“I just remember it felt like an earthquake at Staples Center,” Stoudemire recalled, “and then it took us about 2.5 hours to get out of the arena because the streets were full of people. I remember A bunch of adults really cried because we felt like we had a chance and we let it slip away. You cried for the game, you really cried. You cried for the loss. But more importantly, it was a special team The team. We didn’t win, that team will never be together again. I don’t think people understand that.”
Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers went on to win the first of a three-peat. After the Game 7 loss, Stoudemire believes time is at least on his side. It was his second straight appearance in the Western Conference finals, and the basketball track in front of him was still long.
But eight years passed before he returned to the Western Conference finals. This time, he’s 34 and playing for the Spurs with Celtics coach Ime Udoka as his teammate. That game stopped too, and Stoudemire never found out what it was like to be at the top.
He didn’t bring up the memories because he wanted to recall the bad days. He brought them up because he thought they were related.
Now, the Celtics are being coached by talented young players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The team has reached the conference finals in four of the past six seasons and reached the Finals for the first time in a 2-2 draw with the Warriors. For some, this may seem like a habit. But in recent weeks, Stoudemire has offered his own cautionary tale as he wants players to embrace the momentous moment.
“I don’t take it for granted because you’re not guaranteed to come back here,” he said. “Game 7 in 2000 was the most shocking loss of my career and I keep telling everyone that I was in the division finals at 25 and 26 and didn’t come back again until I was 34. You just can’t guarantee that moment, so try to cherish it every day.
“This group will never go back to this moment. That’s how I see it. But if we win together, we’ll be together. Our mass texting now as an employee, as a team, it will always be mass texting Texting. We’ll share moments as a family because we’ve won together. To me, that’s what it’s all about.”
Last summer, Stoudemire was hired by his longtime friend Udoka from Portland, Ore., after five seasons as head coach in the Pacific. With Tatum and Brown as cornerstones, he said, he believes this team has the potential to be great.
Even as Boston stumbled through the first few months of the season, Stoudemire remains confident. As a player, he has seen a lot of coaching change. He knew it just took time.
“Trust and support started to build and we became a team,” he said. “You can see us gaining momentum.”
The Celtics shrugged off their slow start, surged in the second half of the season and secured the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They have since beaten Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo, survived three eliminations and gave the Warriors their first road loss in the playoffs.
“What this team doesn’t get enough credit for is their mental toughness,” Stoudemire said. “It’s not easy, man. It’s not easy to do what they do. It’s not easy to beat the Miami Heat in Game 7. You know how hard it is? How hard is the sixth game for the best players? It’s hard to do that. So following what these guys are doing, if we can get it done, it will only make them sweeter. When I think about this staff, I will think of that.”
Most importantly, Stoudemire wants to win this championship for these players. He said they had earned it and they deserved it. But he admits it will also be fulfilling for him. He said that just a year ago when he was still coaching in college, he didn’t know if he was going to go back to the NBA, or if he even wanted to. Now, he can’t imagine himself anywhere else.
“It feels great and I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Getting a ring will be the culmination of my career. I try to enjoy every moment of it all because you don’t get it in return. I try to remind everyone every day that we have a chance to do something special.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org him on twitter @adamhimmelsbach.