Best: New Knick Stoudemire enjoying ESPN spotlight

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Amar'e Stoudemire and ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy shooting

Amar'e Stoudemire and ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy shooting an ESPN commercial in Forest Park, Queens. (Sept. 22, 2010) Photo Credit: ESPN

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.

Amar'e Stoudemire was deep in the heart of Queens on Wednesday, so deep that at one point, surrounded by Forest Park, he checked with a friend to confirm he still was in the borough.

Yup. Then came additional confirmation that he was in his new hometown: A teenage boy walked up wearing a replica No. 1 "Stoudemire'' Knicks jersey.

"Nice,'' the almost-$100-million man said before signing it. "The Knicks are back!''

That remains to be seen. But they surely are more relevant and credible than they have been in years.

Which helped explain why Stoudemire was in Queens: He was shooting one of those humorous ads for ESPN's NBA coverage in which players interact with the network's announcers.

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Everyone on ESPN's lead team of Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy has past or present Knicks ties, and each has been featured in the four-year series. But Stoudemire is the first Knicks player to make the cut. On ThursdayDanilo Gallinari taped a different spot, becoming the second.

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"I think it's great for the simple fact we are becoming more noticed as a franchise,'' said Stoudemire, who has embraced his role as the face of a new era.

"I try to help as much as possible. The ultimate goal is to win basketball games and play at a high level, but if you can also help increase the popularity and fan base of the organization, that's a bonus.''

It will be a gradual process. During a walk down Metropolitan Avenue, the 6-10 Stoudemire attracted one wave and two curious stares - likely more related to his height than his celebrity. Still, he said the reception he has gotten has been "out of control. The fans are totally ecstatic about the season and are so happy I was able to sign with the Knicks and bring the Knicks back to where they rightly belong.''

As a connoisseur of the series, Stoudemire jumped at the chance to do an ESPN commercial. His favorite? The one in which Van Gundy wore the costume of the Suns' Gorilla mascot.

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In Stoudemire's ad, he is seen driving ESPN's RV, then giving way to the 5-9 Van Gundy, who must make a drastic adjustment to the driver's seat.

Van Gundy, the last coach to lead the Knicks to a winning record, said signing Stoudemire was a key step. "You can look at it one of two ways if you're a Knicks fan: What was lost this summer, which was they didn't get LeBron, or what was gained,'' he said. "I think what was gained is a huge upgrade.''

There is no question Stoudemire can play. But Van Gundy said he also must adjust to being the team's leader. "He can't escape it, he can't shirk it; he has to embrace it,'' Van Gundy said.

Stoudemire knows that. But there is no preparing for it until you experience it.

When I wished him luck handling today's media day, he asked if there will be a lot of reporters present. It was difficult to tell if he was kidding; he has a dry sense of humor and a laid-back playfulness.

He also thinks deep thoughts. He attracted attention during the summer when he visited Israel to explore Jewish roots on his mother's side. (Any updates on that? "Everything's still the same,'' he said. "It's more of a personal situation for me, so I kind of keep that discreet.'')

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Stoudemire said that although he would love to have Carmelo Anthony as a Knick, the players already in place can win, "absolutely.''

First things first, though. He said he was eager to explore his acting chops.

"It's been a long time since a New York player has been asked to be in this type of commercial and got this type of exposure,'' he said. "It's great for the franchise and great for myself.''

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