Hoop dreams often incubate in dim, cramped gyms, much like the one at the Mount Royal Rec Center.
On a Wednesday night in May, eight or so kids from the 12-and-under Mount Royal Eagles haul ass to loop back through passing and layup lines and take orders from Coach Carlton Carrington, a volunteer at the center, where Darrell Corbett serves as assistant recreation director.
A solitary 2005 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championship banner for the Team Melo 16-and-under squad hangs on the wall, but down the hall in Corbett's office rests a veritable shrine: photos affixed to bulletin boards, championship plaques on the wall, game-worn Olympic jerseys on hangers—all from Carmelo Anthony, the Baltimore-born ballplayer who achieved NBA grandeur.
Around this time 20 years ago, Anthony would have been right there in line at Mount Royal Rec, catching shit from Corbett if he wasn't hustling back during drills. Anyone who wanted to play had to hustle.
"He never had a problem with [hustling]," Corbett says in his office in May. "Being down on Pennsylvania Avenue, down at Robert C. Marshall [Rec Center]? You'd better be tough, you'd better be able to scrap up and play some defense. So that was never a problem."
At 33, Carmelo Anthony has distinguished himself as one of the league's most lethal scorers. His barrages come without warning. His 6-foot-8-inch frame can seem illusory with his crafty post moves. Many Knicks fans may groan to think of his isolation-heavy style in today's quick-passing, three-point-shot-reliant NBA, but Anthony has stayed a perennial threat, a reliable sharpshooter, and one of the league's best mid-range scorers as he approaches his 15th season. Look no further than his 45-point outing against the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 29 to see his skill set on display.
Anthony ascended from local rec and AAU ball into high school stardom. He remained in the area for three years at Towson Catholic High School before transferring to elite Virginia prep school Oak Hill Academy, where he led his team to a 32-1 record that included a win over LeBron James' St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. He then earned a scholarship to play at Syracuse University—and pulled off the minimum ACT score to qualify, Corbett notes—and catapulted from a historic NCAA championship season to the third pick in the 2003 NBA draft. He signed lucrative eight- and nine-figure deals, first in Denver and then in New York. He played on four Olympic teams, winning three gold medals and setting a single-player career scoring record for USA Basketball. As of press time, Anthony's name is swirling in trade rumors involving the Knicks and the Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Intermittently over his 14 seasons in the NBA, Anthony paid back his home city, sponsoring AAU teams, fixing up the former Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center (now the UA House at Fayette) and hosting annual tournaments. His solidarity with the city showed most recently in spring 2015, when he marched with residents here during the Baltimore Uprising.
A clip from that April 30, 2015, procession shows a hulking Anthony striding proudly down W. North Avenue, clad in a black top hat and gray sweatshirt with "Cassius Clay" printed in red across the chest. He's with his business manager Robert "Bay" Frazier, as well as everyday Baltimoreans, some holding signs that read "Stop Racist Police Terror" and "#BlackLivesMatter."
And still, he has his detractors here. Some point to his early publicity nightmares and legal troubles—arrests, an infamous local film appearance in the "Stop Snitching" DVD, an on-court brawl at Madison Square Garden against what would become his future team, the New York Knicks. Others say it's been years since he reaffirmed his philanthropic commitment to Baltimore, citing partnerships that fell off or charitable ideas that never transpired. But if there's been any drought in Melo's public generosity, it's set to end this summer.
From Aug. 1-3, Anthony will serve as a ceremonial host for the final two rounds of The Basketball Tournament, an annual 64-team, five-on-five, single-elimination melee of teams from around the world. Contenders each year feature combinations of NBA, international, and college talent, with the winning squad either taking home or donating the bulk of a $2 million cash prize. Think of it is as an international summertime all-star game, but without geographic parameters and with money on the line.
The key change this year will be that Baltimore—not Philadelphia or New York—will have the spotlight. Coppin State University will host the semifinals and finals of the ESPN-televised tournament in its Physical Education Complex. Much of that is thanks to Anthony.
"Baltimore will always have a special place in my heart, and I'm excited to bring a tournament like this to this city," he said in a statement in March, when ESPN revealed the Knicks star as this year's host.
And he flashed his hometown pride: "Basketball and Baltimore go hand in hand. The perfect match. A city that is all about determination. A city that helped build me." (Anthony's agent and PR rep declined multiple requests to arrange an interview for this story.)
Local marketing and event consultant LaRian Finney was instrumental in connecting tournament organizers with Anthony's camp. Seated at a table in the LB Bakery downtown in May, Finney describes how it all fell into place after he first spoke with Frazier and the director of Anthony's foundation, Asani Swann, back in November.
