What were you doing when you were 19? If you’re anything like us, you were hitting the snooze button and ditching poli sci.
Carmelo Anthony is 19, yet on most nights he can be seen running around a gym in his baggy shorts, trademark headband, and glimmering blue jersey as 10,000-plus people look on. He cashes paychecks from his team and commercial endorsements for amounts that most of us see only during games of Monopoly. His face appears on SportsCenter as often as Chris Berman’s. He writes a monthly diary for two national basketball magazines. He’s got a website that sells stuff with his name and mug on it. He signs autographs for more dough than a schoolteacher takes home in a year. He lives by himself in a posh high-rise apartment in downtown Denver. He plays video games when he’s not working out or traveling to yet another city to play the game he was born to dominate.
What were you doing at 19 again?
“It’s fun, and it’s only just started,” says Melo, whose nickname mirrors his placid persona on and off the court. “When you look at my life over the last two years, anybody would be envious. I mean, winning a national championship as a freshman, getting picked third in the draft, and now starting for the Nuggets. Yeah, it’s pretty nice.”
Envious is an understatement. Most people on the planet who do grow to 6’8’’ can’t dribble and chew gum without losing either the ball or their Juicy Fruit. And less than .0001 percent of the population can hit an 18-foot jumper with a 7-footer sticking his paw in their face. Not to mention the ability to rebound, run the court, see open teammates before they even know they’re open, box out, cross-over dribble, windmill dunk, the whole shebang.
But Anthony can do it all, as his employers discovered, much to their enjoyment, when the youngster showcased his wares in the season’s first three months. The Nuggets played to packed houses and played well on most nights throughout the preseason and into the early stages of the regular season, with Anthony flashing offensive skills straight out of the Syracuse highlight reel, the one he directed last season during his freshman year, which culminated with a national championship, the first in the school’s history.
Now comes the hard part. Now comes the part a lot of the .0001 percent can’t get right. Now comes living the life. The police blotter is littered with too many of those who took the wrong path. The stories have become so commonplace that they tend to drown each other out.
“It’s important to be strong, because the groupies are going to be there from now until you’re done with this game,” says Anthony while surrounded by a gaggle of microphones after a week-one road game in Houston. “And the businesspeople, they’ll be there, too, trying to get you involved in so-called great opportunities. It’s definitely important to be careful.
“I haven’t had a lot to worry about so far because there’s just not much trouble I can get into in Denver,” he continues. “I play video games and work out.”
Anthony is a coach’s dream to be sure. He’s a hard worker on the practice court and doesn’t travel with a posse off the court. He did invite a friend from the old neighborhood in Baltimore to join him in Denver, but that’s the only member of Melo’s entourage. Still, life has dramatically changed since Anthony left the playgrounds of some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.
“I’ve got to travel with security now,” he says, shaking his head. “I can’t believe it sometimes that I’m walking around with security guys. It felt pretty funny at first, but I’ve gotten more used to it. You just never know who is out to start some trouble. Just pick up the newspapers or flip on SportsCenter.”
Walking off the court awash in cheers from an overflow crowd at the Carrier Dome during a special NBA preseason game staged at the campus as a tribute to the young hero, Anthony already seemed to understand that his glory days at Syracuse — short and sweet as they may have been — are in the distant past.
“Everything changed from the moment we won the national championship last year,” he says. “I became recognized wherever I went and my life got really hectic. In college, I focused on basketball and school. Now, I’m in a business and I’ve got to respect it for what it is.”
Despite entering the league with impeccable credentials (i.e., a tournament MVP trophy and championship ring), Anthony was actually overshadowed in the NBA draft and throughout the first couple months of the season by another young man with a similar pedigree — LeBron James. Unlike Anthony, James came to the NBA straight out of high school. He also came with more media hype than Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan combined.
So Carmelo Anthony slipped on the blue headband that holds his braided hair and slipped under the national media radar. To a point. Melo’s first official meeting with James in November was covered more like a Super Bowl than a Cavaliers versus Nuggets regular-season tilt. Denver won (that’s Anthony 1, James 0 for those of you scoring at home), but both rookies played like rookies in an ugly, turnover-mired game.
Still, watching this man-child effortlessly glide past a defender and bury a baseline jumper is a thing of beauty. On another night in Houston — as the Rockets opened their sparkling new Toyota Center with a victory over the Nuggets — Anthony’s stat line wasn’t much to write about in his diaries, but it was the season’s first week, and already the kid not only looked like he belonged with the big boys, he appeared to be a step quicker, a beat faster, and a bit stronger than nearly everyone else on the court. Is he the next Larry Bird or James Worthy as many so-called experts report? Or simply the first Carmelo Anthony?
“Rookie of the year? I think so,” Anthony has said. “Twenty points a game my first season? Yeah, I’m capable of that. Franchise savior? Yeah, I can be a leader on this team.”
The kid doesn’t hurt for confidence, does he? Funny, but these bold comments didn’t come after he had held his own against the likes of Houston all-stars Yao Ming or Steve Francis. No, Anthony spewed forth after his first professional practice session … a whopping four hours into his NBA career.
For a franchise like Denver, confidence isn’t a bad thing. Will it translate into a playoff run anytime soon? Doubtful, unless the Nuggets wake up one morning and magically find themselves in the Eastern Conference. Right now, the West is simply too talented and too deep for the upstart Nuggets.
Will Anthony’s prediction of Rookie of the Year hardware come true? Very likely, since he’s already shown he can score 20 points at will and should take a lion’s share of Denver’s shots if he holds up to the rigors of the 82-game grind.
Will Anthony pass the most important test, however, and reject life in the fast lane for a life of substance and style? That’s a tough one. So far, so good, but he’s only taken the first step of a marathon. The future of a franchise is tied directly to every step from here on out.