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.
"Me and my friends didn't know which way to go, which direction to go in," Anthony says. "We didn't have no rec center to go to. That's when drugs started becoming more popular. Guys that I grew up with started hanging in the streets more and more and dropping out of school. So I didn't know which direction to go in. I was confused. I wanted to hang with them, but at the same time, I wanted to play sports."
With a handful of guiding forces protecting him, Anthony began spending all of his time on the basketball court. Soon basketball would take him from West Baltimore to Towson Catholic, where he was never quite a perfect fit. Then to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, where he caught the eyes of Syracuse coaches. After one year in college and one national championship, Anthony was drafted No. 3 overall by the Denver Nuggets and embarked on an NBA career.
In West Baltimore, there's the streets and then there's sports. A decade later, holding a microphone at his youth development center, Anthony explains to 200 kids gathered in the bleachers which path he took. When he looks at them, he sees himself. He sees kids holding squeegees, equidistant from their dreams and from trouble.
This time, a part
Anthony and a small entourage have stopped by a radio station to discuss the next day's 3-on-3 tournament. The talk turns to the Summer Games. "This is your second Olympics..."
Anthony interjects quickly. "Well, it's my second Olympics, but it's like my first really," he says. "Because I'm going to actually be a part of it this time."
In a small way, it all feels a bit like destiny. Yes, Anthony was supposed to go through personal trials, but also, if you believe in portents and omens, he was supposed to be in the Olympics, too.
In his mother's living room, there's a book of photographs. Inside is a baby picture that Anthony had never seen until just a few weeks before he left for Athens in 2004, his first stint with the U.S. Olympic team. It's of a 2-month-old Anthony, and he's wearing a tiny outfit featuring the Olympic rings.
"A 1984 onesie," Anthony says.
It was a gift from his father, Carmelo Iriate, who died of liver cancer when Anthony was 2 years old. The outfit foretold his fate, even if it couldn't possibly have hinted at the precise path ahead.
Selected for the national team at 19, Anthony starred in the exhibition games that led up to the 2004 Olympics. But in Athens, he averaged just 11 minutes per game. He totaled just 17 points in seven games and was labeled selfish and a malcontent by many.
Did you get a fair deal from Larry Brown, head coach of the 2004 team? he's asked.
"No, to be honest," he says. "I don't think so."
The young leaders of the 2008 team - Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade - refuse to forget what it felt like to wear bronze.
"We were supposed to win the gold medal," Anthony says. "We all felt we let our country down, let ourselves down by wearing bronze medals around our neck. Nobody expects Team USA to have anything around their neck other than a gold medal."
Winning bronze would turn out to be the least of Anthony's problems. In the weeks and months that followed the Olympics, Anthony was involved in a New York nightclub fight and cited for marijuana possession at the Denver airport (charges that were later dropped).
In addition, upon returning to Baltimore from Greece, Anthony unwittingly participated in an underground DVD called Stop Snitching, which glamorized drug dealing and warned against cooperating with police. In the video, Anthony not only celebrates the video's street message, but he he also claims to have thrown his bronze medal into a lake. (In fact, the medal today is at his mother's home, she says.)
With unrelenting media attention, Anthony was despondent in the months that followed. His entire life, it seemed, he'd been cheered and encouraged. In just a couple of months, he was reduced to a string of bad headlines.
"What I saw then was not Carmelo," says his mother. "It was nothing like the Carmelo we were accustomed to. He was just depressed. It was like, 'This isn't even my son.' "
Anthony tries to explain how he snapped out of it but struggles finding the words. Time and perspective are what it took, he says. Anthony knows this much: He has to be a lot more careful about what he does and with whom he does it.
Oh, and this, too: He wants gold this time, not bronze.
His big day
About a mile from Anthony's childhood home, Cloverdale Park is packed with at least a couple of thousand people in attendance. The adjacent park is filled with inflatable play equipment and families, and the courts are jammed with young ballers.
A DJ provides that day's incessant bass line, as volunteers comb through the crowd telling people that the People's Community Health Center is offering free syphilis tests in a trailer at the far end of the park. About two dozen security guards from New York are scattered about, and many Baltimore police officers are also on hand.
Anthony presides over it all from his seat near center court. This is the H.O.O.D Movement 3-on-3 Challenge, the day Anthony says he spends most of the year envisioning and planning.
It's a diverse crowd that's gathered, and Anthony seems to know everyone. Part of Anthony's charm is that he can move effortlessly between groups. He can shake the hand of a businessman in a pressed suit and not bat an eye before bumping fists with a teenager from the old neighborhood.
Between games, Anthony stands just outside the 3-point arc and casually launches shots. When he flicks his wrist, it's impossible to miss his colorful right forearm. Anthony has decorated his entire body with tattoos, but on his arm he has a compact mural of ink - an Oriole bird, a Raven, the Baltimore area code 410 and "City of Birds." On his right shoulder he has what looks like the Warner Bros.' "WB" logo.
"That's West Baltimore," he says.
Anthony's reputation has accrued plenty of blemishes, partly because of his rough beginnings in West Baltimore and the tumultuous period that followed the 2004 Olympics. The past couple of years haven't been without their problems either. In December 2006, he was involved in an on-court brawl. Cameras caught him throwing a punch and retreating, which earned a 15-game suspension. And in April, he was arrested for driving while under the influence.
Anthony admits to his mistakes, but others say he hasn't been fairly received by fans or depicted by media.
"There's this perception out there about him, but it's just not who he really is," says Jim Boeheim, the Syracuse head coach and an assistant with Team USA. "It's unfortunate but the mistakes he's made hit ESPN and hit USA Today, so people know about them. In Baltimore, they know who he really is. But the rest of the country isn't exposed to some of the great things he's done."
Anthony's fiancee, LaLa Vasquez, with whom he has a 1-year-old son, says when she first met Anthony, every conversation seemed to somehow lead back to Baltimore.
"Even to this day, we'll get here and he'll still say, 'Come on, let's drive by my old house.' Even though we've seen it a million times," she says.
The reason is simple. That old home represents where Anthony came from. It underscores what he's grown into. And it reminds him exactly what he's playing for when he slips on a USA jersey.
"Baltimore is his home, and there's no place like home," says Breckenridge, his childhood coach. "I don't care what part of the world you go to, there's never no place like home."
An inside look at the Olympics on the From Beijing to Baltimore blog: baltimoresun.com/olympics
Born: May 29, 1984, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Family: Parents Mary Anthony and Carmelo Iriate (deceased). Fiancee LaLa Vasquez and son, Kiyan. Brothers Robert and Wilford, sisters Michelle and Daphne.
Career: Sun All-Metro Player of the Year at Towson Catholic. Led Syracuse to a national title in his only season with the Orange. Has averaged 24.4 points in five seasons with the Denver Nuggets.
Did you know: Anthony's first tattoo was of his name; his second was his mother's. In five exhibition victories leading up to the Games, he was the team's leading rebounder (5.2 per game) and second-leading scorer (15.4). In addition to his charitable efforts in Baltimore, Anthony hosts "A Very Melo Christmas" each year in Denver for disadvantaged youths and helped fund the Carmelo Anthony Basketball Center at Syracuse. Anthony's full name is Carmelo Kiyan; his son's is Kiyan Carmelo.
What's at stake: For Anthony and his team, redemption is on the line in Beijing. Team USA had won three straight gold medals before settling for bronze at the 2004 Games. A poor showing could confirm beliefs that American basketball has not kept pace with the international game.
Three things to look for from Beijing
* Anthony plans to watch other Olympic sports, particularly swimming, where he says he'll cheer for fellow Baltimore native Michael Phelps at the pool.
* Playing time. Anthony wasn't happy with the few minutes he saw in Athens. The USA coaching staff has a lot of talent to juggle, particularly among similarly sized players.
* Anthony's a versatile player and, without much height on Team USA, he may have to pick up the rebounding slack. In addition, in five exhibition games, his 3-point stroke has been off.