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.
"He still might be the toughest individual cover in the league because of his combination of size and quickness," Legler says. "But when times get tough, he doesn't trust anybody else."
Boeheim, not surprisingly, sees it differently.
"You can build a championship team around him," says the longtime Syracuse coach. "It's obvious he hasn't had the type of players around him yet to produce a championship. I think he's made teams better, but they haven't had the tools to win championships."
Asked if any of this debate bothers him, Anthony says, "Hell no. I don't pay any attention to that at all."
He seems to have left behind the off-court troubles that undermined his early career — his infamous appearance in a "Stop Snitching" video designed to intimidate Baltimore crime witnesses, a friend's marijuana found in his backpack at the Denver airport, a driving-under-the-influence charge in 2008.
Anthony says there's no comparison between him now and the guy who entered the NBA at age 19.
"It's night and day," he says. "I was a guy who didn't really understand a lot of things, was kind of turned into a man overnight, who had to learn from his mistakes. I didn't really, I don't want to say appreciate, but didn't understand being a professional athlete at 19, 20 years old."
His place in the game is sure to be discussed often this season because Anthony can opt out of his contract next summer. Talk has begun that the Los Angeles Lakers will try to snatch him..
Anthony has been through this before. His last two seasons in Denver, he played under constant suspicion that he was trying to force a trade to New York or New Jersey
He has said he won't answer questions about his contract during the season. That won't stop others from speculating and wondering if he's worth a mega-deal.
With his 30th birthday approaching in May, Anthony might be closer to the end of his career than the beginning, hard to believe considering the rounded features that have always made him look so youthful. But he says he hasn't dwelled on how long he has left or worried about windows closing on his loftiest goals.
"You think about it here and there," he says. "But I still feel like I'm a young guy in this league. I haven't really even hit my prime yet. That's a scary thing."
'Connection to the kids'
Mary Anthony remembers the thwacking of the ball as her son dribbled in front of the family's front door on Myrtle Avenue, the way he'd shoot it into just about anything, even an old crate.
"It was just like every day, that ball was in his hand from the time he got up," she says.
She became a single mother after Carmelo's father died when he was a toddler. The family moved to Baltimore from Brooklyn when he was in grade school. Mary didn't see much formal value in her boy's basketball obsession but appreciated it as a pleasant distraction in a neighborhood full of darker possibilities.
"I believe that what he's seen, what he's grown up around, it gave him something else to focus on," she says. "Something besides just hanging around the block."
Anthony says he wanted to sponsor his East Baltimore youth center precisely because his childhood taught him the value of having a place to play.
"I know what's going through these kids' minds, their hopes and dreams and their daily lives, what they go through," he says. "Growing up in a single-parent household, that's big in Baltimore. There's a lot of things that go on in Baltimore that I lived growing up. So I still have that connection to the kids coming up today."
Lee says the center serves about 125 youngsters every afternoon, offering everything from basketball to computer time to art classes with Johns Hopkins students. Rarely does a day go by without at least one kid squeaking, "Coach Kurk, when is Carmelo coming?"
In truth, Anthony doesn't make it back as often as he used to, though his mother still lives in Owings Mills. He spent the summer of 2012 preparing for the Olympics and this summer rehabilitating a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. But he looms large for the Baltimore kids who hope to follow his path.
"He's one of the greatest players to come out of this city," Lee says. "But he's put himself on another pedestal by actually doing something for these kids."
That makes Mary Anthony proud, even though she misses seeing her son in the flesh. She'll get that chance, of course, on Thursday.
"For me, it's a different feeling, a different experience to know that I'll be playing 10 minutes away from where I grew up," Carmelo says. "This will be one of those monumental events."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun