Carmelo Anthony caught the ball on the right baseline and faced Miami Heat defender Dorell Wright. Before Wright could even set his feet, Anthony had bolted by him and dunked for his first points.
Simple, direct, brutal.A few possessions later, the Denver Nuggets' star forward and Baltimore native caught the ball on the other baseline. This time, the bulkier Udonis Haslem blocked his path. Anthony feinted right but darted left, lowered his shoulder into Haslem's ample chest and flipped in a layup. He was fouled and made the free throw.
In five short minutes of Denver's win Friday night, Anthony had shown the quickness, strength and skill that make guarding him perhaps the most torturous task in the NBA. At 22, the former Towson Catholic star is a man comfortable with his game and his life.
Anthony transformed himself from a relatively anonymous high school star in Baltimore at age 17 to an NCAA champion and 20-point-a-game scorer in the NBA at age 19. But two years ago, his brilliant ascent seemed to drift off course.
He was labeled one of the leading malcontents on an embarrassing U.S. Olympic squad. Authorities found marijuana (a friend's) in his bag as he tried to board the Nuggets' team plane. He appeared in a "Stop Snitching" video in which alleged drug dealers threatened would-be police informants in Baltimore. And his play on court wasn't making up for it.
"I thought everybody had turned their backs on me," he said in a telephone interview Sunday. "So I felt I had to prove that no one could hold me down."
Since then, Anthony has regained his trajectory in basketball and in life.
On court this summer, he was the most potent scorer and captain of a revamped national team. He has transferred that surge to the regular season, ranking second in the league in scoring for a team that appears playoff-bound. Off court, he's engaged to MTV personality LaLa Vazquez, and the couple is expecting their first child in the spring. Tomorrow, Anthony will open his own youth center in downtown Baltimore, positioning himself as a mentor to those who would follow his path.
"I'm just a little more comfortable in all ways," he said. "The game is more fun. I know what to expect both on the court and off."
Vince Breckenridge, a Baltimore youth coach who has been a mentor to Anthony for eight years, said he's obviously grown up.
"Having a relationship, expecting a child, all the business stuff, it makes you mature," Breckenridge said. "It's like planting a flower and watching it grow. You watch the whole process. You think you saw something there early on, but it's like `wow,' because you never thought it would happen so fast."
Tonight, Anthony's old fans from Baltimore will have their one chance to see him play in Washington this season.
Anthony is inevitably compared to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The three entered the league in the same draft, have played on the same international teams and maintain a close friendship. But on the court, James and Wade seemed to surpass Anthony the past two seasons.
Anthony might lack James' passing vision and full-court athleticism or Wade's creativity around the basket. But he has become a more efficient scorer than either, sort of an updated Bernard King.
"I think I've separated myself from those guys," Anthony said. "I have my own identity as a player. They have their identities. The comparisons just don't make a lot of sense at this point."
Anthony has scored 30 or more in 13 of his first 19 games this season. He's shooting more than ever before but making a career-high 49.2 percent and averaging 30.7 points.
"He's still a baby, but what a talent," said Mike Daniel, who coached Anthony at Towson Catholic. "People always talked about LeBron, but I always told them Carmelo was the player in that draft. He's doing what I always knew he would do."
Anthony's first step allows him to burst past larger defenders, and his powerful torso lets him back down smaller ones. He's accurate on his midrange jumper, and like many great scorers before him, he reaches the foul line constantly.
He draws double teams and passes out of them more deftly than he did in previous seasons (his assists are up more than one a game, to 4.1).
"I think, to me, it's just the higher quality of shots he's taking," ESPN basketball analyst John Hollinger said. "He's always been able to create shots whenever he wanted, but now, he clearly understands that he wasn't doing himself any favors with his tendency to settle for 20-footers."
Not an early star
Anthony grew up in the crime-ridden section of West Baltimore known as the Pharmacy. His father died when he was 2 (Anthony still keeps a picture of Carmelo Iriate on his cell phone), and his mother kept the family going by working as a housekeeper.
Unlike contemporaries such as James or Sebastian Telfair, Anthony wasn't a star when he entered high school at Towson Catholic. He failed to make the varsity as a freshman, and, even as a 6-foot-5 sophomore, he was but one of many good players on an excellent Owls team.
But Daniel said Anthony was always extraordinary.
"From the first day I saw him, the label was special," the coach said. "The only reason you didn't see it all the time was because he was in pain from growing so fast." (Anthony grew 5 inches in the summer before his junior year.)
He distinguished himself more as a junior, when The Sun named him All-Metro Player of the Year.
Then, with a blinding stretch of spring and summer play, Anthony went from being one of the better players in Maryland to the best rising senior in the country.
He transferred to Virginia's Oak Hill Academy and established himself as perhaps the best player in the history of that glittering program. Anthony could hardly have been hotter as he made his way to Syracuse.
The Big East certainly wasn't enough to slow his rise. He averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds before staging one of the greatest one-man NCAA runs since Danny Manning carried Kansas to a title in 1988. Coming off Syracuse's championship win, the buzz was that Anthony, and not the anointed James, might be the best young player on the planet.
