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Staying Melo: The Inescapable Pull of Carmelo Anthony

Long before the hoodie and the Thunder, Melo came across as both the victim and the architect of his own circumstances. For the author, a lifelong Knicks fan, that hasn’t made it any easier to stop caring about him.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

“I’m a very random person,” Carmelo Anthony told Sports Illustrated in a video interview before this season, sounding like a man reading the About Me section of his online dating profile out loud. “You might find me in a grocery store, you might find me in a museum, you might find me in a deli. You know, I like to ride my bike, or just be out. I like to walk at night.” Several months later, listening to this considered self-assessment, looking at that perpetual half grin, and thinking about the way Anthony’s highly-anticipated Knicks tenure played out, I felt extremely melancholy.

It all just felt so very Melo: attempting to describe his unique characteristics by narrating the mundane everyday existences of many millions of New Yorkers; sounding kind of like the character in the movie Best in Show who, when pressed to name examples of the interests that she and her half-century-older sugar-daddy boyfriend share, comes up with them both loving soup. Which makes sense, because if Christopher Guest ever produced an NBA mockumentary, Anthony could slip quite seamlessly into character.

The costume department would have a field day: All you need to know about Anthony’s sartorial sensibilities is that there’s a frequent commenter on the Knicks blog Posting and Toasting who goes by the screen name “Melo’s Bucket Hat Collection.” The script writers could mine absurd turns of phrase straight from real life, like the time Anthony described former Knicks GM Phil Jackson as trying to trade him “for a bag of chips,” or the time Anthony sent a sponsored tweet on a New Year’s Eve regarding some sort of sneaker giveaway, and a rando fan wrote back: “how about you win a ring you fucking kill me man rooting for you all the fucking time annd [sic] you always disappoint me,” and Melo not only responded, but responded within the hour and with deep conviction: “I didn’t ask for your glazed donut face ass to root for me anyway!!!!” (I’ll forever honor and respect the fact that he never deleted that tweet.)

And plot-wise, not much would have to change from the reality of Anthony’s arc throughout his basketball career, which contains all the necessary pathos to make him the kind of by turns lame and lively presence that really pops on screen. He maybe peaked in college. His wife dabbled in reality TV. Perhaps his most carefree moment as a professional athlete involved a banana boat ride that he wasn’t actually a part of. He has a website that showcases features about cheeseburgers and tech reviews alongside excerpts of articles clowning on him for his fashion choices. He has put together what will likely be a Hall of Fame-worthy NBA career, averaging 24.5 points per game in his 16 seasons, yet he is most universally appreciated for putting on a hoodie one summer day to hide some uncut hair.

He is a tragicomic character, one who forced a 2011 trade to bring him to the New York Knicks that had the side effect of gutting the few decent assets the franchise had struggled for years to accumulate. Six and a half years later, when the Knicks dealt him to the Oklahoma City Thunder, it was to join a so-called “superteam” that, thus far this season, has put up a 15-15 record. Everyone compares the day-to-day iteration of him, unfavorably, to a more popular and successful alter ego who only comes around once every four years. He is a frequent enough butt of jokes, and a constant enough target of scrutiny and resentment, that by now it wouldn’t be surprising if he’d grown hardened and bitter. But Anthony still comes across as remarkably undeterred, the kind of guy whose essence isn’t really too far off from a Eugene Levy character. It must be why, against my better judgment, I love the lug.

It’s been quite some time since I’ve felt super anxious for the start of a Knicks game, since I’ve checked and double-checked the tip-off time throughout the day and made sure to be settled in and distraction-free for the opening jump. That’s what happens, I suppose, when several years have passed since New York last made the playoffs. It’s not that the games aren’t any fun to watch these days, because they definitely can be; it’s just that there’s no real urgency to witness every single second.

