It was a tingling feeling, almost as if he were getting a hug.
Each time a batch of All-Star voting results was released by the NBA during December and January, Carmelo Anthony couldn't help but grasp them with interest. The numbers kept growing, and so did his pride.Big-time NBA players aren't supposed to be concerned with such things; they are supposed to be part of the trappings. For a young star with Nike commercials, a huge contract and a few medals from playing with Team USA, All-Star Weekend is usually part of a routine.
The former Towson Catholic standout received more than 1.7 million votes from fans worldwide, earning a starting spot tomorrow alongside Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming and Denver Nuggets teammate Allen Iverson.
"I can't tell you how excited I am. I just feel like it's getting over a hump that I was trying to get over for years," Anthony said last week before a victory over the Cavaliers in Cleveland. "I think the fans just recognized that I never gave up fighting. I think this has validated me, and that I'm a premier player, and that's why it feels great."
The "hump," as Anthony calls it, is what all this is really about. His abilities and potential star quality have been unquestioned since his rookie season, when he showed he could be headed for an illustrious career. It was everything else, though, that seemed to dog Anthony, and it manifested itself in so many ways, perhaps the most obvious being a series of All-Star snubs.
If you've followed Anthony's career, you know about the troubles that just wouldn't stop and tarnished his image, no matter what he did on the floor. There was a tussle at a New York nightclub, the small bag of marijuana that was found with his stuff on a team flight, the infamous appearance in a "stop snitching" video that drew him plenty of criticism and last season's 15-game suspension for throwing a punch at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Year after year as Anthony was passed over for honors, especially the All-Star Game, those moments were cited. Even last season, when he was the NBA's leading scorer, the coaches didn't vote him in after the fans passed, too. NBA commissioner David Stern ended up making Anthony an All-Star for the first time as an injury replacement.
So for the fans - who seemed tentative to embrace him the way they did fellow 2003 draft classmates LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, all of whom were voted as All-Star starters last season - to now express acceptance shows how far Anthony has come.
"I think he had to let people get to know his real character, those people on the outside looking in," James said. "His close friends knew, I knew, what kind of person he is, but after some of the things that happened, maybe the media and maybe everyone else didn't understand that."
Looking back, the turnaround seemed to begin in the summer of 2006. Anthony was the star of Team USA at the world championships in Japan. The Americans had to settle for the bronze, but Anthony led them in scoring at 19.9 points a game and at the end of the tournament was named USA Basketball's Player of the Year.
It was a long way from the Olympics in 2004, when then-coach Larry Brown ripped into him for not being a team player. Anthony continued his solid play last summer when the Americans dominated the FIBA Tournament of Americas in Las Vegas, proving to be a selfless teammate while sharing the burden and the credit with the All-Star roster.
This summer, he has a chance to further establish his legacy when he tries to help the national team win the gold at the Beijing Olympics.
"I think what this All-Star thing shows is the importance of the USA team," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "I don't think he would've gotten it if not for his Team USA contributions. I'm proud of that. I think he's moving into that top 10 [in the NBA] type of player.
"It is always a good experience playing against the best and being a part of the best. There's a strength to that. It's a psychological confidence, an inner confidence."
The Nuggets have one of the best records in team history at the All-Star break at 32-20. Anthony is averaging a career-high 7.3 rebounds and is fourth in the league in scoring at 26.2 points a game. There is still room for improvement. For example, Karl said, he could be more of a creator, not just a scorer. But Anthony feels as if his game and his reputation are both finally in a good place and that the All-Star Game is a celebration of it.
"Confidence in this league is everything," Anthony said. "Once you have it, your work ethic becomes better, your day-to-day approach becomes better. Once you can get it, it's downhill from there."
Brian Windhorst covers the Cleveland Cavaliers and the NBA for the Akron Beacon Journal