photos with students who can’t help but be star-struck.

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Amar’e Stoudemire, 36, a former NBA player, greets Mark Dixon, 21, far-right, and Devon Andrews, 22, center, while waiting for food at Florida International University on Friday, September 13, 2019. Stoudemire is developing a comprehensive program that seeks to unify the Jewish and African-American students on campus. MATIAS J. OCNER

“I’m just in awe. I don’t see guys that tall here a lot,” said David Niño, a 19-year-old sophomore studying criminal justice who is active in Hillel. “I didn’t know what to expect, but it was nice to see he cares about the community here and his Jewish self.”

“Everyone’s heads turn,” said Jon Warech, director of Hillel at FIU. “They can’t believe he’s here.”

Stoudemire has been working with Hillel and the Black Student Union to create workshops and host seminars on topics such as overcoming intergenerational trauma, mindfulness and self-care, community organizing, domestic and foreign policy, and building intergenerational wealth. The program also will include a “Fact Finder” trip to Israel for student leaders and an alternative spring break opportunity to learn about social justice in Israel.

“Just having him here was one of the ways to unite such a diverse campus,” said HIllel engagement associate Matt Mester. “It’s an interesting way to draw students to Judaism and learn what Judaism is.”

Stoudemire sat around the table at Hillel to brainstorm how to familiarize students with Judaism. He talked about how he often has to explain his faith as an African American.

“It was more so me explaining about how this could be possible,” he said at the event. “Once you have a state of identity, you’re able to now work on self and self-improvement.”

He calls his journey with Judaism a reconnection, not a conversion, similar to African Americans reconnecting with their roots beyond slavery.

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Amar’e Stoudemire, 36, a former NBA player, talks with Brian Wolfson, 20, a junior and a member of Hillel at Florida International University, on Friday, September 13, 2019. Stoudemire is developing a comprehensive program that seeks to unify the Jewish and African-American students on campus. MATIAS J. OCNER

“We both can learn from each other,” he added. “As African Americans we’ve been through a lot with slavery, and it’s been a drastic, traumatizing experience for us. And then also the Jewish people has been through a lot with the Holocaust, which has been a very traumatizing experience for them as well. And both parties still have a lot of hatred on the top of our shoulders.”

Stoudemire continued: “And so for us to see the commonalities between the two and being able to articulate the positivity between the two and for us to grow and create this aura of unity, I think the rest of the world is going to look at this and this is an example we have to follow because these guys were able to connect, learn and grow.”

Nonye Maddox, director for community service at FIU’s Black Student Union, said Stoudemire’s involvement could help make the campus more interconnected and dispel misconceptions the black community and Jewish community might hold about each other.

“It [helps] not only the black students but the Jewish students to have someone who represents them,” she said.

Stoudemire on Wednesday told a crowd of about 100 about his professional career and his religious journey. He spoke at the event with Adam Lehman, interim CEO of Hillel International, and took questions from students about his takes on the NBA and life on campus.

Jordan Daniels, a 20-year-old junior studying marketing, gave Stoudemire a campus tour earlier this year. She came to hear him speak and asked how he would engage black students while working with Hillel.

“I feel like it’s super cool because we have someone with that professional [athlete] life...and now he’s here back for his education,” she said. “It’s very motivating. It shows education is still important in [his] life.”

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Amar’e Stoudemire, 36, a former NBA player, meets with members of Hillel at Florida International University on Friday, September 13, 2019. Stoudemire is developing a comprehensive program that seeks to unify the Jewish and African-American students on campus. MATIAS J. OCNER