There's something about Carmelo Anthony that seems to connect with people. Maybe it's because of the way he plays -- fearless, smooth in spots, but smash when it's called for. Maybe it's because he doesn't look like he's been hewn from stone; he has to work hard at staying in shape. He's not seven feet tall and he's not a genetic anomaly like LeBron James; 'Melo has a tinge of everyman to him. Maybe it's the fact that he isn't perfect, that he's fallible, and he has endured the slings and arrows because he does come across as a normal human.
AP Photo/Louie Traub
Carmelo Anthony will be a key player in Team USA's pursuit of gold in Beijing.
This paragraph by Pat Cassidy, which appeared in Dime magazine in August 2006, is quintessential in understanding who Carmelo Anthony is as a basketball player. It describes why he is loved and why he is not. More Hancock than Ironman or Batman. With Melo, we see the flaws. And unlike most -- if not all -- other athletes of his stature, he doesn't try to hide those flaws. They are as much a part of him as the 20-plus tats on his body that tell his life story.
During the past three years, though, once Melo puts on a USA jersey, all his flaws seem to vanish. In our minds, and in reality. The "don't snitch" label, the punch, his possibly being too "real" for superstardom the way "The Wire" (the story of life from where he's from) was too real for television -- none of it is makeup, but it makes up who he is. And who he is is that dude. That dude on whom America is going to have to rely to reestablish who we are in basketball's global market. Yes, there's Kobe; yes, there's Bron; yes, there's D-Wade; yes, there's J-Kidd, who already owns one gold medal and a 33-0 international record when he plays. But if this team is to play for the gold on Aug. 24, it will be because of what Anthony does, more than what any of his teammates do. Why? Keep reading.
On the day of his last visit home before he embarks on this mission, CA (aka Lil' NY) reflected on what his life was like four years ago, what he plans on it being like six weeks from now and what he plans on saying to the kids in his old Baltimore neighborhood this time next year when he tells them the continued, ever-evolving story of his life.
Jackson: First, I'm going to say/ask some things I know you are going to disagree with. If I do, just let me know. One -- and this is probably the one you are going to disagree with the most -- for the past three years, I've said you are the most important international basketball player we have here in America.
Melo: I'll let you say that. I'll let you come up with that answer [laughs].
In all honesty, you have been consistent in leading the team in scoring and consistent in being the team's most dangerous weapon over the past three years, and I don't feel that you've gotten the recognition you deserve for playing the way you have internationally. Maybe that's just me.
That's all you.
Then elaborate on what you feel your particular importance is on this Olympic team.
Man, I'm not trying to be important; I just go out and play. When I'm out there on the court with this team -- and I ain't even got to tell you who I'm out there on the court with, that's self-explanatory -- I just take what they give me. I take the time to work on my game while I'm out there with this team because of how good it is and because of the people that are on it. Personally, I try to play wherever they need me to play, and that over the years has been to my advantage. I can play down low. I can play up top, where I can play off the dribble or hit the outside shot. And because of that versatility, most power forwards on the international level think of me, I think, as a 3 or a guard, and I've been able to use that to my advantage.
But that puts you at a disadvantage on the defensive end, playing the 4, which is something you are not used to doing in the NBA.
Yeah, playing the 4 is something I'm not used to, but the system that we play in [on the Olympic team] is so spread out, man. Everyone gets a chance to do their thing. And just from the simple standpoint that [opponents] gotta guard LeBron, gotta guard Kobe, gotta guard Dwight [Howard] -- you know what I'm saying? You gotta guard everybody honest on this team. On every possession.
Yeah, but after three years of seeing you, like, killin' teams, don't you think the other teams need to recognize you as the main priority?
Naw [laughs], they can keep doing what they been doing. I don't have to be the man [still laughing]. I don't have to be their main priority.
AP Photo/Louie Traub
'Melo can fill it up, and that's what this team needs him to do.
Is it easier for you, playing on the national team, playing FIBA ball? It seems like the game comes easier to you here than it does in the NBA.
It's easier from the standpoint that I don't have to try to go out there and do too much, which I sometimes do. It's easier for me to let the game just come to me. You know, knock a shot down when I'm open, and just getting open shots. Like I said, I'm out there with Bron, Kobe, Jason Kidd and all those other guys. At the end of the day, someone is supposed to be open.
When they put the Dream Team together in 1992, they talked about Magic, about Jordan, about Bird. But they forget Charles Barkley was the MVP of that team
And he was the heart and soul of that team. Not from the standpoint of him being the main guy, but he was the guy that brought everybody together. You had Bird, Magic, Michael and all those guys, but Barkley was the one that brought everyone together and
And that's what I see in you. That's the comparison I'm trying to make. That's what I'm trying to tell you! It's no different. Everybody is looking at Kobe, LeBron and D-Wade, and you are the heart and soul of this squad.
