Carmelo Anthony cupped his hands over his ears for protection but allowed his baby face to break into a giddy grin as the shrieks of congratulation cascaded over him.
"Melo, Melo, Melo," hundreds of elementary schoolers shouted as Anthony strode into his downtown recreational center to give Baltimore its first live glimpse of his Olympic gold medal.To hear Anthony tell it, he hasn't stopped smiling much since he claimed the gleaming disc two weeks ago in Beijing.
"At the top," he said, when asked where the victory ranked among his career achievements. "At the very top."
Star players have an annual chance to win college and pro titles, he explained, but only every four years do they get to play with their greatest peers and test themselves against the best from other countries.
After a celebratory jaunt to Las Vegas and a few days at home in Denver, Anthony knew a trip to his hometown had to be next on his post-Beijing itinerary.
Today, he's scheduled to throw out the first pitch for the Orioles' 1:05 p.m. game, and tomorrow he'll be honorary captain for the Ravens' season opener.
"I had to come back here to let everybody know where I grew up," he said. "To let them enjoy the experience with me."
The kids from Inner Harbor East Academy and the Crossroads School couldn't stop yelling and jumping as Anthony flashed his gold.
"I just want to say I was so glad to go 15 hours away to Beijing and represent Baltimore City," he told them. Later, he helped place replica gold medals around the necks of teachers and coaches from the schools.
"There was no way we were missing a celebration like this," said Inner Harbor East principal Beverly Manigo. "You know, when I told my teachers about this yesterday, I think they were as excited as the kids."
She praised Anthony's commitment to Baltimore. "How many people you know do this?" she said, gesturing at the sparkling gym around her. "Most of these guys become famous and maybe they donate something, but for him to create this kind of place for kids who might not have any other place to go, it's different."
One boy had tears in his eyes as he spoke with Anthony. That sent a shiver through the player's mother, Mary Anthony.
"It actually brings tears to my eyes to see the way they admire him," she said, dabbing at her cheek. "It makes me proud to see him here because it's something he doesn't have to do, but it's what he does."
The appearance was her first chance to see her son since he arrived home. She gave him a big hug and ran her hand across the gold medal.
"It's a little different," Anthony said of returning to see his family with the gold medal around his neck.
Asked whether he had Baltimore on his mind during his weeks in China, he said: "Got to be. At the end of the day, you don't forget where you came from. I took Baltimore to Beijing with me, and now, I'm bringing Beijing back to Baltimore."
Anyone doubting Anthony's love for his hometown need only peruse his tattoos, which include a Raven, an Oriole, the area code 410 and a WB for West Baltimore. The rec center in East Baltimore bears his name and continues as his chief charitable endeavor (Anthony contributes about $300,000 of the annual $500,000 budget).
He remembered sitting in geography class, as a kid who rarely left his neighborhood, staring at maps of far-away places. He said he was overwhelmed in China to rub shoulders with the best athletes from those countries.
He alluded to the joy felt by players who suffered through the 2004 Games, when the U.S. failed to win a gold medal for the first time since NBA stars began participating in the Olympics. Anthony found the experience particularly frustrating because coach Larry Brown rarely let him leave the bench.
"After that, everybody thought the rest of the world had caught up," he said. "That said we were arrogant, we were cocky, we only play for money."
In Beijing, Anthony wasn't a dominant offensive player, as he had been in previous international competitions. But he saved his best outing - a team-high 21 points on 13-for-13 free-throw shooting - for the semifinal win over wounded but resilient Argentina.
The good feelings from Team USA wiped away what had been a rough spring for Anthony.
In June, he received a year's probation after pleading guilty to driving while ability-impaired and failing to stay in a single lane. A more serious DUI charge was dropped. Trade rumors floated after the Denver Nuggets suffered a disappointing playoff exit.
Anthony dismissed them as "just rumors."
"I'm in Denver," he said. "I'm happy."
Anthony seemed enthusiastic about playing in the next Olympics in London, though he offered no commitment. "I need to get eight of these like Mike Phelps," he said, fingering his medal.
He'll soon take the big prize off his neck and have it mounted for display in his home office. "Too many hands been on it already," he joked with a last smile.