This past weekend, though, was different, because the Oklahoma City Thunder were in town, which meant that Anthony was making his first appearance back at Madison Square Garden since the trade. Going into the game, the big question was whether the fans would choose to welcome Melo with appreciation or berate him with lusty boos, and I was scared to know the answer. I wasn’t sure how I would emotionally handle it if the crowd at MSG decided to be rowdy and rude.

This was a marked departure from the way I felt in February of 2011, when Anthony suited up for his first game as a Knick. Shortly before that year’s trade deadline, he was dealt by the Denver Nuggets to the Knicks for an assortment of the fun, more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts players who had helped the team go on a 13-1 run at one point earlier that season. For the first time in ages, the Knicks had spirit and the Garden felt alive. Sure, they’d lost out on the big LeBron James sweepstakes in the summer of 2010, but they had then signed the über-earnest Amar’e Stoudemire, and his dunks—combined with Danilo Gallinari’s threes, Wilson Chandler’s laconic, cartoon-loving charm, and Timofey Mozgov’s endearing Russian blog—felt like a step in a cool new direction. Donnie Walsh could be trusted, Mike D’Antoni seemed to get it, and everything was going well until owner James Dolan (supposedly with the counsel of the dreaded former Knicks coach and executive and forever Dolan whisperer Isiah Thomas?) suddenly started meddling in an attempt to secure Anthony.

The negotiations were comical: Denver kept upping the price for Anthony, a pending free agent, and the Knicks kept acquiescing, fearing that if they didn’t he’d wind up a Brooklyn Net instead. And so, instead of waiting for the offseason when they could acquire him for straight-up cash, New York dealt a large portion of their roster, guys who could have either played alongside Anthony or at least been used as trade bait in a future additive deal. I resented everyone involved, from Dolan to Thomas to Anthony himself, whom I felt was self-sabotaging in order to make more money. But when he actually began playing for New York, I softened fast.

There are certain songs that, when I hear them, always remind me of that stretch of 2011, as winter gave way to spring, as I left one job and industry for a completely different other and had Knicks games as my only constant. There is the Wiz Khalifa song “Black and Yellow,” that I now nostalgically associate with a knockoff “STAT and Melo” version. There is “You Be Killin Em” by Fabolous, which was on the playlist that the Knicks blasted at MSG during warmups and which I played on repeat on my iPod during a short-lived, ambitious time period, in the months before I moved across the country to California, in which I jogged along the East River on most days, often wearing a Stoudemire shirsey. And there’s the Diddy-Dirty Money/Skylar Grey collaboration “Coming Home,” which MSG Networks used in the commercials leading up to Anthony’s Knicks debut. I rolled my eyes at this initially—wasn’t he a little young to be dropping reminiscences of Bernard King?—but it didn’t take long until I was seeking out the promo on YouTube just to get pumped up for a game.

In the ensuing years, the Knicks made the playoffs three seasons in a row, and even won a postseason series, before regressing back into four consecutive years of futility. Anthony turned in a classic Mike Breen “BANG!” performance on Easter Sunday in 2012 against the Bulls that made the Garden feel like old times in the ’90s, and two seasons later, he finished a game with 62 points.

He could be aloof, but he was always accessible, gamely answering tough questions from the media (provided you waited around patiently enough for him to emerge from the showers and slowly get dressed in those weird hats long after his teammates had gone home). In 2012 and 2016, he won Olympic gold, and seemed to relish a role in which he wasn’t the nucleus of the Team USA offensive scheme. During one off day in Rio—an Olympics that a number of high-profile NBA players opted not to attend—he ventured into a Rio favela for some pick-up basketball and some Instagramming. He had watched City of God about 100 times to prepare, he said.

Anthony also clashed with several Knicks coaches; played an iso-hero ball style that felt more like a throwback to a less-evolved NBA era during a time of flourishing strategic innovation around the league; nearly brawled with Kevin Garnett; reportedly undermined the beloved novelty sensation Jeremy Lin (though, you have to admit, when Anthony called the contract the Houston Rockets offered Lin “ridiculous,” he had a point); and watched from afar as two of his buddies, James and Dwyane Wade, won a pair of titles with the Miami Heat. In 2014, he tested free agency before re-signing with the Knicks.

