Carmelo Anthony is a veteran at this media shit. It’s about 45 minutes after the Knicks’ first game in the post-Derek Fisher era, a loss to the Wizards at MSG. Melo is finishing up his League-mandated locker room time with reporters when he’s asked about adjusting to interim head coach Kurt Rambis.
“I just go with the flow, man,” he says, smiling suddenly. “I go with the flow and Stay Melo.” The room cracks up. Melo’s uncanny ability to sidestep a tough question while simultaneously endearing himself to the insatiable horde of cameras and recorders allows him to breathe easy in a city where many players before him have suffocated.
The 6-8, 240-pound forward slithers through the 24/7 New York media cycle with guile not unlike the way he weaves his way to the cup through a crowded paint, but he’s also not afraid to speak candidly. During All-Star Weekend in Toronto a few days later, with the trade deadline looming, he addressed the gossip surrounding his future head-on. “It sucks. I’m tired of these rumors, man. I’m tired of ’em,” Melo told reporters. “It’s always something, man. Always.”
That Friday night, Anthony took a courtside seat for the first half of the Rising Stars Challenge at the Air Canada Centre to support his young teammate and Rookie of the Year candidate Kristaps Porzingis. You know, like a varsity player casually checking out the JV game. He smiled, waved into fans’ flashing iPhone cameras and exchanged daps with KP as if he were a proud older brother giving that public sign of approval to lil’ bro. (Melo is, unsurprisingly, quite familiar with eliciting hoopla just by walking into a gymnasium—a night earlier he caused a ruckus in the middle of the Jordan Brand Invitational, an All-Star Weekend high school showcase at nearby Mattamy Athletic Centre featuring his former school Oak Hill, as he meandered to his seat. It’s a scene that has also become an annual occurrence at the Jordan Brand Classic in Brooklyn, often producing the loudest cheers of the night at the Barclays Center.) At some point before halftime, Melo’s phone buzzed. A text message from a friend back in Baltimore read, “Is it true?” accompanied by a screenshot of the latest clickbaity headline attaching his name to a tantalizing blockbuster trade rumor.
“I looked at it, and I put it back in my pocket,” Melo said the next morning, laughing. “I actually don’t read nothing. No articles, I don’t go online to read, I don’t read newspapers.” But he can’t avoid the questions, and the texts don’t stop coming in from inquiring minds, despite the no-trade clause he says he’ll never waive.
“It’s just the accumulation of just always hearing, Melo trade, Melo trade, Melo trade,” he added matter-of-factly. “Eventually you get tired of hearing it. I think I’m just at the point where I’m getting tired of hearing it, tired of speaking on it. It just don’t make any sense at this point. Until something happens.”
Those rumors typically pick up steam on Twitter and in barbershops thanks to a loud chorus of undiscerning fans who view Melo as a lazy ballhog who can’t win. Even a few highly regarded hoop writers detest watching him play, and don’t hesitate to say so. But reducing the former No. 3 overall pick’s efforts to an ugly stereotype is highly unfair, and refusing to acknowledge the evolution of his game is simply ignorant. Ironic, isn’t it, the use of that word, “lazy.” The blunt injustice in all the Melo shade is pretty simple: He’s playing some of the best basketball of his career.
There are the surface-level statistics that point to his incredible well-rounded play—he’s averaging a career-best 4.2 assists and attempting the fewest field goals per game since he was 20, while still posting 21.8 ppg and pulling down 8+ rebounds a night for just the second season of his 13 in the League. There are advanced stats, too, like the fact that Melo is one of just five players who have logged at least 1,500 minutes this season to use 29 percent of his team’s possessions while assisting on at least 20 percent of his teammates’ baskets and blocking at least 1 percent of all opponents’ shots (the others: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and James Harden). But numbers always ring hollow to haters.
“He’s going to get most of the criticism whether we win or lose,” admits Knicks forward Derrick Williams, who grew up watching Carmelo—he was 12 when Anthony was drafted. “If we lose and he plays great, he’s going to get most of the criticism anyway.”
