Coolin’ With Carmelo

On a seemingly normal Saturday in Brooklyn, Kam David is playing video games, just hanging out. Since he’s on the sticks at the moment, he’s not paying attention to his phone.

A friend tells Kam he’s just received a text message.

“Tell ‘em I’m waxing Melo in 2K real quick,” he replies, flashing a smile in the direction of his opponent.

He’s right. Sitting next to him is Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony, wearing a black, blue and orange “Stay Melo” shirt and one of his now-familiar high fashion hats. Kam’s Pacers are leading Anthony’s Knicks by 15 in the fourth quarter of the virtual matchup.

“Chef, you call me?” Melo shouts toward the kitchen, looking for an out. “I’m coming right now!”

Here, in a cozy apartment borrowed for the day that was once zoned in Red Hook, the neighborhood where Melo was born and lived until he was 8 years old, Melo’s chef, Courtney Harris, has been tasked with feeding 12 handpicked young people from the worlds of sport, music, art and beyond. They are rappers, photographers, journalists, athletes (David, for example, played high school ball with current Kentucky PG Isaiah Briscoe at Roselle Catholic in New Jersey, and is now an aspiring hip-hop producer) with social media handles you might recognize, like @TheRealTBlake, @8eyemedia and @IAMDJJUS. They’ve gathered here for some exclusive time with Anthony and his brand new sneaker, the Jordan Melo M12, on the day of its nationwide launch (January 2).

A few hours later, Anthony shuttles over to surprise a group of high schoolers from around the Tri-State Area at Jordan’s Terminal 23 space in Manhattan for a Q+A session and some on-court drills. As Melo walks out to raucous applause, one brash kid 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 unique brand of trash talk. (In fact he told VICE earlier this season, “You’re not a New Yorker if you don’t wake up some days and be like ‘Man, fuck this place.’”) In between appearances—and finally properly caffeinated with sufficient Starbucks on a day between a loss in Chicago and a home win over Atlanta—Melo takes a few minutes to chop it up about that NY state of mind and more during a sitdown with SLAM. Our apologies to his impatient young fan.

“I love that vibe,” he says of the fearless youngsters giving him a hard time today. “That vibe, that’s what New York is about.”

While it may come with added pressure, for obvious reasons New York has also afforded Melo a better fulcrum to leverage the growth of his sneaker line with Jordan Brand. And, equipped with a new mesh upper, FlightSpeed technology and a slimmer heel and ankle design, the M12 is the most playable Melo to date. The biggest (or at least, most noticeable) tech upgrade in the M12 is the introduction of four foam pads in the interior, which combined with two Zoom Air units provide a smooth, comfortable ride for the foot and a 1:1 internal fit system, even for an athlete as physically devastating as Melo himself. As the campaign’s official hashtag suggests, the M12 is #BuiltForMore.

“I wanted to try to play with the air pods on the inside. When your foot goes in, I wanted it to feel sort of pillowy. The upper is a little bit thinner than a lot of my other shoes, so I wanted something extra on the inside,” says Anthony. “You never know how it’s going to play out, but once I switched over from the 11 to the 12, I could just feel the difference.”

Kicking it with the kids who save up to cop his sneakers on the day of their release is Melo’s way of staying humble—while also keeping his ear to the streets.

“A day like today will always bring back memories of that feeling of being in the house, talking trash and playing video games with your friends, just chillin’ and hanging out and kind of just separating your mind from the things that’s going on in your life,” he says. “That’s who I am. That’s authentic to who I am as a person.”

If it feels like Carmelo has been more actively seeking out opportunities to impact youth lately, that’s because, well, he has. At 31 years old, he says he’s acutely aware of the potential disconnect between his generation and the next, and that sitting down with the kids that look up to him is the only way to bridge the gap.

“It comes a point and time when you gotta sit back and be like, Alright, cool, let me figure this out,” he says of his own maturation process. “That’s the connection that I’m trying to make, between the 17- or 18-year-old and a person like myself, who was once one of those kids. I always try to put myself in their shoes, and try to dig in and tap into their mindset and what they think.”

It’s why, for example, he made it a point to visit incarcerated youth at Rikers Island last year. And why he’s recently taken a strong public stance in regards to guns, first as part of an NBA-backed PSA speaking out against gun violence, and again in light of what happened to Knicks teammate Cleanthony Early last week.

“You have a voice now,” Melo explains. “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.”

Back in Brooklyn, the Knicks’ star forward careens up a narrow staircase, surrounded by photos and memorabilia that represent his journey, from Red Hook to Syracuse to the League. A hardcover copy of Larry King’s When You’re from Brooklyn, Everything Else is Tokyo lays flat on a table between the kitchen and living room, a few inches from a Jackie Robinson figurine and one of Melo’s sneakers on display. He poses for a photo with the 12 invited guests, all selected for their up-and-coming status as tastemakers in the city’s culture.

“Being in New York, it’s so much going on from a creative standpoint that you almost have to be influenced or motivated to be greater,” Melo remarks, surrounded by just that, in the flesh. “Your creative mind gotta always be on.”

Abe Schwadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @abe_squad.