He came across as both the victim and the architect of his own circumstances: The Knicks never really surrounded him with the type of talent it would take to be true NBA competitors, let alone contenders, but they might have had more opportunities to do so if they hadn’t been hamstrung off the bat by that initial trade. He was knocked for not making the players around him noticeably better, but the players around him, by and large, didn’t exactly have sky-high potential. In a few weeks span in December 2016, he engaged in public sniping with Knicks president Jackson and then was the subject of some remarks in a memoir by former Nuggets coach George Karl, who called him “a user of people” and explained that Anthony “carried two big burdens: all that money and no father to show [him] how to act like a man.” (His writing drew backlash, though Anthony took the high road: “I just hope he finds happiness in what he’s doing,” he said.)

When Anthony left New York, he posted a rambling, sporadically capitalized, heartfelt goodbye message on his website that included the phrases “survive within the belly of the beast,” “LOVE HAS NO BARRIERS,” “I came to NYC to B (Be) Born again,” “BOOK of WONDERMENTS,” and “I’m choosing to swim. ’Till the very end. No matter how much the seas around me may rage.” During Oklahoma City’s media day, when a reporter asked what he thought about possibly coming off the bench as part of a loaded Thunder team that picked up both him and Paul George in the offseason, Anthony got as miffed and snarky as I’d ever seen him.

It’s been a rough season in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder, far from being a Western Conference superpower, have instead played claustrophobic, stuck-inside-a-phone-booth basketball en route to a .500 record and what is currently an eighth-seed spot in the standings. (The team’s trio of stars have not exactly been lighting things up, and already, observers are asking whether the team should be looking to deal Anthony or George.) On the Knicks, meanwhile, OKC acquisitions Enes Kanter and even Doug McDermott have been bright spots, and Kristaps Porzingis, whose “window” was never going to sync up with Anthony’s, has been the undisputed, if oft-injured, leader of the team. The night before the Thunder played in New York, they won in triple-OT in Philadelphia, and after the game Anthony was asked what kind of reception he expected at the Garden.

“I think it will be an appreciation,” he said. “It’s not like I was there a season or two seasons. I spent a lot of time there—almost seven years. It was great times, bad times. Regardless, I stuck with it. I always remained professional. I came and did my job whether they liked it or not. Hopefully they recognize that.” During lineup announcements, the Knicks played a Melo tribute video, to mostly cheers but a smattering of boos, as Anthony, in his hoodie, looked on. Reader, I may have shed some tears. Part of it had to do with Anthony, but plenty of it had to do with the passage of time, with the way hope and high expectations get beaten down until, in hindsight, they just look like silly folly.

The story of the game quickly ran away from Anthony, who finished with 12 points as the Knicks’ Michael Beasley dropped 30 and New York, playing without Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr., defeated the Thunder 111-96. Two nights later, in a Thunder win against his other former team, the Denver Nuggets, Anthony scored four points on six shots, his fewest number of attempts since a game in 2013. “I’m good with that, if we win,” he said, pointing out that he had played an important role as a decoy, drawing attention away from a hot-hand Russell Westbrook. “I’m cool with that, man.”

And I hope he really is, and that’s there’s a chance for Olympic Melo to thrive in Oklahoma. I just want the guy to succeed, to get out from beneath the reputation he’s established, unfairly or not, and experience, for the first time in a decade, what it’s like to make a deep, meaningful playoff run. I resented him at first, but he won me over by being his goofy, flawed self, and now I find myself wondering what his existence is like in Oklahoma City, whether he’s able to live that “random” life of buying food in stores and walking down the sidewalk. “I don’t really see too many people when I walk at night,” he told Sports Illustrated in that video interview before this season. “But when I’m walking, just out and about, by the time people double back and can’t believe that it’s me, I’m already gone.”