Among Amar’e Stoudemire’s collection of tattoos is a Star of David on his left hand — “a sign of righteousness,” he calls it. Jewish NBA fans all over the world have taken notice.
The veteran power forward, who signed with the Heat over the summer, has fasted on Yom Kippur, observed Passover and got married under a chuppah Jewish wedding canopy wearing a yarmulke skull cap. He made a pilgrimage to Israel in 2010 and sprinkles Hebrew phrases such as “Shalom,” “L’Chaim” (To Life) and “Boker Tov” (Good Morning) in his Twitter feed.
Stoudemire is part-owner of the Israeli basketball team Hapoel Jerusalem. He has raised more than $400,000 for an Israeli emergency medical-response unit called United Hatzalah.
And he is deeply interested in what he calls his Hebrew roots.
But the six-time All-Star says he is not “technically” Jewish. He describes himself as a “cultural Jew” and “descendant of Noah and the Hebrews.” What he is is an intellectually curious and spiritual person with an insatiable thirst for historical knowledge and inner peace. He is willing to explore new ideas, even taking red-wine baths because he believes “vinotherapy” is good for body.
“My father went to church every Sunday, and my Mom was the same way, Bible study on Saturdays,” he said. “I started to study the Bible in detail and breaking it down. I dissected the ancestry from Noah, where they migrated to. That helped me understand that we are all from a Hebrew descent, so in a way, we are all Jews. It was the original culture.”
His trip to Israel to explore his roots made international headlines.
“Everyone [in the media] took it from there, and it became something massive, but it was never my plan for this to be as big as it is now,” he said. “It’s just that I love to study history and love the Bible.”
He says his spirituality helped him cope with a string of hardships as he rose from hardscrabble beginnings to NBA star, father of four and philanthropist.
Stoudemire, 32, was born in Lake Wales, Fla., to mother Carrie, an orange picker who battled addiction throughout his childhood and wound up in and out of prison with charges ranging from drug possession to aggravated battery to grand theft to drunken driving. His father, Hazell, a landscaper, died of a heart attack when Amar’e was 12.
Hazell used to tell his boys to “stand tall and talented.” Stoudemire’s nickname “STAT” come from the first four letters of his father’s words. He has it etched in ink on his right arm. He also has the words “Poverty” and “Prophesy” tattooed on his arm and chest, a reminder of his childhood.
Stoudemire’s older brother, Hazell Jr., once a promising 6-10 basketball player, spent time in prison and died in a car crash in 2012. Stoudemire has a teardrop tattoo under his right eye in his memory. Another half-brother, Marwan Williams, also was in and out of jail.
Because of his family instability, Stoudemire bounced around to three states and six different schools before graduating from Cypress Creek High outside Orlando. As a senior, he averaged 29 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks per game. He stood 6-10 and 240 pounds-, and was named Mr. Florida Basketball in 2001-02.
His basketball success was remarkable, considering he didn’t play organized ball until he was 14. Before that, he played first baseman and various positions on the football field. He credited his uncle, Earnest Stoudemire, a longtime Lake Wales police captain, and his junior varsity/AAU coach Burney Hayes for keeping him on track.
“A lot of us go through these types of situations in poverty,” Stoudemire said. “In my case, I was able to take positive role models and positive images and apply them to my life.
“My JV coach was also a police officer, and he was really strict. He’d say ‘Don’t sag your pants. Wear your hat the right way. Don’t say the ‘N’ word.’ If you did, you got pushups in front of everyone. That type of community leadership is always needed.”
Stoudemire went straight from high school to the NBA and was selected in the first round of the 2002 draft (ninth overall) by the Phoenix Suns. A year later, he was the first high schooler to win NBA Rookie of the Year, beating Yao Ming and Caron Butler. After eight seasons with the Suns, he became a free agent and signed a $100 million contract with the New York Knicks in July 2010. He was waived in February 2015, briefly signed by the Dallas Mavericks and then signed with the Heat on July 10.
Over his 13-year career he has averaged 19.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 32 minutes per game. The Heat is looking to him for veteran leadership on and off the court.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he is “very encouraged” by what he has seen.
“He’s very vocal,” Spoelstra said. “You can tell he’s a student, very detailed in his thought process. He came in this league a force of nature, just overpowering you with his athleticism, jumping ability, fierce competitiveness. Now he has that in spurts. But he’s a skilled basketball player now. You can put him in a lot of different places on the floor, and he’s going to be effective.”