"It made sense for Melo, how he feels about Baltimore," Finney says. "Melo's a basic cat, man. Like, 'Yeah, I'm an Olympian champion, but this is my home.'"
Jon Mugar, The Basketball Tournament's founder and CEO, characterizes the collaboration during a phone call as "very organic," with most of the push to include Melo and bring the tournament to Baltimore coming from Anthony's camp, rather than organizers.
"It was pretty easy," he says. "It wasn't a ton of lobbying, honestly, on our part…the idea of a massive, kind of democratic sports model, an open tournament that…gives anyone the ability to jump into an event, that ends up on national TV on ESPN, really appealed to Melo's team."
From as young as age 9, Anthony's drive helped him stand out from his peers, according to Mitch Wise, a retired coach of 40 years and the former director of Upton's Robert C. Marshall Rec Center. Wise began coaching Anthony not long after he moved from New York with his mother, Mary, to his childhood home on Myrtle Avenue. He watched the future star develop during their five or so years together.
"All he wanted to do was play basketball, every day," Wise says, seated in a staff break room at the Mount Royal Rec Center. "I look out the door and he's standing there looking back at me, waiting for me to open the door so he'd be the first one in."
Signs of a star in the making began to show by age 14, with Corbett's AAU squad.
"He was never afraid of competition… he'd always score. He was gonna put the ball in the basket," Corbett says. "You could always tell he was gonna be good, you just never knew how good."
Mike Daniel, who coached Anthony at Towson Catholic, said in a 2011 interview with Newsday that he "was like a string bean," physically—"he was all arms and legs." But, Daniel added, "he was very competitive and very confident...Carmelo thought he was the best player on the court. He always does."
Corbett says Anthony's "breakout party" came during a game in Detroit not long after his 15-year-old guard hit a growth spurt: "Here's this kid who's like 6'4" and has always been a guard, and now you're trying to play him in the low post…So when you put your big against him, here comes a show. Crossover-dunk. Crossover-dunk. What can you do with it? It's like a cakewalk."
Anthony was by no means a lone standout from the Mount Royal AAU program. Corbett rattles off names: Will Barton (of the Denver Nuggets), Josh Selby (once with the Memphis Grizzlies, now playing in Israel), former teammates Malcolm Delaney (Atlanta Hawks) and Donté Greene (previously with the Sacramento Kings, most recently playing in Puerto Rico), plus hoops stars-turned-NFLers like Tavon Austin (Los Angeles Rams), Charles Tapper (Dallas Cowboys), and Cyrus Jones (New England Patriots).
The city's best players, Anthony included, are known for their toughness, Corbett says: "You're coming into Baltimore and you know you'll get grit, toughness, he'll go through a brick wall for you, he's not gonna quit, and he's gonna scrap up."
Wise now counts Anthony among the city's best-ever players, alongside Dunbar graduates Muggsy Bogues, Skip Wise (no relation), and Sam Cassell. While Anthony can't compete with Cassell's three championship rings, he's carved out his own spot in NBA history, tallying 10 All-Star Game appearances, six All-NBA team selections, a scoring title, three Olympic gold medals, and an NCAA championship. He currently sits at 25th all-time in NBA scoring with 24,156 points, and should have no trouble moving deep into the top-20 this year, barring injury.
The Baltimore players who ascend to the pros have to be strong and protected off the court. Wise points to academics—"he always had good grades; he was smart"— and a strong peer support system that Anthony had as key factors to his success.
"If Carmelo was going home, one of [his teammates] might walk him home, make sure that nobody bothered him. It wasn't that far to get to his house, but they just would do it," Wise says.
If Anthony did slip up academically—it happened when he was in middle school, Corbett says—the structure from organized hoops helped to right his path. Wise says he never even let his players take the floor if they didn't have the grades.
"About seventh or eighth grade, his mom was like, 'We've gotta do something.' She was ready to send him back to New York," Corbett says. "Carmelo was in advanced academics when he got here. Smart kid. Just down there in the environment, playing around, being silly, needed some structure. I knew he was gonna get the discipline because he'd be here with me."
Finney, the marketing consultant who helped connect Anthony with The Basketball Tournament, attests to the importance of that structure, recalling his own experiences playing AAU ball while growing up in Cherry Hill. "A lot of kids…find this as a way to build character, to build friendship, to put some structure within their lives," he says. "I know it was a major component when I was growing up. It was really what began to give me structure moving forward."
