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The gamble to let Amare leave

Owning a professional sports team is as much about gambling as it is about making the best decisions based on conventional business wisdom. With high profile athletes come high price tags with even less guarantee that past output will be indicative of future performance. It’s a business model that rewards reckless spending and betting big. It is one where owners who usually come from other walks of life have to learn to stomach financial losses they wouldn’t usually be willing to or cut ties with someone that could come back to haunt their franchise later on.

It’s a business that Kenny Rogers summed up pretty well in his song The Gambler.

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away and know when to run.

Friday night at US Airways Center, Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver will have a front row seat to see one of the players that he decided to ‘fold’ on when Amar’e Stoudemire and the New York Knicks come to town. It’s not that Sarver didn’t make an attempt to keep his All-Star forward, but like many gamblers unsure of their position do, he hedged his bet by only guaranteeing part of his contract offer. While at the same time his counter part in the Big Apple, James Dolan, went all in.

That decision is one that sent both franchises heading in opposite directions. The Knicks are 20-14 (only nine wins shy of their entire total last season) while the Suns are 14-19 after an appearance in the Western Conference Finals.

Since leaving the Valley of the Sun for more guaranteed money in Gotham, Stoudemire has blossomed into the leader and MVP candidate that he always thought he was. He’s lived up to his nickname STAT in averaging 26.4 points, which is 2nd in the NBA, 9 rebounds, good enough for 9th in the NBA, and a career high 2.4 assists. Losing those numbers have left a giant hole at power forward for the Suns to plug.

It is a hole that point guard Steve Nash thinks the team has yet to fill.

“We lost an all-star power forward and we didn’t replace,” Nash said. “We have no real kind of power forward.”

Stoudemire concurred with Nash’s sentiments according to the New York Time sports reporter Johnathan Abrams via Twitter.

“It’s going to be great,” Amar’e told Abrams. “I don’t think they got nobody on the team that can stop me and nobody can stop us as a team.”

There will be plenty of time over the next five years of Stoudemire’s contract in New York to debate whether or not Sarver and the Suns front office staff made the appropriate long term decision for the franchise. With Stoudemire making his first return to Phoenix Friday though, there’s no better time than the present to take a look back at what led to his departure.

There have been plenty of rumors and reports on what did or didn’t occur between the Suns and Stoudemire from the February trade deadline through the sign-and-trade that sent him to the Knicks. We decided to go straight to the source, former Suns general manager Steve Kerr, to get answers as to what exactly happened and why Stoudemire’s address now reads New York, NY rather than Phoenix, AZ.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Kerr maintains that the club was not actively attempting to trade the five-time all-star prior to the February deadline. One trade that to this day gets talked about as an all but forgone conclusion was a last minute deal that would have sent Stoudemire to the Houston Rockets in exchange for a package that would have included Shane Battier and Luis Scola among others. A deal that the former general manager claims was nothing more than a brief last second discussion and nothing substantial.

“We were definitely taking a lot of calls and we were listening to what people had to say but we never came close to dealing Amar’e Stoudemire,” he said. “The Houston stuff was sort of a last minute conversation just before the trade deadline. It was just that though, it was one conversation. It took a few minutes and something was discussed. That’s about it.”

Kerr described the team’s strategy after the trade deadline as a wait and see approach. The team waited and saw the squad, led by Stoudemire, go all the way to the conference finals only to lose to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.

“Knowing that he was going to be a free agent we wanted to explore all of our options and we wanted to see how the team would respond down the stretch to see how we did,” the former general manager recalled. “Obviously we did really well and made the conference finals. At that point I moved on. I know that Robert [Sarver] tried hard to re-sign him over the summer and extended an offer that was pretty impressive but that just didn’t have the full guarantee on it.”

According to Kerr, Stoudemire’s numerous knee surgery’s played a large factor into the concerns that led to the power forward’s departure.

