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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: Carmelo’s Long-Awaited Return

After a year-plus of waiting for the call, Anthony answered the bell when the Blazers finally rang

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.

On November 19, after a year of standing by as the NBA rolled on without him, Carmelo Anthony signed with the Portland Trail Blazers for the humbling figure of $2.16 million. Days before the deal, Melo was asked by The New York Times whether he still wanted to play. He was 35, hadn’t played an NBA game in a full calendar year, and had previously endured two failed, short-lived stints with Houston and Oklahoma City. But the competitor, no matter how diminished, still wants to compete. “Two thousand percent,” Melo said. “Make that the headline.” Two hundred percent probably would’ve made his point, but Carmelo Anthony loves an unusual number. His jersey number, for example. After wearing no. 15 for the Nuggets and no. 7 for the Knicks, Thunder, and Rockets, Melo chose to don double-zero for the Blazers.

On an Instagram post, Carmelo explained why he chose no. 00 in 11 bullet points, three hashtags, and four additional sentences in the caption. It was, if I can be so bold, a little repetitive. His reasoning combined the philosophies of multiple religions and referenced the Greek alphabet, and while we could spend hours deciphering how the double-zero represents “THE MYSTICISM OF OUR PAST” and “A SENSE OF AWE AND WONDER,” this is but a humble blog, and I’ll save us some time by pointing out that “00” resembles the infinity sign. Though I did find one bullet point most representative of Melo’s next chapter, the antepenultimate “CHANCE TO HAVE A NEW AND GREAT BEGINNING WITH THE PAST LEFT BEHIND WHERE IT BELONGS.”

Leaving the past behind—specifically, the past two seasons—was crucial. The Knicks sent Carmelo to the Thunder because he wanted to be there. But once he arrived, he was repulsed by the significantly smaller role awaiting him. At Melo’s introductory press conference, he infamously laughed off a reporter who asked about the possibility of coming off the bench. After the season, Melo stood firm. “I’m not sacrificing no bench role. So, that’s out the question.”

His insistence on being treated like the Melo of old doomed his time with the Thunder from the start. In Game 5 against the Jazz in the playoffs, he begged assistant coach Maurice Cheeks to let him return to the game despite the 33-16 run that the team was having while he was on the bench; ultimately it became an awe-inspiring 25-point comeback that he essentially didn’t participate in. Neither party was happy. OKC dealt Melo that summer to Atlanta, who ate his salary and released him to sign with Houston. But after 10 disappointing games, he was traded to the Bulls, who then waived him. He was Norma Desmond with a scoring title, a has-been with a headband. With nowhere to go, Melo sat on the sideline for the remainder of the 2018-19 season.

But there was one team that was still interested in the 10-time All-Star. For years, Portland had eyes for Carmelo. Back in July 2017, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum tried to woo Melo on social media and in private. But now the signing filled an immediate need, not just a yearslong itch. Zach Collins’s shoulder surgery and Rodney Hood’s back spasms left Portland’s frontcourt rotation, already dealing with the seasonlong loss of Jusuf Nurkic, perilously thin.

Melo started in his debut. The Blazers lost to a below-average Pelicans team, which was two games away from the start of a 13-game losing streak. Anthony finished with an inefficient 10 points on 14 shots and five turnovers, but none of that mattered. Melo started. Melo was back. He took Portland’s first shot, a no-good 19-footer, and made Portland’s first basket, a 3 from the elbow. The game was in New Orleans, but the crowd cheered anyway.

So many people, including LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, advocated for Melo’s return while he was gone. Yet so many people, including executives on James’s Lakers and executives on Wade’s Heat, did not give him a chance that 2018-19 season. “You need us,” Blazers president Neil Olshey told Melo in a pitch, “and we need you.” I’m guessing those were words he hadn’t heard in a long time. “I felt welcomed and wanted as opposed to me pitching myself to somebody,” Melo said in January. “When you feel that, it’s hard to turn that down.” He actually turned out to be a valuable addition for the team before the NBA suspended play, averaging 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in 50 games. The league still had room for Melo, after all.

Last February, Carmelo said he was sure retirement wasn’t too far down the road. He even wants to hang it up in Portland, when the day comes. Regardless of how this season plays out, Melo plans to return next season. The decision to keep playing was temporarily taken away from him, which never sat right for a future Hall of Famer whose name used to be mentioned in the same breath as LeBron and Wade. “This ain’t a damn farewell tour,” he said after he signed with the Blazers. He chose the double zero because it represented “THE CHANCE TO HAVE A NEW AND GREAT BEGINNING,” a fresh opportunity to—eventually!—retire on his own terms.