Love Is A Bird Rebellious
1, 2, 3…
At his core, he was a dancer. If Kobe was the Baryshnikov of his era, Carmelo Anthony was Albert Torres, engaging defenders at the elbow in a perpetual tango evoking their shared Puerto Rican roots. A step forward, a feint with his elbow, a half-pivot, then: gone, with the duck of his sweatband-adorned head. It was one of the seemingly endless ways Anthony could score; it didn’t look effortless, but, like a choreographed routine done right, it usually looked like he was having fun.
Except to older heads whose respect he ended up earning anyway, it doesn’t much matter that the biggest win of Carmelo Anthony’s career happened before he ever made it to the NBA. Everybody wants to win – of course – but winning was never the most interesting nor important thing about Anthony himself. On the day when the team that drafted him bounced the last team he played for from the playoffs, Anthony announced his retirement.
Born in Brooklyn housing projects but raised in Baltimore, Anthony had made his name as a folk hero before Syracuse, first at Towson Catholic and then at the distinguished Virginia basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy. In a nationally-televised game, Oak Hill defeated the St. Vincent-St. Mary team starring one LeBron James, but not before igniting a careers-long friendship with the fellow phenom.
In delivering Syracuse its first-ever national championship over Kansas in 2003, he became only the second men’s freshman player up to that point to garner Most Outstanding Player for the NCAA Tournament, capping one of the greatest single-season runs any player has ever had and gaining the pride of the tristate area eight years before becoming a New York Knick.
James and Anthony headlined an all-time great draft class that year, and the comparisons between the two would trail them for much of the early part of their careers. They were 1-2 in a Rookie of the Year vote that should have been closer, if not reversed entirely. Soon, though, they were able to carve out their own roles in the popular consciousness: James as the branded heir to Jordan, and Anthony as the pied piper of the streets.
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The early missteps carved the juxtaposition to LeBron for him: the wordless appearance in the unofficial “Stop Snitching” DVD (dressed in a bright red conjuring the titular character in Carmen, no less) and the brawl against the Knicks in 2006 both dinged Melo’s commercial image while reinforcing the idea that he was a man of the people, inheriting Allen Iverson’s throne. That he then went on to play with Iverson in Denver strengthened ill-advised, preconceived notions about both of them, but the basketball was undeniable.
An appearance in the 2009 Western Conference Finals would be the closest Anthony ever got to a ring. A season and a half later, he all but forced a trade to the Knicks, his quasi-hometown team, and in so doing depleted that team of many of the pieces it may have used to help welcome him in free agency the following summer, which many speculated was going to happen anyway. One of those pieces was the draft pick that became Jamal Murray.
Getting more guaranteed money is not really a misstep, except, well… Anthony had signed a five-year extension in the same summer, 2006, that LeBron and Dwyane Wade signed four-year deals and Chris Bosh signed a three-year deal. That meant he missed out on the grand free agent sweepstakes of 2010, which netted the Knicks none of those players but, rather, an on-his-last-knees Amar’e Stoudemire.
Those Melo-Amar’e Knicks stumbled to two ill-fated playoff appearances, and Anthony may have/sort of/probably stifled Linsanity at a time when the Knicks desperately needed a point guard (remember when?). Basketball was back in New York City, sure, to the tune of the Knicks not losing 50+ games a year anymore, but it still wasn’t quite enough.
Later on, the alter ego known as Hoodie Melo, another hero to blacktops everywhere, scoffed at the idea of coming off the bench in Oklahoma City, a thing he probably should have done at that point. Although he was fresh off his final All-Star appearance, it was one certainly boosted in fan voting simply by the fact that he was a Knick, and his flaws, especially defensively, had long been apparent. No team featuring Anthony would advance past the first round of the playoffs again.
If the Knicks end up retiring Anthony’s jersey, it will be because of the 2012-’13 season, when he led the team to 54 wins and a second-round playoff appearance while winning the scoring title and garnering a first-place vote for MVP.
His play that season was beautiful. With motion surrounding him on all sides, Melo could operate out of his favorite spot on the court, the triple threat position, either as a decoy or, more often, as the world-class scoring threat he had become. Notably, he played more that season at power forward than at his preferred position of small forward, something he loathed for two-thirds of his career but came to embrace out of necessity toward the end.
Hooper, baller, whatever honorific one wanted to place on him, it didn’t matter: that year, Anthony played the maximized version of YMCA ball he’d begun honing in Baltimore to a tee. But for the rise of Paul George and the version of Roy Hibbert some people fondly recall, the Knicks may have met the Heat in the East Finals.
Surrounded by old heads like Kurt Thomas, Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Rasheed Wallace and Kenyon Martin, as well as older rookies Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland, that team never would’ve been able to last, but a blueprint for what success-via-Anthony was there before, confusingly, the Knicks turned away from everything that worked that year.
From the end of that season until 2017, Anthony became a scorer without a cause: he’d put up a Madison Square Garden-record 62 points against the then-Charlotte Bobcats, but with an apt zero assists. His efficiency stagnated. Though long and stout for his position, his defense became increasingly apathetic.
By the summer of 2016, Anthony would become one of the most decorated Olympians in basketball history, his play style blending perfectly with the nuances of FIBA gameplay. The following winter, he was booed on his home court, the crowd seemingly interpreting the exhaustion he felt in carrying a punchless Knicks team as indifference.
On the contrary, to my eyes: only in caring so much could he have become so drained, for lesser gunners would have relished the idea of freely putting up as many shots per night in the world’s most famous arena. His only regret was that he had but so many jab-steps to give.
A few unremarkable yet statistically steady seasons with the Thunder, Trail Blazers and Lakers later, along with one perplexing and short stint in Houston, and Melo has finally grabbed his last rebound, juked his last defender and bullied his way to a final bucket. The dance will exist in the minds of those who saw it, each of his partners slightly out of step and unprepared for the enchufla ronde happening in front of them.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that an unlikely successor to Carmelo Anthony’s genius out of the elbow plays in the same city where he once did, wearing the same number he once did. Though vastly different in execution, when witnessing the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals for the first time next month, it wouldn’t be totally unreasonable to think of Melo when Nikola Jokić has the ball in his hands. This is how the game is meant to evolve. When one dance has reached its natural conclusion, another begins: the music never stops.
 And, even now, the second of only four, preceding Anthony Davis (2012) and Tyus Jones (2015).
 LeBron’s greatest legacy may end up being that he not only lived up to but exceeded the hype surrounding him for several years before he even got to the NBA; the 2003-’04 Rookie of the Year vote may be the first true reflection of that in that ROY voters were so taken with how well James performed so quickly that they rewarded him immediately. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not at all that he was undeserving at the time, but a part of me has always thought Melo was a better rookie, and the advanced stats reflect that all these years later. Also, and this is obviously team-contextual, but: the Nuggets made the playoffs that year after winning only 17 games the season prior, as every one of Anthony’s first ten squads would do, whereas the Cavaliers had to wait until the end of LeBron’s third year in the NBA to return to the postseason.
 Sent away in that trade, Danilo Gallinari would exact revenge on the Knicks a decade later: as a key member of the Atlanta Hawks’ bench rotation in the 2021 playoffs, Gallinari scored 21 points in a Game 4 win that all but sealed the series for Atlanta.
 The flipside to the earlier footnote about the 2004 ROY voting: Anthony should not have been the reason one voter kept LeBron from being the first unanimous MVP during what was probably the latter’s best regular season. That voter was Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.