By Dave D’Alessandro/Star-Ledger Columnist

REENBURGH, N.Y. — As he approached the herd of 25 reporters who awaited his arrival, both his eyes and smile grew wider, and then suddenly Amar’e Stoudemire lowered his head into the scrum and reached out with both arms.

“Group hug, guys,” he growled playfully, grabbing one writer around the neck with his left arm, and another around the neck with his right, while rubbing his sweaty melon into a blue padded wall.

Then he released his two huggees, and did a 180 to face his audience, still smiling.

“I don’t know what that was about,” he chuckled, before downshifting to, “So whadayoo guys got?”

You can just envision Deron Williams or Kevin Garnett doing it like this, can’t you?

Then again, maybe not.

It’s not like any of us need to embrace our sportsmen — physically, anyway — but there was something about Stoudemire’s behavior Friday that made you think, “Why can’t they all be like this?” It was a mood that reflected a visible satisfaction by what he had accomplished this year.

By now, it’s all etched in the soul of every New Yorker:

He had proclaimed that “the Knicks are back” eight months ago, he got them out of the gate very quickly, he buoyed their spirit after the biggest trade in franchise history since Bellamy-DeBusschere resulted in a seismic roster shuffle and a stumble, he kicked some tails when they needed kicking, and, as promised, he delivered the first postseason Garden party in seven years while establishing himself as an MVP candidate.

With every action, Stoudemire bound this steppingstone season together in a tidy package, like he was built from steel rope.

And virtually every step of the way — as he dragged them from 29-53 to 42-40 — he seemed to enjoy it. We’re not talking about the NYC trappings, such as cameos on Letterman or Regis and Kelly, or the side trips to Yankee Stadium. We’re talking about the real work.

To wit: The Knicks had an 11 a.m. practice Friday; Stoudemire had his car out of the garage on the lower West side by 6:45 a.m., and was already in the locker room in Greenburgh by 7:30.

“His motor is just unbelievable,” guard Chauncey Billups said. “Really, only one player I’ve played with has a motor like that, and we’re playing against him this week – and that’s KG. It’s something you can’t be taught, it’s kind of in you.”

Or, as coach Mike D’Antoni put it, “He’s been the one constant voice in the locker room and on the streets, that kept pushing us ahead.”

This is the way leaders have to be in competitive environments, of course — feisty and positive and authentic and charismatic, with the metabolism of a hummingbird — and Stoudemire seemed to recognize that since he turned the Garden into his playground.

It’s funny to recall: There was a time in Phoenix when he was considered high maintenance, but now we know the media tends to miscue on certain superstar attitudes, especially when they spend a lot of time in physical pain, as Stoudemire did.

But this guy is just the opposite. We surmise that it comes from being around Steve Nash, and recognizing how a two-time MVP handles the demands of leadership.

Still, his old coach hardly recognized him when Amar’e showed up last summer: “Probably the leadership qualities he has shown,” D’Antoni replied, when someone asked how Stoudemire had changed since their five years together in Phoenix. “They told me in Phoenix that he has them, that he’s done it, and they happened to be right. He’s just turned into a nice man.”

Right, like some guy you’d meet in an elevator.

Anyway, no more Mr. Nice Guy.

He can appreciate what the Knicks have accomplished, but after two visits to the Western Conference finals, you tend to want more.

“The plan was to make it to the playoffs, and a lot of people said, ‘It’s not gonna happen.’ It’s something we accomplished as a unit, and we’re confident about that,” Stoudemire said. “But now the real season starts, so all that’s in the past.”

He’s more about action than talk, so we wondered: What has to happen in this series for this to be a successful postseason?

“Well, we’ve got to win,” he said.

That’s asking a lot, of course. Nobody seriously thinks the Knicks can win more than a game or two against the C’s. The only certainty is that Stoudemire is being candid when he says, “When postseason comes around, I tend to turn my game up a notch.” The opponent isn’t always relevant. This is the guy who averaged 37 per game against Tim Duncan in a five-game series back in ’05. He’s not going to cower from the sight of KG.

Regardless of how this turns out, one cannot forget that it was just three years ago that the Knicks had a reputation as the most vile sports reality show ever conceived. Then Donnie Walsh made Stoudemire his linchpin move, added Carmelo Anthony to give his team bookend studs, and now they’re some length away from being taken very seriously.

But it all starts and ends with Amar’e, as we’ll see again this week. You can get used to this.

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