On the singular career of a singular cult hero
I first saw Carmelo Anthony while I was mastering the alphabet and he was barnstorming through college basketball. It was either the Sweet 16 or the Elite Eight, and it was definitely in March 2003, but outside of that, my memory is hazy, as I was 5 years old. He was playing in an arena in Albany that’s gone through three names since then and has never once sounded close to as loud as it did then. Syracuse is the nearest thing we have to a professional team Upstate, and Carmelo is a god. He’s worshiped because he won—roughly a week after I saw him, he was cutting down nets in New Orleans—but more so because of the feelings he provoked.
When you live in a place that is defined in part by its proximity and relationship to other places, you’ll claim what you can get your hands on: whatever or whoever won’t run away. At Syracuse, Carmelo was both too young to understand this and too good to stay put, but the one thing he’s never done—then or in the decades since—is duck who he is. It’s true that he’s left folks high and dry, can’t argue with that. There were certain duties on a court that he was hardly ever willing to fulfill, even when he yearned to be mentioned in the same breath as titans who had no such qualms. But his choice to operate in this mode has always seemed less like a reflection of someone taking the path of least resistance and more like the actions of someone who saw themselves as above the path entirely—by sheer force of will and talent, unbeholden to it.
I’d imagine that every athlete has a bit of this gusto in them, that one doesn’t get wherever they’ve gotten without ironclad self-regard. But what made Carmelo Carmelo was the fact that he didn’t just have it to some degree—he had it to every degree. At any given moment, as sure as a ball is bouncing somewhere on this cosmic dot, no one was betting on Carmelo like Carmelo was betting on Carmelo. The man played his way and saw the best in himself. And that’s no small thing.
Melo retired Monday at the age of 38, having scored more points than all but eight people in the history of the sport. He played 19 seasons, made six All-NBA teams, participated in 10 All-Star Games, and won three Olympic gold medals. He says he’s “at peace” with having never won a championship. Whether you believe that or not is probably dependent on your appetite for all things Melo. You either love him or you hate him. There was no mystery in him or his game.
He was born in Red Hook as the youngest of four children, and he lived in the projects until he was 7, when they moved to Baltimore in the pit of its postindustrial decay. His father died when he was 2, and his mother ruled with a tight rein. When she wasn’t housekeeping, she was threatening to strip Carmelo of his basketball privileges if he didn’t reach an acceptable GPA. His freshman year of high school, he didn’t make the varsity squad. He grew 5 inches the next summer, morphed from a point guard to a wing, and shifted firmly onto the path to stardom. Within two years, he’d transferred to Oak Hill Academy, committed to Syracuse, and refined his frame and his shot. He won the 2003 national title and should’ve been drafted no. 2 overall that summer, but by the grace of god and Darko, he slipped to the Denver Nuggets at no. 3.
He did seven years in the Rockies, got only as far as the Western Conference finals, and eventually asked to be traded to his hometown Knicks. The saga stretched on for months until Denver finally agreed to a package that made it virtually impossible for New York to compete in the short term (and set the Nuggets up for years to come—they can thank the Melo trade for Jamal Murray). His stint at Madison Square Garden was a microcosm of his career—occasional brilliance and limited success bookended by messy breakups—but it provided him with a chance to reach the kind of stardom he always wanted. He bounced around the league afterward, nearly seeing his career end prematurely after a flameout in Oklahoma City (he laughed when asked if he’d come off the bench) and resurrecting it as a role player in Portland.
I never specifically rooted for the teams that Carmelo played for during his peak, but what I keep coming back to is the fact that I felt a subtle allegiance to him solely based on the reality that the pickup vets, the back-to-the-basket kings, the Certified Hoopers in my life adored him. And they felt this way for the very reason that others detested his play: because Carmelo was who he was. I don’t mean that in an Iversonian, speaks-for-the-corner kind of way—though Carmelo did know his Divine Math.
He was adored, in part, because of how he played: namely, his offensive repertoire, how it looked like some dance of strength and agility that Hemingway would describe. At his peak, Carmelo was a whirling dervish, spinning and stepbacking his way to and from the elbow with impunity. He differed from his peers in that he did his most dastardly work horizontally instead of vertically. This is not to say that he couldn’t bury a defender in his armpit or nearly hit his head on the rim, but rather that Carmelo’s genius came from his body control, footwork, and wiggle. His jump shot was a form of martial arts, mostly due to the velocity with which he flicked the wrist on his shooting hand. His handle was more than adequate, but it was a means to another end: a pull-up 3 from the wing, a midrange fadeaway, a two-hand slam.
He was unguardable as a child, and then as a young adult, and then deep into his 30s. Braided or faded, hoodied or capped, elder statesman or youngblood, to the people who loved him most, he was one of theirs. Because, at his best, he played how they wanted to, how they would have if they could have. His game was uniquely accessible in this way. Cool but gritty. It transcended his 6-foot-7, 240-pound body. The shots weren’t easy, but not in a Kobe-takes-a-contested-shot-to-prove-he’s-unbound-by-the-constraints-of-men kind of way. He took pull-ups and made them at a higher rate than almost everybody else because he thought this was how he would win.
This, of course, leads to the cruel irony of his career: the fact that in the standings, he was almost always an also-ran. By circumstance, he looked dimmer in someone else’s light. He never defended like D-Wade, he couldn’t pass like Bron, and his jewelry count was nowhere near Kobe’s. These would appear to be roadblocks to adulation, but assuming so ignores the fundamental truth that Carmelo is an impossibility in any other form. Think for a moment: What kind of mechanism or entity is capable of pulling a little boy out of the depths from which Carmelo came? If your answer is anything other than “the basketball player named Carmelo Anthony,” you’re missing the point.
He could never help but be anything other than himself precisely because it’s the only thing that could’ve helped him become himself.
It’s why he screamed expletives on defensive rebounds, why he called a Twitter critic a “glazed donut face ass,” why he turned into a sniper every Olympic cycle, and why he scored 62 points without registering a single assist. Authenticity in the digital age is a marketing ploy, but for two decades, Melo’s been leaking it in barrels. It ain’t a perfect picture. How could it be? The mighty lesson of Carmelo Anthony as he walks away from the court is that his game is not the defect—it’s what brought him to us in the first place.