Chapter 1: The Family
How Linsanity disrupted Carmelo Anthony's long-term vision in New York
On Sunday in Washington, D.C., getting ready for a practice with Team USA, New York Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony turned the Jeremy Lin conversation on its ear by calling Lin's big free-agent offer not "bold" or "aggressive" but "ridiculous."
Anthony later pulled back a bit, saying he hoped Lin would return to the Knicks, but the word "ridiculous" shifted the discourse permanently in that instant. While most of the NBA was wrestling with how to value Lin -- was he worth that much? -- Melo betrayed no such struggle: His teammate had not earned the $25.1 million contract offer the Rockets had presented him. It was hard not to infer that he didn't want the Knicks to match the offer and keep Lin.
Where did that come from? What reasons would Anthony have to be anything but supportive of Lin, a player who had thrilled Knicks fans and could help the team return to its former glory?
The reasons are much deeper than they first appear and, according to sources close to Carmelo and the Knicks, have roots in the saga of LeBron James, The Decision, Melodrama and much more.
Anthony didn't join the Knicks in 2011 to be just a player. He came to build a basketball family. Despite his messy departure from Denver, he came to New York envisioning an opportunity to create a refuge from the backstabbing and intrigue that plagues many teams. Lin, though by all accounts a great teammate, was seen as a potential threat to what Anthony was creating.
You only have to read the news to learn that those charged with helping an NBA player reach his potential -- the players' association, agents, coaches, teammates, even family and friends -- are not always especially faithful about keeping the player's best interests at heart. The multiple agendas can be conflicting and confusing, on and off the court. By the time they have been in the league a few years, most players have been ripped off or feel shortchanged by somebody or another. It's a bad feeling.
And in particular, on many teams there is very little trust among players, owners, coaches and the front office. Often, it's every man for himself, even amongst teammates.
But, right before our eyes, a lot of that is changing.
When James left Cleveland for Miami, he was protecting himself from mistrust by creating his own family of sorts. He wanted to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, longtime friends and teammates on Team USA. He found people to trust in Heat executive Pat Riley -- a much-admired figure among NBA stars -- and in Riley's protégé, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. And with Riley and Heat owner Micky Arison as the patriarchs of a small front office, and former Miami stars keeping close ties to the team, the Heat had already created the kind of family atmosphere that appealed to LeBron.
The Heat's three stars and head coach are all represented by Creative Artists Agency, home of William Wesley and Leon Rose. CAA's basketball operation often is discussed in conspiratorial tones, as if something sinister and devious is happening.
But, among players, CAA more commonly is prized for representing the opposite of that. For many, it is a reprieve from the mistrust endemic to the game. It's something like an extended family of players and coaches and others who look out for each other. James, Wade, Bosh, Anthony, Chris Paul, Tom Thibodeau, Rich Cho, Mike Dunlap, John Calipari ... CAA's basketball client list is impressive and growing.
The Heat stars astounded league insiders by agreeing to play for less than they could have made elsewhere. For months, many swore it could never happen because almost every player in a similar position has taken the maximum amount he could.
But the SuperFriends agreed among themselves to take less -- and even left some money on the table for other teammates -- building on years of trust they had created. (In fact, even detractors understood that this unique trio would not have come together without first creating months and years of mutual trust.) In the face of unprecedented criticism, that trust became their sanctuary, a way to play with less ego, less crap and more real team spirit. The result: an NBA title.
Among those looking on most eagerly were Anthony and Paul, who had issues with their previous teams and agents. Both joined CAA when they liked what they saw in the way James, Wade and Bosh came together. And now, with varying degrees of success, both have become committed to the idea of creating similar environments of their own.
