Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony, of the New York Knicks, a former Towson Catholic student, pays a surprise visit to kids at the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center. Tyion Taylor, 6, left, a first-grader at Inner Harbor East Academy, shakes hands with Anthony after giving him a strawberry cheesecake. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun / October 16, 2013)

Carmelo Anthony fully expects the memories to envelop him as he trots onto the court at Baltimore Arena.

The long days dribbling on the asphalt beside West Baltimore's Murphy Homes projects. The early games at Robert C. Marshall Recreation Center, when he was just a skinny, goofy kid, hoping he might become good enough to earn a college scholarship.

It all happened, what, 10 minutes from the court where Anthony will suit up for the New York Knicks on Thursday night?

Though his professional allegiance lies with the Big Apple, Anthony will be straight Charm City when he dons an NBA uniform for the first time in his hometown. The preseason game against the Washington Wizards might be meaningless to most of the world. But for Anthony, it will offer a chance to celebrate everything he's become with the folks who knew him before the NBA was even a fantasy on his horizon.

"Everytime I go back, it's always going through my mind, when I would run up and down Myrtle Avenue or Pennsylvania Avenue, you know the Murphy Homes projects," he says. "I wasn't a guy on the outside looking in. I was in the heat of the thing, the thick of the thing. That's where my connection comes from. My connection is deeper to the roots of Baltimore than the average person that comes out of there."

The "WB" tattooed on his left shoulder offers a constant reminder of his West Baltimore origins. But Anthony's commitment to the city goes beyond surface emblems, say those who've come to know him in the wider basketball world.

"A lot of guys say they love where they came from," says Jim Boeheim, Anthony's college coach at Syracuse. "But I think the proof is in, as you move forward, what do you do? He's been very engaged in giving back to Baltimore and the kids in the city and has spent a lot of time there as well."

Most prominently, Anthony gave $1.5 million to refurbish a youth center on East Fayette Street that bears his name. More recently, he helped cover the funeral expenses for former St. Frances and Clemson star Devin Gray, who died of a heart attack in August.

"Melo has done everything he said he was going to do," says former Towson University standout Kurk Lee, who serves as the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center's recreation director. "The things he's done have kept the doors open and kept a lot of kids off the streets."

At 29, Anthony returns home as the greatest basketball player Baltimore has ever produced. If that sounds weird, think about it for a second. His resume includes an NCAA title in his only college season, two Olympic gold medals, six NBA All-Star appearances and last season's scoring title. Who can match that?

None of that even touches on the $100 million-plus he's earned in salary, his long-term endorsement deal with Nike's Jordan Brand or his regular top-10 rankings in player jersey sales.

He's a star by any reckoning.

Anthony, who played at Towson Catholic, ticks off the list of Baltimore greats who came before: Ernie Graham, Skip Wise, Mark Karcher, all the Dunbar stars who lit up the city when he was in grade school.

"Those are the guys that really laid the foundation and the groundwork for myself," he says.

What he won't say is that none went as far as he has gone already.

'Night and day'

Despite all his accomplishments, Anthony's career is often portrayed in terms of what he is not.

He had the misfortune of entering the NBA from the same 2003 draft as LeBron James, the greatest player in the world, and Dwyane Wade, a three-time champion.

By contrast, only one of Anthony's teams has made it as far as the conference finals. And last year marked his first top-five finish in Most Valuable Player voting. Analysts sometimes dismiss him as a brilliant scorer who can't lift his team with defense or passing. New York fans and writers routinely fret that he's not cut out to be the best player on an NBA champion.

ESPN analyst Tim Legler is one who rates Anthony among the greatest talents in the league but questions whether he can be the focal point of an elite team.