Baltimore isn't a complete stranger to The Basketball Tournament. Coppin's new head basketball coach, Juan Dixon, a West Baltimore native and NBA veteran, coached teams dubbed DMV's Finest and Team Maryland in past tournaments.
"[The Basketball Tournament] is run extremely well," Dixon says. "They're very organized, and they do it the right way. For the purse to be that much, you don't have a choice but to do it the right way."
While many of the participants are pros themselves—City of Gods, the Hollins Market-based streetwear shop, sent NBA talent-stacked teams to the semifinals of the last two tournaments—others are semi-pro or ex-college players, or even playground legends.
Teams apply to play by April 1. At a minimum, each one has to have a general manager and at least seven (but not more than 15) players. A team can also have one or more coaches on its roster, as well as "boosters" who help solicit votes from fans online and provide other off-court support. Each squad has to rack up at least 100 votes on the TBT website to be eligible to play; tournament organizers then make their picks based on the strength of each team's application, overall talent level, and other criteria. Those who want to add more than nine players have to shell out $1,000 for each additional member, and pay other fees if they add players once the tournament has already started.
Mugar preaches the everyman appeal of this design.
"We want to give basketball players the ability to show they belong, where maybe people told them that they don't belong, and people who haven't been signed into the NBA or, for whatever reason, haven't caught on," he says. "We're giving them a platform to prove people wrong."
In addition to serving as the tournament's first-ever ceremonial host, Anthony has collaborated with The Basketball Tournament's organizers and the city to introduce a pilot civic event called the Day of Giving to benefit Baltimore. The day will include a health and wellness fair hosted by the City Health Department at Mondawmin Mall across the street from the Coppin State campus, a job and entrepreneurship fair with Ray Lewis and his 1,000 job-creation initiative, and a transformative day of volunteer community cleanup in Upton, Penn North, Cherry Hill, and the area near North and Gay streets in East Baltimore.
Finney sees the Day of Giving as a kumbaya affair; an opportunity to not only lift up Baltimore neighborhoods, but also push back against negative national perceptions about them stemming from media coverage of the 2015 uprising.
"So you're gonna give out $2 million," he says. "But if you can impact thousands of people with a health and wellness fair, if you can employ three to four hundred people through your job and entrepreneurial piece, if you can go into Upton and Penn North and do a complete cleanup, refurbish some stores like the Avenue Market, that's sustainable."
Anthony has acquired a respectable reputation today, due in no small part to his vocal activism ahead of the 2016 Olympics, when he called on athletes to be more socially active and condemned police violence against African-Americans and violence toward police, as well as his appearances with protesters the spring before here in Baltimore. That's been more than a decade in the making, however. He screwed up plenty early on, even while posting strong numbers from the start.
In his second season with the Nuggets, in 2004-05, he was caught with a small amount of weed in his bag while boarding a plane. A friend took responsibility for the petty possession charge, which upset league brass and franchise executives, and brought Anthony unneeded negative attention as a young, black athlete.
Two months later, Baltimore's notorious "Stop Snitching" video surfaced, with a hard-to-forget cameo from a 20-year-old Melo seated on a stoop next to an admitted drug dealer. The film was designed to intimidate police witnesses or informants. Anthony later apologized and said he didn't endorse the film's message.
In 2008, he faced a drunk driving charge after he was pulled over in Denver and failed his sobriety tests. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and was sentenced to a year of probation, 24 hours of community service, and a $1,000 fine.
There was one major incident on the court as well: the 2006 Knicks-Nuggets brawl, the NBA's last major disaster fight. Anthony is best remembered on that night for dropping Mardy Collins with a punch to the face. The NBA suspended the Nuggets' star player—averaging a league-leading 31.6 points per game at the time—for 15 games. He later called his actions "inexcusable" and apologized to Collins and his family.
But even during his string of screw-ups, Anthony was already establishing a charitable presence in his home city. He'd founded Team Melo, a nationally recognized AAU program with teams from Baltimore spanning ages 8-and-under to 17-and-under—and he tapped his old coaches, Wise and Corbett, to lead some of the squads during the early years.
In 2006, he pledged $1.5 million over five years to Living Classrooms' rec center on Fayette Street, a former Boys and Girls Club that had closed down in 2005. The center, which has since been taken over by Kevin Plank and Under Armour, bore his name from 2006 to 2011 and became a hub for youth activity.
"Carmelo came in at an important time there, and we got the center back up and running for about five or six years with his help," says James Piper Bond, president and CEO of the Living Classrooms Foundation.