See, somewhere along the line, hating on Carmelo Anthony became fashionable (not to mention easy, thanks to the Knicks’ top-down organizational woes). Petty Knicks fans decided they’d be better off without one of the best players in the League, turning their attention to far-fetched free-agent fantasies like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Fans of other teams watch a few highlights and read articles with titles like “Carmelo Anthony: Way Overrated” from major publications like The Atlantic and agree that yup, he’s washed. Announcing Carmelo Anthony is your favorite player no longer comes with the kind of instant cool it once did, when he was rocking the braids as a brash but unstoppable teenager in Denver. Or even when the “Welcome to New York” swag was still fresh during his first few months in the Big Apple.
Melo will turn 32 in May. Save for the icons like Mike and Kobe, rarely if ever does an aging star stack up to younger, flashier players in the “cool” department. Porzingis in fact is already pushing Anthony for the title of most popular Knick, not even a full 82 into his career—curious, since he also represents the best teammate Melo’s had since Allen Iverson. But superficialities be damned, Anthony is balling. Which is why no one flinched when he was voted an All-Star starter for the seventh straight season. Haters had to pay homage, huh?
Still, it’s maddening that even with the Zen Master at the helm, the Knicks, in their current form, are nothing short of a trash can emoji; a point guard-less, interim head coach-havin’ runaway train hurdling into infinite mediocrity, a fate mitigated only by Melo’s continued commitment to professionalism and the flickering hope of Porzingis one day becoming what Melo already is: a superstar.
Even if New York suddenly goes on a Derek Jeter-like hot streak, they’re still going to miss Playoffs for a third straight season. “That doesn’t sit well with me,” Anthony says.
On an early January day off between a Knicks loss in Chicago and a home win over Atlanta, Melo sits in a back room at Jordan Brand’s Terminal 23 space in Manhattan, where his own logo adorns the invite-only basketball court that has become, among other functions, his personal playground. He’s sipping Starbucks and going over some logistical details. In a few minutes, he’ll be surprising a lucky group of high schoolers from around the Tri-State Area to host an intimate Q+A session and lead a few drills.
If it feels like Melo has been more active in seeking out opportunities to impact youth lately, that’s because, well, he has. Last year he visited incarcerated youth at Rikers Island. This year he took a strong public stance against gun violence, first as part of an NBA-backed PSA, and again through the media after teammate Cleanthony Early was robbed and shot in the leg at gunpoint in December. When you consider that a decade ago Anthony, who spent his formative years in West Baltimore, found himself in hot water for a brief cameo in Stop Fucking Snitching Vol. 1, the DVD, it’s hard not to appreciate the personal transformation.
“It comes a point and time when you gotta sit back and be like, Alright, cool, let me figure this out,” Melo says of his own maturation process. “You have a voice now. I realize I have a voice—I want to be heard for certain things. I don’t want to just be heard when it comes to basketball. Like, real-life situations. There’s more to sports than just shooting the ball or throwing a football or hitting a baseball. It’s more to life than that. There’s real life things that’s going on out there that people like myself can use their voice.”
As he walks out to meet the high school kids behind raucous applause, one brash voice yells out above the others, “What took you so long?!” Having called New York his professional home since 2011, Anthony is no stranger to the city’s bold brand of trash talk. (In fact, he told VICE, “You’re not a New Yorker if you don’t wake up some days and be like, ‘Man, fuck this place.’”)
“I love that vibe,” he says of the fearless youngsters giving him a hard time. “That vibe, that’s what New York is about. That’s who I am. That’s authentic to who I am as a person.”
Carmelo was born in Brooklyn, raised in Red Hook until he was 8 and—despite recent reflections on his loyalty through the years—is dead-set on finishing his career in a Knicks uniform, no matter what your favorite sources say.
“I don’t want to run. I could have ran somewhere when I was a free agent. I came back for a reason. I came back because I wanted to be there,” Melo opined scrupulously at one point during his ninth All-Star Weekend. “Doing it in New York is better than doing it any place in the world. One in New York is better than multiple somewhere else. So that was the reason why I wanted to come to New York. That’s the reason why I’m in New York.”
Abe Schwadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @abe_squad. Images via Getty.