Yeah. I mean, I'm me. I'm just out there being myself. I like having fun. But at the same time, I bring everybody together. So I'm really -- or I try to be -- like the glue of the team.
Here's my belief -- and this might be another one of those things you disagree with. But, knowing you -- and this is no disrespect to anyone else on the team -- you will take greater personal responsibility than anyone else on this team if you all lose. Would I be right?
I don't want to make it seem that it's just me, but yeah, I think I will take more responsibility if we lose than anybody else taking it because I've been there the longest [along with LeBron and D-Wade, who also were on the 2004 team].And I already know, in my heart and soul, this time right now, this summer, this Olympics, I have to redeem myself, and [we need to] redeem ourselves as the best basketball players in the world.
Let's go back to '04. Coach Larry Brown. I've talked to more than a few people, heard a lot of stories and come to my own conclusions. One of those conclusions is that he played you unfairly.
I thought he did, too.
You came into the last Olympics leading the team in scoring, and once you all got to Greece, you didn't play anymore with no explanation as to why.
I really don't know what it was. Honestly, now that I have had the chance to see what really happened and get to really tell my story -- back then, everyone was only listening to Larry Brown; they weren't listening to me. Larry Brown and I never had any words amongst each other. I never argued with him; he never said anything to me about any problem he had with me. Like you said, I was leading the team in scoring during all of the exhibition games, and then we get to the Olympics, and the whole script is flipped and I never play.
And he never said anything to you?
Honest to God, he never said anything to me. And I never said anything to him. I don't know where all of that came from. We were at practice one day, and a couple of guys from some newspapers came up to me like, "What you do to Larry? What you do to Larry Brown?" And I'm like, "What are you all talking about?" They said, "They got it in the papers like you two are going at it." I didn't know anything about it because there was nothing to know. Larry Brown and I never spoke.
I know Brown has always had an issue with playing rookies or young players, but since you were a man -- young or vet -- he should have said something like, "Look Carmelo, I'm going to go to a different plan." He should have at least told you that, and you are saying he never did?
When we were in Jacksonville trying out, although LeBron and I were the last additions to the team, he sat us down and told us, "You guys gotta get ready; you guys are going to play." And he played us -- he played us in the exhibition games. And after that, he never said anything, and we -- myself, Bron, D-Wade and Amare [Stoudemire] just ain't never play no more.
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
Larry Brown was criticized in 2004 for leaving his young guns on the bench.
Yeah, in those Olympics, I think the four of you averaged only 11 minutes a game.
Yeah, we were coming off the bench, and after a while, when you have a team like we had in '04, something like that starts getting in your head, starts messing with your confidence and a whole lot of other stuff. So we had to stick together. That's really what brought me, LeBron and D-Wade so close. Out there, we had to stick with each other and hold each other up. We'd say, "We ain't going to let this get all of us down." We had to figure it all out by ourselves, together. We weren't playing, we were on the back of the bus, at the end of the bench, so we had to find a way to still get workouts in after practice to keep our confidence up.
So you three had to grow up together real quick, basically. You all had to grow up and figure out what in the hell was going on?
Yeah, yeah. Basically we had to get together and be like, "This is what it is." Like, "OK, we know we not going to be playing, so let's go work out before practice or after practice. Let's make sure we get ourselves together."
You made the comment once that they "threw you all to the wolves" back then. Explain what you meant by that.
What I meant is that we were coming off of our rookie [NBA] season, and we haven't had any Olympic experience before. And this wasn't the FIBA qualifying games; it was the Olympics! Back then, I don't think we realized the importance of the Olympics, of the opening ceremony and everything that is involved in it. We were just thrown out there and told, "Go out there and win the gold medal." And over the years, I think we've learned from that. Over the last few years, we've sat back and we've watched -- we taking heed and taking notes of what's going on. We're more mature and more aware of the whole Olympic situation and of what's going on and what's at stake.
So '04 basically could be considered a blessing in disguise?
That's definitely a blessing in disguise, right there. If I hadn't gone through that in '04, I probably wouldn't be sitting here talking to you about how I want to handle myself and everything that I'm talking to you about.
Are you carrying any of that with you into this Olympics? Not to necessarily prove Larry Brown wrong, but to prove what you were capable of doing back then?
Not just to Larry Brown. I think over the years I've proven and let people know what I was capable of back then. I don't think I have to prove anything like that. But I do want to prove to the world that when it comes to this basketball thing -- and I don't want to sound arrogant and cocky or nothing, but this is ours! This game, we started this! I want to regain that.