“It’s been well documented that he’s had multiple knee surgeries including a microfracture surgery and those knees were not insurable. Most contracts in the NBA are insured but because of his knees and the history there was no insurance on him. There was definitely a concern about whether in the long term he’d be able to play out the contract.”

If you are like most fans, you might be asking yourself, “Wasn’t two or three good years of a healthy Stoudemire paired with Nash and their championship potential worth the chance of unproductive or injury riddled seasons on the backend of the deal?”

Surprisingly, that concern was one that the retrospective former general manager didn’t shy away from answering. He said the injury risk raised the stakes higher than Sarver and the organization were willing to gamble on.

“We talked about everything,” he said. “We talked about the makeup of the team, the success we had. There was plenty of discussion about that. There’s really no way of looking four years ahead and knowing exactly what’s going to happen physically. You kind of have to look at history. You talk to doctors. You try to make the best estimate as to what kind of investment you’re making long term. Those things were all considered. We consulted a lot of medical people and looked at other players around the league who had similar issues. We did a lot of homework.”

It’s a move that the Suns two-time MVP Nash understands but doesn’t necessarily agree with.

“I can’t be critical of that,” Nash said. “That’s not my money. Obviously I wanted Amar’e to stay and I think I maybe foolishly thought he would. Somehow I thought we would get to an agreement but I can’t comment on that.”

Hindsight is 20-20. Looking back now, the reason fans became frustrated with Stoudemire and his production seems more clear than ever. It’s like when you move in with a good friend or spend inordinate amounts of time with anyone, you become aware of, and more annoyed by their little idiosyncrasies and flaws. After eight seasons with Stoudemire, fans saw every blemish or bump in his game. His sporadic rebounding totals became the basketball equivalent of leaving dirty dishes in the sink while interesting attitude and comments were his version of playing music loudly late at night.

Now that Stoudemire isn’t constantly in the forefront of fans’ minds or in front of their faces for 82 evenings out of the year, the things they once disliked about him have faded enough from memory to want to be around him again.

It’s a sentiment that even Kerr’s comments seem to echo.

“What happened was we came so close over that five-six year run to getting to the finals, three trips to the conference finals,” he said. “We got to the point where everyone just wanted to get over the top, everyone in the organization, all of our fans our, players. Because we kept coming up short of our biggest goal, we were picked apart detail by detail, by the media, by the fans and by ourselves.

“We searched everything trying to figure out how we could get better. I think every player on our team was picked apart but Amar’e and Steve more than anybody because they were the stars. Of course now that the team’s struggling everybody looks back and goes ‘oh yeah, that guy’s big time’.”

Stoudemire wasn’t the only one who left the organization last summer. Kerr himself left to rejoin the broadcast team at TNT around the same time Stoudemire got into his Empire State of mind. While Kerr took a lot of criticism about his handling of the Amar’e situation and other moves, he says he enjoyed his time with the club but is happy with his decision to return to television.

“Obviously it was stressful at times but it didn’t bother me that much,” he said. “You learn to deal with that stuff. I don’t have any regrets. I’m really happy doing what I’m doing.”

While Kerr spends his time watching the NBA’s best teams play on Thursday nights, Suns fans are left watching a team that is anything but and wondering what might have been if the former executive hadn’t traded in his upstairs office for his courtside broadcast seats. Wondering whether Stoudemire may have stayed in purple and orange or if the offseason, which has proven to be a bust so far, would have played out differently. It’s a ‘what if’ that may never be answered.

Owning a professional sports team is truly a gamble and one where every last decision is scrutinized if it doesn’t lead to a championship. Just look at the 43-year history of the Suns if you don’t believe it.

Oh, that Kenny Rogers song did have a few more pertinent lyrics to being an owner of a sports team.

You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealing’s done.”

For the fans sake hopefully Sarver has heeded not just the first part of Rogers’ advice but the second as well. Otherwise letting Stoudemire go wasn’t the biggest gamble the franchise has taken.

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