OFFICIALLY, THE gathering in a vacant lot behind Johns Hopkins Hospital yesterday afternoon was the kickoff of a state-run anti-violence project.
Unofficially, it was a 'Melo welcome-home block party.
The fact that it functioned as both is precisely why the governor's office invited Carmelo Anthony on board. It's also why Anthony accepted so readily and participated so enthusiastically. The project, dubbed "Hype vs. Reality," is the latest attempt to halt the spread of violence by cutting it off at its source - but the swarms of youngsters from all over the area at the site of the announcement weren't lured by the message as much as they were by the 6-foot-8, cornrowed, baby-faced messenger.
"It's 'Melo. Everybody loves 'Melo," marveled state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, from East Baltimore. "If all they said was that the governor or the state attorney or the doctor from Hopkins was there, there'd be nothing like this [turnout]. But if you say 'Melo, or Sam Cassell or Muggsy [Bogues], they'll be here. They identify, and they're going to listen."
More than likely, Cassell or Bogues or Juan Dixon or Steve Francis would have drawn a similar crowd yesterday. But the presence of Anthony, specifically, was vital - partly because he's not so far removed from the target audience and partly for the inadvertent appearance in December in the now-infamous "Stop Snitching" DVD that turned him, in the eyes of many, into an example of everything that's wrong about young, rich, black celebrity athletes.
At this time and in this place, only Anthony could make the proper alterations on that image. He promised to do so back when the controversy surrounding him was at its peak, and several times since then. He made good on that promise yesterday. Consider the image fixed, smoothed over and polished until it gleamed.
Anthony said what had to be said, he said it well and his audience - that critical audience in desperate need of the proper influence - absorbed it like little sponges. It became obvious how right the choice was to involve him in this from the moment he started walking down Ashland Avenue toward the podium in the vacant lot.
The dozens of youngsters on hand - including a van from the Boys and Girls Club, but also several from the neighborhood who were just happening by - stopped everything they were doing and rushed toward him. They rushed past numerous politicians, dignitaries and prominent participants in the project. A few paused briefly to shake Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s hand and pose with him, then quickly turned their attention back to their main target, thrusting paper and pens toward him for autographs, snapping disposable cameras and aiming camera-cell phones at him.
Even a handful of protesters across the street, hoisting signs uncomplimentary about some of the governor's programs, set their placards down to get close to their hero.
All of this worship, of course, meant Anthony had better have something worthwhile to say. He wouldn't have come had he not, though. This was the first real chance he has had since the DVD came out to follow through on his pledge, and when his Nuggets were eliminated from the NBA playoffs May 4, his plans came together quickly. No picking or choosing about when, where or how to do it.
"This was a great opportunity to start and make up for it," said Betsy Merrill, executive director of community initiatives for Ehrlich and yesterday's emcee.
Anthony took advantage of the opportunity. He wasted little time in driving home his point about his unscheduled film debut: "I'm not that kind of person. I don't encourage any young kids, any older people, to be on a DVD like this."
He recognized, and conveyed, the importance of his role in the project (which includes filming several public-service announcements). "If you all don't listen to these guys, listen to me," he said. "You'll probably relate to me more than you do these guys."
"These guys" - Merrill, Ehrlich, state's attorney Patricia Jessamy - made sure they invoked Anthony's name often. Dr. Edward Cornwell, a prime mover in the project in his position as head of Hopkins' trauma center, told some horrifying tales of teenagers he has treated for shotgun wounds, and added they wouldn't know the names of any of the dignitaries on hand yesterday, "but they all know Carmelo."
And they - well, they love him. They let him know the entire time he was there, up until the second time he climbed into his car to leave - he'd gotten out to satisfy the crowd still pleading for his autograph.
The last thing he said into the microphones was: "Help me help you all to stop the violence here in Baltimore. I love Baltimore City."
The city, and all those disturbed by the sight of him on the DVD, needed to see and hear it all. It ought to bring an end to that chapter of Anthony's life. "Baltimore should be proud of him," Merrill said.
He made it right for himself, and one can only hope he made things right for the kids who showed up en masse in a dusty lot on a hot day to hear his message.
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