Is that something you all have discussed openly in practices and in meetings? That sense of pride that has been lost? Is that something coach Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo are instilling in you all, that this is yours?
First of all, we still have a bitter taste in our mouths about '04. From losing to the whole experience, from how it went down to how it was put together -- we still remember that. It was like, after we lost, everyone went their own separate ways. I don't see that right now. What we have right now is a family. We are a family right now. We on a road to redemption right now.
Are you worried about anything?
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
American hoops fans are hoping Coach K can make a big difference with this squad.
Naw, I'm not worried. I'm not worried about anything. And I don't think the team is worried. The only thing we are worried about is getting over there and playing. We just want to go over there and play. We ain't really worried about nothin'.
Not even the three things everyone seems to be talking about -- that there's only one true big man (Dwight Howard), that there's only one true outside shooter (Michael Redd), that there's only one true defensive specialist (Tayshaun Prince)?
Naw. I think we have the perfect team right now. We have everything you can ask for. We got point guards, 2-guards, we got shooting guards, we got small forwards, power forwards and we got the best center in the whole world right now. I'm tellin' you
Let me ask you something kind of off center. How do these games -- the games you are about to play from now until the end of the Olympics -- how do they represent you? Not necessarily as a basketball player, but as a person?
When I step on that basketball court, I'm thinking about basketball, I'm thinking about winning -- but there's so much that goes into thought about how I'm going to open this game up to others. It's so much more than just basketball. Like the opening ceremonies -- we got the whole entire world [watching]. It's the biggest thing in the world, all sports -- not just basketball. For me personally, I just sit back and let it all sink in. "How the hell am I here? How did I get here? Me?" You know what I'm sayin'?
I do. You being that kid from Baltimore -- I'm talking the hood in Baltimore, not Guilford or Roland Park -- a place where you still have connections and love, where you still go back every chance you get (note: At the time of this interview, Anthony was in Baltimore for his fourth annual Holding Our Own Destiny event), a place that some people still hold against you because you've never been or acted ashamed of where you came from something like a gold medal is not something cats from there -- even if they are ballplayers -- think about.
Yeah. Growing up where I grew up and how I grew up, I think we appreciate it more. When we watched the Olympics and the opening ceremonies, we don't really know what's going on, to actually see ourselves as being a part of that. So now I really appreciate it. Just walking and hearing the United States of America [being announced] during the opening ceremony, the fireworks, the lights -- all of that stuff really means a lot. In my life, I could have never envisioned something like this or being a part of something like that. I never envisioned myself playing for the U.S. Olympic team -- growing up, I never envisioned playing in the NBA, to be real with you. I never envisioned that type of stuff. So this is like a dream that I never had come true. It's like I'm a part of what's really going on. It's still very hard for me to believe that I am really going to be a part of the biggest thing in the whole entire world.
There's a perceived belief that those of us from the real inner city have a different sense of patriotism or that we lack it. Tell me what winning a gold medal means to you from that perspective. Not just you the basketball player, but you, Carmelo Anthony, that dude from the bricks of B'more?
I can't even put that into words. That feeling. That would be the best thing that ever happened to me. The best thing ever, period. Winning that gold medal [takes a deep breath] look, I won in high school, I won a national championship in college, I want to win one in the NBA. But winning a gold medal, I don't think anything can top that. I know people say that they want to win a world championship in basketball and in football and things like that, but nothing compares to winning a gold medal. See, like right now, I'm anxious. Anytime you put on that USA uniform, any time you get the chance to play for a gold medal, you get anxious. I'm pretty sure everybody on the team feels the same way -- anxious to just go over there and get to playing. You know, all of the hype and excitement of us going over there, we just actually want to get it going.
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Carmelo and his other high-profile teammates are facing plenty of pressure to win.
So this time next year, when you come back to the hood for H.O.O.D, what will you tell these kids is the difference between now and then? Not about how the Olympics might have changed your life, or you winning a gold medal and what it means to you, but what that gold medal around your neck should mean to them?
I will tell them first that I was once one of them. No different. I know some of them have aspirations about playing in the NBA, and now that it is so big, they probably have aspirations of being an Olympian -- something growing up that I never thought of. But because of what we are trying to do over there, I can come back and tell these kids that it's possible. It's possible. I been where they are at, had hard times, had hard days, thought my dreams were never going to come true. But I can sit in front of them with that gold medal and show them that dreams do come true.
And about the experience?
I'm going to tell them first that I played with the best guys on and off the court in the world. That I had the best in the world on my team. When you look down the line 15-20 years ago, how people are talking about that '92 Dream Team, I want people to be talking about us in the same way. We have a chance to have people talk about the 2008 Olympic team like that. They tired of talking about the '92 team [laughs]. They want to talk about us. We just have to give them a reason to.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.