Todd Boyd is a professor of film at the University of Southern California and a commonly sought-out expert on the intersection of hip-hop culture and pro athletes. When he hears that Carmelo Anthony wants to be a leading voice of urban America, he thinks of Michael Jordan, who went a different direction and became a voice of corporate America.
Without all those NBA championships, Jordan's influence would have been limited.
"If 'Melo's successful on court, if his team is successful, people will embrace him," Boyd says. "The street will embrace him. Madison Avenue will embrace him. The suburbs embrace him. It all really depends on how 'Melo plays."
It would be hard to play much better than Anthony has lately. Coming into Wednesday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James, the Nuggets forward is on a month-long roll. He is consistently piling up big numbers, leading his team to tough victories and showing all the hallmarks of a superstar.
The NBA's eighth-leading scorer at 25.7 points a game, he went for 39 at Chicago on Monday and 38 the game before that at Milwaukee, both Denver wins. His jumper is falling at all the right times, too, providing game winners the previous week against Houston and Phoenix. He also stuck a 3-pointer to force overtime at Dallas in an eventual loss. The Denver media has likened his clutch play to that of John Elway, the retired Bronco who was famed for his late-game drives.
With the Nuggets limited by injuries to several key players, teams have tried double-teaming Anthony. They've stacked his side of the court. They've gone big. They've gone small. Played him more physically. The way to limit Anthony is to "entice him into a bad-shot game," Bulls coach Scott Skiles says. Not much has worked.
"He's hungry," Nuggets guard Earl Watson says. "If he misses a shot, he'll follow up his shot two, three times until he scores. As a coach, you can draw up any scheme you want, but you can't stop a player who is driven. He's hitting the boards like a power forward."
Kobe Bryant has dominated the national headlines in recent weeks with his scoring sprees. But, says Nuggets coach George Karl, "There's an efficiency to 'Melo's game. He's getting 40 points on 20 shots, not 25 shots. And the team's functioning well even when he's the No. 1 option."
Anthony has always had a nose for the basket. This year, he has gotten better at passing out of double teams, which has earned the respect of teammates. When he does force the shot, it's more often been the smart play, as was the case against the Bulls. His jumper wasn't falling, so he drove and drove some more, drawing fouls with regularity -- and making 19 of 21 free throws.
"He's making plays this year, not just being a scorer," Nuggets guard Andre Miller says.
Karl traces Anthony's evolved game back to last year when, shortly after taking over the team, he sat Anthony down the stretch in a midseason game against Memphis. Frustrated, Anthony approached his new coach after the game and asked to talk about roles and expectations. The next day, they did just that, for more than an hour.
Karl recalls telling his star, "Carmelo, I've coached great young players. It's a challenge to me [to coach you] because making you better makes me better. But I still have to coach you the way I think the game says to coach you. I'll explain everything to you. If you work with us, you'll get better. You'll learn the game."
A bond of trust was created, the value of which cannot be underestimated. Earlier last season Anthony had inked a tattoo, Who can I trust? on one of his arms as a reflection of the confusion he felt while enduring several off-court controversies (see ESPN The Magazine story). The problems affected his mood, and play, and soon the LeBron vs. 'Melo rivalry was replaced in the fan dialogue by that of LeBron vs. Dwyane Wade.
Anthony's newfound professionalism has been evident to everyone in the Nuggets' organization. After practices, he sits courtside with assistant coach Tim Grgurich, evaluating game video on a mini-DV player. He understands the game better than he did a year ago and has the fitness to execute what he knows, having started his third season in the best shape of his career. For the first time, he worked out all summer.
"I think he just wants to get better," Karl says. "He understands that great players get better, that great players are consistently improving. His best asset in the summertime was his defense, which was most improved. He's in his stance, and much more alert."
Though he leads the Nuggets in steals, Anthony cannot yet call defense a strength. He's just four years removed from high school ball and the free-for-all AAU scene, where scorers reign and teaching is limited. On offense, his 3-point shooting remains a relative weakness. But the holes in his game are diminishing by the month.
The Cavs have the undisputed king among young NBA stars in James, but Anthony is again proving himself a worthy rival.
"The kid is here," teammate Kenyon Martin said. "He's arrived."
"I'm just happy to be where I'm at right now, to be able to overcome what I went through last season," Anthony says. "This is a goal that I set this summer, to be one of the elite players and do what I'm doing out there."
One of the highlights of his summer was spending a week at the Chicago-area home of Jordan, whose Brand Jordan line of shoes and apparel uses Anthony as a featured endorser. He left inspired, though chats about how to win championships took a backseat to the big picture -- which 'Melo sees himself framed by.
Anthony regards himself as more than a basketball player, as Jordan was in his own way.
"I don't care to talk about basketball with him," he says. "I'd rather talk about life. It's all about life. With basketball, one day you're here and then tomorrow you're gone. What you are going to have in life is most important."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN the Magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com