By the time the Nuggets traded him to the Knicks in 2011, most of Anthony's behavioral incidents were in the rearview. That summer, the NBA was beset by its first lockout in 12 years. With no end in sight—the lockout started in July and lasted more than five months—Anthony saw an opportunity. He put together a charity pickup game at Morgan State University that featured himself and fellow stars LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul, while also raising funds for his foundation through ticket sales.
Four years later, the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death produced the pivotal march in which Anthony, then 30, stepped up for his hometown. As areas of the city burned and crumbled, he appeared in person as a cooler, more mature head during one of the most trying times in Baltimore's history. He told residents to stand together and rebuild. He reconnected publicly with the place that raised him.
"When I come back home it's all love. Everything is cool, but—I'm here for a different cause right now," he told CNN's Ryan Young while marching. "I'm here to talk to the youth about trying to calm things down in the city, man. We shouldn't tear our city down. We got to rebuild our city. We're going to get the justice that we want. It's going to take some time. My message to everybody is to calm down, try to be patient."
Two years have passed since Melo's heartfelt homecoming, and while the post-Freddie Gray furor has obviously dissipated, much remains the same in West Baltimore. Tensions remain high between residents and cops. The Western District has seen a city-high 95 shootings through the second week of July, and police have made 442 narcotics arrests and 53 gun arrests.
With community groups scrambling to stem the violence around the city this summer through organized "Ceasefire" campaigns, a high-profile tournament celebrating the game of basketball in the heart of West Baltimore could bring a welcome boost, a reprieve from the violence, if even just for a weekend.
At the corner of Cloverdale Road and Druid Hill Avenue sits the Harrison Sykes Brown Playground, better known around the city as the iconic Cloverdale Courts. On any given summer weekend, one will find squads of five running pickup on one court and children shooting with their parents or playing in refereed games on the side closer to the clubhouse. Others simply grab a seat in the bleachers to spectate or wait for a chance to run again. Anthony belongs to an ever-growing list of local hoops legends who cut their teeth at the playground, conveniently near his childhood home.
Longtime members of Cloverdale AC/BBA, the community group that operates the playground's organized leagues, have their qualms about Anthony. Sitting in the clubhouse, Bill Harris says Melo at one point had planned to finance a renovation of the playground. One plan entailed installing a dome, similar to the design used at the legendary The Dome basketball courts in East Baltimore.
"We had plans to put a new building here, on the pretense that Carmelo Anthony was gonna donate a certain amount of money," Harris says. "He never did, so we never got that, you know, to transpire."
"I know it was in the paper that he was supposed to give the money, but it never happened," adds Warren Haymond, another member.
The renovations ultimately did get done. Roni Marsh, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, wrote in an email that the city spent $415,000 on the project, with all of the funds coming from a state Community Parks and Playgrounds Program grant, and none from Anthony. The work was completed in 2012, she said. (A PR rep for Anthony didn't respond to a request to comment on the renovations.)
In some ways that makes this a typical Baltimore story: vastly differing opinions about how to help the city, and who's really helping a city that always seems to need more help.
During a trip to Cloverdale on a Sunday in May, Anthony's likeness looms subtly outside the clubhouse, printed right into the park's metal sign viewable from Druid Hill Avenue. More than one person can be spotted wearing his Jordan-brand gear. For years after he achieved NBA superstardom, he hosted his annual Melo H.O.O.D. 3-on-3 Challenge tournament at this playground.
Michael B., 52, still holds Anthony in high regard, even mistakenly giving him credit for the renovations.
"He's a good guy. He played here, he played all over before he went to college and stuff," he says. "He comes up here, man, and shows love. Good guy, man."
But he laments the conditions of other courts across the city and some larger issues, such as the city's shuttering of rec centers.
"The kids don't have nothing to look forward to," he says. "When we was coming up, we had basketball, baseball, football, and now they don't have no recreations man, [the city] took everything. If you take everything from somebody, what do you expect?"
Aside from the exchange of a few words or shoves during a heated game, Cloverdale remains a refuge, a gathering place for people who love basketball.
"When people really come to play basketball, a lot of times it's no trouble for real," says Ricky, 29, another Cloverdale Courts regular. "For people who really come to play basketball, they're not coming to fight. They're coming to play basketball. So a lot of stuff that might cause fights in other aspects of life is pushed—you don't even worry about it on the court, 'cause, you know, it's just basketball."
Later on during a game, a player dressed in blue streaks down the length of the court and splits two defenders for an easy layup.
"My handle's too nice!" he exclaims. "Forty years old, still got it."