He once served as a symbol of a fresh era. He was a savior. He represented change, and not the type trapped between your sofa pillows, either. Amar'e Stoudemire was all that when he came to the Knicks, a franchise-type player handpicked to represent a bold new future for a dysfunctional team.

Then how come he looks suspiciously like the past already?

Has it really been only two years since Stoudemire arrived? Yes, time flies, especially in New York, an impatient city that taps its fingers for no one. And that includes a seven-footer who restored hope at the Garden but now, based at least on perception if nothing else, can only get in the way of progress. Not since Jets coach Rex Ryan went on a crash diet has a local big man shrank this quickly. But at least Ryan kept his job. Stoudemire is coming off the bench at the moment for the Knicks, who are groping for ways to transition a former star back into the lineup, while at the same time, nervously wondering if this will come at a cost.

It’s a little awkward right now for everyone, for coach Mike Woodson, for Carmelo Anthony, for the other players, for the fans and for Stoudemire, who just wants to be loved and needed. This will work … won’t it? A team that shook up the NBA with a quick start will only get better once Stoudemire gets healthier and stronger, correct? Simple mathematics mean this will be addition by addition, no? 

If the Knicks win with Stoudemire as they did without him the first two months, then nothing else matters, not his minutes, his role, his ego, his salary or his medical history. Nobody will care. Nor should they. Maybe not even Stoudemire. But that’s just it. By winning 18 of their first 23 and making a serious claim to be the only challenger to Miami in the East, the Knicks and Stoudemire are in a funny spot. Everything that happens from here will be compared to that start, and fair or not, Stoudemire’s presence will be weighed heavily and suspiciously if the Knicks are thrown off the pace.

Any criticism of Stoudemire will be unfair initially. The Knicks right now are incomplete, and until they get a healthy Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert and Rasheed Wallace back, any stumble will be a result of that, not Amar'e. Also, Stoudemire is exactly the kind of player who won’t complain and moan about this and that during this sensitive process. That’s the last thing he wants to do, the last player he wants to be. He knows what’s at stake, and it’s larger than him. Besides, he’s not playing for money or individual hype; he has all that. There’s no other agenda except winning.

“I don’t want to be a disruption,” he said. “I don’t want to interrupt anything at all. Whatever role coach sees me playing, then that’s what I’m playing.”

Wisely, Stoudemire has conceded the team to Anthony, who’s sturdier both mentally and physically to deal with the demands that come with being a lead singer. Besides, Melo is on an MVP-like tear right now, why mess with that? No, this isn’t about Stoudemire pushing his weight and demands. It never was about that. It’s about the Knicks finding the best way to get production from a 30-year-old whose best gifts aren’t exactly what they need most.

You see, the hard part for Woodson is trying to teach an old scorer some new tricks. Can the coach coax Stoudemire into transforming into a rebounding and defending big man, sort of a “Tyson Chandler lite” with a 20-foot jumper? That sounds like a bit of a reach if only because Stoudemire has never been that type of player. It’s not to say he can’t make an honest attempt, but realistically, it ain’t happening, at least not anytime soon. He’s not wired that way.

Essentially, the Knicks have a reclamation project on their hands, at a cost of $22 million in each of the next two seasons. He’d be tough to trade because of his contract and medical history, so for better or worse, he and the Knicks are stuck with each other. They’re debating whether they should bring him off the bench and maybe keep him in a co-sixth man role with J.R. Smith. They’re asking him to reinvent himself. They’re trying to get Stoudemire to do something he wasn’t brought to New York to do, and good luck with that.

He was the booby prize in 2010 when the Knicks couldn’t get LeBron James. Before that, they spent almost two years cleansing themselves of bad contracts and front-office mismanagement just for the chance to use their considerable resources -- money and the allure of the big city -- to rebuild themselves through free agency. They chased LeBron first, then settled on Stoudemire, giving him five years and $99.7 million despite being a year removed from microfracture surgery. Hey, the Knicks were desperate. They figured he’d be their best big man since Ewing -- not that he had much competition for that honor -- and help them seduce one more pricey free agent in the near future.

Well, Stoudemire pulled his end of the deal. He embraced the city and all of its charms. He said and did all the right things (proclaiming “the Knicks are back”) and New York loved him in return. Then he delivered on the floor and breathed life into the building. He had nine straight games of 30 or more points and, by February, was an All-Star starter. This was pre-Carmelo, remember. This was Stoudemire and some spare parts helping the Knicks to a winning record and respectability. And when Melo arrived midway through the season, Stoudemire still finished the year averaging 25.3 points, shot 50 percent, grabbed 8.2 rebounds. But, for various reasons, he hasn’t been the same since.

Additional knee issues and Melo’s increased influence on the franchise are what dialed Stoudemire back, and now, finally healthy, he and the Knicks are wondering what’s in store between now and spring.

“It’s just a matter of getting my timing back, my legs back,” he said. “Anything to help the team.”

And you can see the team trying to help Stoudemire. Melo scored 45 points against Portland in Stoudemire’s return but spent portions of Thursday’s win over the Spurs looking to get his old shotgun-rider going. There’s no friction between the two, especially now that their roles are more clearly defined. Melo knows Stoudemire could be the difference between winning a title and losing the chance to reach the Finals, so he has plenty at stake personally in Stoudemire’s midlife redevelopment.

This isn’t the same Knicks team that Stoudemire pulled from the ashes two years ago. There’s more balance, more talent, a bigger star. And lots on the line. The good news for the Knicks is Stoudemire understands this better than anyone knows.

He doesn’t have to be a star in order for the Knicks to keep rolling in the right direction. But what exactly is he?