Just off Interstate 83, the light turns red, and a couple of kids pounce, running a squeegee over nearby windshields and holding an open palm to windows.

Stopped at the light, Carmelo Anthony is riding shotgun in a Rolls-Royce Phantom. It's silver, sleek and shaped like a flat-nose bullet. Anthony, in contrast, is long and trim, his cheeks round, a diamond cross hanging around his neck and Chicago Blackhawks cap covering his braids.

"That was me," Anthony says of the squeegee kids. "It brings back a lot of memories."

Long before the $80 million contract, before he could even imagine visiting a country like China or following a basketball career to the Olympics, Anthony inhabited a small universe. Around the globe this month in Beijing, there are 598 athletes who will be wearing a USA uniform at the Summer Olympics. For each, that uniform - the very meaning of America, in fact - is different.

Anthony knows his America intimately - its smells and its colors. His America tastes like Moe's Crab and Pasta. It sounds like the thumping bass from car speakers and the endless patter of a basketball on pavement.

One of the last things Anthony did before taking on his latest assignment - redeeming a nation of anxious basketball fans by winning a gold medal in Beijing - was to return to Baltimore last month to visit his America before the Olympics.

Anthony lives and plays in Denver now, but Baltimore offers a comfortable feeling. "I feel like I went away to school and came back home," he says. "I don't feel like I'm here on a vacation. I feel like I'm home."

He's older now, of course, 24 years old. Not the kid dodging trouble in West Baltimore. Not the blooming teen who took his high school game to Virginia or the Syracuse college freshman who hoisted a national championship trophy. And not, he says, the young man who struggled in the Olympics four years ago and then, upon his return home, made mistakes that would leave long-lasting scars on his reputation.

Yeah, he's older now. And his world is much larger, even if his America is still the same.

Learning to hustle
The Phantom dashes through the intersection when the light turns green. The kids never had a chance to get even a droplet of water on its windshield. You've got to be quick. Anthony, of course, is familiar with every meaning of the word hustle.

When he was younger, sometimes that meant cleaning windshields. Sometimes retrieving rebounds at the playground courts. And still other times selling bottled water or T-shirts outside Camden Yards.

Robert "Bay" Frazier, a confidant, mentor and friend, said Anthony never really attended Orioles games. "He might've sneaked into a couple," Frazier said. "But mostly he was outside, running up and down, trying to scrape together money."

Anthony's family moved from New York when he was 8. For the most part, Anthony's youth, he estimates, consisted of about a half-dozen city blocks. "Until I got to about 13 or 14, I never really left West Baltimore," he says.

As he approached adolescence, his friends began to split. Growing up on the streets of Baltimore, they didn't have a whole lot of options.

"I was very careful about who he hung around with," says his mother, Mary Anthony. "Everyone he was with, I questioned. … I wasn't picking his friends, but I was making sure his surroundings were clear."

Anthony was accustomed to walking past drug deals, barely flinching for sirens and idly gawking at regular doses of street violence.

"To stay out of the trouble on Myrtle Avenue and down at them projects, you got to find something to keep busy," says Vinny Breckenridge, Anthony's first youth basketball coach. "Otherwise, you got trouble. It's either trouble or sports."

On his recent visit to town, Anthony's Phantom pulled up in front of a downtown recreation center that bears his name. Anthony resurrected the building, a shuttered Boys & Girls Club, nearly two years ago. He contributes about $300,000 of its annual $500,000 operating budget.

The center is hardly a vanity project. For Anthony, it was a chance to reclaim something he'd lost years before. When he was younger, the city closed his neighborhood rec center at a critical juncture in his life.