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The two championship rings on the hand of Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol has garnered him as a ‘winning player’ since L.A.’s banner-raising seasons of 2009 and 2010.
New York Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire, in stark contrast, is almost never pegged with such a label, and given the fact that he’s only made it as far as the wrong end of multiple Western Conference Finals outcomes during the course of his 11 year career, that isn’t some sort of outrageous injustice.
But upon hearing Gasol’s recent cries of reluctance to come off the bench for Mike D’Antoni’s free-falling Lakers (18-25), and comparing them with Stoudemire’s inelastic willingness to do just that for the Eastern Conference powerhouse that Mike Woodson has suddenly transformed the Knicks (26-14) into in 2012-2013, it’s about time we re-evaluate – and partially re-define – the term ‘winning player.’
Rewind back to the 2010-2011 regular season. The Knicks, for the first time in a long, long time, actually had realistic hopes of breaking their recent stretch of suffering and mediocrity, all thanks to the summer signing of Stoudemire to a five year, $99.7 million contract.
That year Stoudemire became the first Knick named to the Eastern Conference All Star team since franchise legend Patrick Ewing.
Yes, the same Patrick Ewing that led New York to the Finals all the way back in 1999, right before the pandemonium of Y2K. It had been a while, to say the least.
Stoudemire’s profound impact during the first half of that season provided the Knicks with an unfamiliar relevance, and he was thusly thrust into the top of the MVP conversation.
Then came the blockbuster trade that brought former Denver Nuggets All Star forward Carmelo Anthony to Madison Square Garden. From that moment on, Anthony has assumed the roles of New York’s number one scoring option. He became the overall leader and biggest credit to both the franchise’s return to the postseason over the last two seasons and its newfound perch directly below the defending champion Miami Heat as the East’s second seed just around the halfway mark of the season.
And here is Stoudemire, all but forgotten and even the subject of trade rumors as his return to the surging Knicks lineup following knee surgery became more and more imminent.
The proposal of an almost $100 million player coming off the bench initially seemed about as nonsensical and absurd as when his punching of a fire extinguisher box (following a first found Game 2 playoff loss in Miami the previous year) required several stitches and sidelined him for Game 3 back home.
Yet, when asked if he would accept that lesser role in advance of the emotional standing ovation he received from the Knicks’ faithful on his New Year’s Day comeback, Stoudemire didn’t echo the sentiments of a fading star with a boisterous ego.
Whatever the team needed of him, Stoudemire obliged. At 11.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in an average of just over a mere 21 minutes in his first 10 games back on the floor, he’s certainly had a beneficial impact.
That’s what winning players are all about. The team comes first and foremost, and their heads quietly shrink.
Gasol, meanwhile, is on the completely opposite end of the spectrum.
The acquisitions of All Stars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash by Los Angeles this past summer had most Lakers fans ready to ask off work almost a year in advance so they could attend the championship parade that seemed like more of a sure thing than the Harlem Globetrotters against the Washington Generals.
Needless to say, things haven’t exactly gone the way they, the Lakers themselves and the front office, planned. Despite the abundance of talent in the starting lineup with Nash and Howard joining forces with Kobe Bryant and Gasol – a duo that had won their second of back-to-back titles only two calendar years prior – the Lakers would kill for any kind of win, and sit on the outside of the postseason picture wondering how they could’ve possibly ended up just hoping to sneak in at this point.
As one of the proudest franchises in the history of sports, they’ve been as disgraceful this year as their always entertaining small forward Metta World Peace was last year when he inexplicably concussed then Oklahoma City Thunder forward James Harden with a crushing elbow to the side of the head.
D’Antoni’s had a handful of games where the players executed his run and gun system to a tee, but overall it’s clearly been an atrocious marriage. He’s made a number of lineup adjustments throughout the year, including bringing Gasol off the bench after coming across a stat that Los Angeles offensively ranks in the bottom five in the league when he and Howard share the floor, and that when they don’t, they sit in the top five.
However, the significance of this stat means about as much to Gasol as the celebrities that attend the games at Staples Center mean to him. He’s openly acknowledged that he’s never been a role player coming off the bench, and that he’s always been a starter.
That’s about as selfish as it gets.
On a team that continues to plummet, the shine of the diamonds of championship rings past doesn’t make Gasol a real winning player now. The way Stoudemire’s team-first mentality in pursuit of his first ring truly does.
Image Courtesy : Keith Allison