His rookie year in Denver wasn't perfect. Anthony wasn't ready to play pro defense, and he shot only 42.6 percent, as his jumper proved errant on many a night. But he still scored 21 points a game as a teenager competing with the best players in the world.
And then came the Olympics in Athens. Anthony was named to that team as part of a youth wave that would lead American basketball back to pre-eminence. It didn't work out that way. Coach Larry Brown often kept him on the bench along with fellow young stars Wade and Amare Stoudemire. The United States lost to Argentina in the semifinals, and Brown criticized Anthony for not buying into his program. He became one of the faces of NBA petulance.
Personal struggles followed.
In October 2004, he was cited for possession of marijuana before boarding the Nuggets' plane. The charge was dropped when one of his friends claimed responsibility for the drugs, which he said he had left in Anthony's backpack.
A few months later, Anthony earned unwanted headlines with his appearance on the "Stop Snitching" tape. He said he never meant to endorse the video's message but refused to apologize for hanging with old friends from his neighborhood.
"I just want to be myself," he told The Sun at the time. "And now, you mean to tell me that I can't go home and chill and go visit my people that I grew up with all my life? For people to say, 'Get rid of them now,' no, I'm not going to get rid of them. They're still going to be my friends."
In each case, Anthony seemed more on the periphery than at the center of trouble.
"I think whenever you're thrown into the fire at the age I was, you're going to have some growing pains," Anthony said.
Coaches and teammates never stopped defending his character.
"I think he didn't feel like someone who was big enough that if he did a little thing wrong, it would get blown up," said Breckenridge, his youth coach. "It took a few off-court incidents for him and his friends to realize that little things do escalate. And I think that understanding has really only come in the last year or so."
Things didn't get much better on the court, either. Anthony's scoring average and shooting percentage stayed flat, and he continued to struggle on defense. George Karl took over as Nuggets coach, and his brutal honesty was hard for Anthony to swallow at times.
"Carmelo's got to be committed in practice and on fundamentals," the coach told Sports Illustrated in early 2005. "Right now, he is a great talent but not a full-fledged professional."
To this day, Anthony hesitates to give his coach too much credit. "It's decent," he said of their relationship.
Shift into drive
Despite the occasional prickliness, Anthony has increased his scoring as, at Karl's urging, he eschewed long jumpers and drove to the basket more aggressively. The coach has a 10-10-10 policy, meaning that if his star drives into the paint for 10 shots and gets to the foul line 10 times, Karl won't begrudge him 10 jump shots.
Last season, Anthony became a deadly clutch player, averaged 26.5 points, eighth-best in the league, and shot an outstanding 48.1 percent from the field.
But his return stint for the national team at last summer's world championships was perhaps the strongest advertisement for how far he had come.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski named him tri-captain with James and Wade, and Anthony became the team's go-to scorer.
Krzyzewski had heard the criticisms of Anthony but preferred to judge the player on personal experience. "I knew Carmelo was very talented," he told the Rocky Mountain News. "But what I found him to be is just a great guy. He was really easy to coach."
Anthony called the summer the best experience of his basketball life. "I think my mindset was just to fit in at first," he said. "But once I could see that I was a leader, I went with it. I really tried to be a motivator."
Daniel said that in watching his old star in Japan, he realized Anthony had blossomed completely.
"I was worried that with all the big names, he wouldn't be favored and respected like he should," the coach said. "But he showed that he could be the man, not just a great player, but a leader."
Anthony also showed he could weather a potential storm more smoothly.
In July, police found marijuana in a car registered to Anthony and driven by one of his childhood friends, Tyler Smith. This time, Anthony made a point of saying that those around him needed to be more careful.
"They know that the things they do will come back to reflect on me," he said. "Everybody around me learns from their mistakes."
Anthony's play for the Nuggets has been the exclamation point on the end of all the plaudits.
"All I can say is no one - no one, including me - could expect what he has done," Karl told the News. "There were probably more pessimists than optimists, and he has made us all ... eat crow or shut up."
Anthony is still catching up to Wade and James in off-court stature. Marketing Evaluations Inc. of Manhasset, N.Y., devises Q scores to rate the familiarity and appeal of celebrities, and though Anthony's 13 is solid among athletes, it trails James at 21 and Wade at 31.
But he's coming up. His latest Nike commercial runs regularly during game telecasts, and he's on the cover of EA Sports' new NBA Street video game.
He has shown a softer side off court. His fiancee brags about his cooking, and he can comfortably say the day of his child's birth will be the happiest of his life. Anthony returns to Baltimore every summer. His mother still lives here, and so do many of his closest friends.
He has started the HOOD community outreach program in the city. And he pays the uniform and travel budget for a youth basketball program (ages 9 to 17) that bears his name and is run by his old mentor, Breckenridge. Since the 2003 draft, he had dreamed of building a center from the ground up. That didn't make financial sense at first, but when a shuttered Boys and Girls Club became available this year, Anthony saw his opportunity.
The Carmelo Anthony Youth Center will feature everything from the expected basketball courts to arts and craft and film programs.
"That's where I'm from," Anthony said when asked about Baltimore. "Out of anything I could do, I think that's what's best for the city."
Carmelo Anthony is leaving recent turmoil behind and thriving this season - on and off the court
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