In his 17 months in New York, Anthony -- while still a lightning rod of controversy, sometimes accused of being a ballhog who is tough to play with -- has made some progress in that regard. His relationship with owner James Dolan, coach Mike Woodson and the Knicks front office is said to be splendid. When Anthony had a beef with coach Mike D'Antoni, who never was destined to be part of the family, ownership stuck with the player. When D'Antoni reportedly asked management to consider trading Anthony for Deron Williams, the Knicks refused and D'Antoni departed. Woodson, at first considered just a short-term interim coach, signed with CAA and, in short order, took over as head coach.
And in the offices of the Knicks, CAA is a significant force, even beyond clients Anthony, Woodson and Knicks guard J.R. Smith. CAA's William Wesley is known to be close to Dolan, and the agency also represents Madison Square Garden itself and at least two members of the Knicks' front office, Allan Houston and Mark Warkentien.
Most tellingly, perhaps, Isiah Thomas is close to Dolan, Wesley, Grunwald, Woodson and others with the Knicks, according to sources. The former Knicks president and coach is still a very influential voice in Dolan's ear, and those behind the scenes say he is lukewarm toward Lin.
Still, despite so many people pulling in the same direction, the Knicks have not been a perfect picture. Not only has the franchise been dogged by the Knicks constants of high salaries, questionable decisions and mediocre results, but they've also suffered from injuries and an increasingly restless fan base.
Into the middle of all that, while Anthony was out with an injury last winter, stepped Jeremy Lin. From Anthony's point of view, according to sources with firsthand knowledge of his thinking, the Lin phenomenon made little sense. To his thinking, Lin had a few good games, the team surprised everyone with a little winning streak ... and then everybody went bananas.
Anthony had already gone all-in for the long haul, attempting to paint a multiyear Knicks masterpiece that would make New York proud. He saw himself as the selfless leader, expanding his game, recruiting teammates and creating something that would leave a real imprint on the city.
Linsanity didn't fit the blueprint. For a superstar of Anthony's caliber, it didn't make sense that a backup point guard who turned the ball over a lot, didn't mesh especially well with Melo's talents, played Hero Ball in crunch time, hit some lucky shots and couldn't sustain more than a few weeks without injuring himself had become the city's folk hero.
Furthermore, the entire experience resonated differently for different people, sometimes dividing observers along cultural and racial lines. This was especially true among fans but also seemed at times to be the case in NBA circles.
The "family" concept is about unity more than race, and there is no suggestion Anthony is racist in any way. It's said that the Knicks players, Anthony included, liked and accepted Lin. In fact, Anthony was among those who met with Lin shortly before the free agency period, as reported by Chris Broussard.
But it is an accepted plank of the "family" platform that it's an opportunity for young black men to shoulder responsibility and become the real decision-makers and power brokers in a multibillion-dollar business built on their backs. In a world where the big decisions have so often been the province of older white men, and where players have often felt exploited, the new model is thrilling and precious for those who get to experience it.
In that context, the way the world embraced Lin raised the question: What does an African-American player have to do to be so beloved so quickly and passionately? Could it ever happen?
Before Lin emerged, it was easy for Anthony to believe New York loved him. But Linsanity made it seem clear that New York had been holding back all along.
Meanwhile, for one crucial stretch in February, the Knicks were winning more than they ever had won with Anthony in uniform. This further rattled Anthony's vision for a happy Big Apple home and a starring role for himself. It simply didn't seem right that Lin would have more of the spotlight than he did.
Where there was meant to be total team harmony, there was more of the same ol' same ol' worrying about shots, wondering who management really cared about more and, as of this month, debating about money.
Earlier this week, before Lin's departure was official, and after saying, "It's up to the organization to say [if] they want to match that ridiculous contract that's out there," Anthony said he would welcome Lin back. But even if that's taken at face value, Linsanity interfered with Anthony's long-term vision for the Knicks franchise.
Melo's ideal might never be realized, but it comes with the backing of CAA, the admiration of other NBA superstars and good will around the league. And, while Anthony is in New York, those might be the most valuable Knicks assets of all.
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Six Degrees of Separation: Jeremy Lin
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