Watch Carmelo Anthony play basketball these days, and you can't help but feel like you're witnessing a man doing his job with very little semblance of joy.
To suggest that Anthony has quit on the Denver Nuggets, the team he has spent all 71/2 years of his NBA career with, would be unfair. For the most part, Anthony's professionalism remains. He still plays hard in short bursts, picking his spots and rarely pressing. His jump shot, honed years ago on the blacktop courts of urban Baltimore, has retained its beautiful arc.
But if you paid close attention to Anthony's body language Tuesday night at Verizon Center as the Nuggets faced the Washington Wizards, the only reasonable conclusion you could reach is that sense of obligation -- not passion -- is the emotion driving his play right now.
Anthony flashed one brief smile Tuesday, in the third quarter, when Wizards fans chanted his name to try to distract him as he shot free throws. But it disappeared and didn't return, even as the Nuggets won easily, 120-109, led by Anthony's 23 points.
"It's not fun to play when you're distracted, I can tell you that," Anthony said. "As a team, we know that. So we just want to go focus on playing basketball and having fun. It's always good to come back home and play in front of my family and friends, though. I know my family was excited to see me. I was excited to see them. But now it's on to the next city."
It has been a tumultuous few months for the former Towson Catholic star, both on the court and off. Anthony's 36-year-old sister, Michelle Anthony, died two days before Christmas, which led Anthony to take an eight-day leave of absence from the team. And trade rumors, which have clung to Anthony since training camp, reached a fever pitch shortly after he returned. Last week, it seemed a deal that would send him with the New Jersey Nets was imminent. But when Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who owns the Nets, announced that the proposed three-team, 15-player trade was dead because it had become too distracting to his own franchise, Anthony once again faced an uncertain future.
"I don't know" where he'll be, Anthony said. "I can't look that far ahead. Regardless of what's going to happen, it's going to happen. If they decide to trade me, something is going to happen. Until then, the only thing I can do is go out there and keep giving my all on the court."
He has been booed and jeered by his own fans in Denver recently, even when he plays well. He was booed after a recent 35-point performance against Oklahoma City, and treated mostly with indifference when he scored 36 points Sunday against Indiana. The reception from fans in Washington, just 35 miles from where Anthony grew up, was polite but hardly boisterous. Anthony's teammate Chauncey Billups received just as many cheers from Wizards fans during visiting player introductions.
"The boos don't affect me," Anthony said. "I'm going to go out there and play regardless. I don't really pay attention to that."
The toll that these months of debate, dialogue and distrust have taken on the 27-year-old Anthony are obvious to those who have watched him play over the years. Those who remember the joyful teenager who led Syracuse to an NCAA championship as a freshman -- his only season of college basketball before going to the NBA as the third overall pick in the 2003 draft -- can see a difference now.
"I've only watched him on television a couple of times, but you can see that there's probably some things on his mind," said Mike Daniel, who coached Anthony at Towson Catholic for three seasons. "He's got a lot going on. This is huge for him -- the choice or selection he makes is huge for him. He's normal. He just got married, and he's got some huge family decisions to make."
Anthony acknowledged that Tuesday's game against the Wizards was tough emotionally, because in previous years, playing in Washington meant his sister could attend one of his games. He had a large contingent of family in the Verizon Center but felt his sister's absence.
"I thought about [her] after the game," Anthony said. "I thought about how I'm going to go out there and she's not going to be there. But I know she's watching. This is a game she would be at yelling from wherever she's sitting, but it feels good to know that she's here in spirit. She's watching."
Daniel, now the coach at City, said he feels that the death of Anthony's sister, which a team news release said resulted from a "pre-existing condition," has to be weighing on him.
"All that's got to come into play -- he's just human," Daniel said. "I don't think Carmelo is the kind of kid who's going to slack off on the court."
Anthony didn't speak to the media before Tuesday's game, but he told The Denver Post last month, after he returned to the team, that her death has been hard to deal with.
"It's tough," Anthony said. "My sister was somebody who raised me with my mother. We've been through thick and thin. I miss her. I'm pretty sure she wanted me to get back out here on the court. I'm going to miss her calling me after every game, telling me what I did wrong, telling me what I did good and giving me some encouragement. I know she's watching."
Anthony's scoring is down by more than four points a game from last season -- still a respectable 23.8 points going into Tuesday night -- but his rebounding average (8.0 per game) is higher than it's been for any full season of his career, certainly an indication that he still is taking pride in what he does.
Yet the image he has worked hard to change -- from the immature rookie who had his share of scrapes with coaches and police to a team leader who took the Nuggets to the playoffs in each of his first seven seasons while contributing millions of dollars to the community -- has been damaged. Fans in Denver mostly see a man who turned down a three-year, $65 million contract offer to stay with the Nuggets because he can't resists the allure of playing in a big market.
Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant sees it differently. Bryant, who has gone from revered to reviled and back throughout his own NBA career, called Nuggets fans "stupid" recently when told they had booed Anthony. Bryant believes that Anthony would remain in Denver if the team's management provided him with enough support to win a championship.
Bryant recalled how Lakers fans booed him after he requested a trade a few years ago. Rather than trading him, the Lakers brought in players such as Pau Gasol and Ron Artest to help win back-to-back championships.
"It has nothing to do with a bigger market; it's about winning," Bryant said. "If you want to keep a player here, make the right decisions. Make the right choices with personnel, get a team around a guy to help you win, and there would be no problem. It's not rocket science."
But outside Denver, there are plenty of supporters of Anthony who just want to see him happy again. Ricky Buie, a 50-year-old Baltimore resident, drove down to Washington to watch Anthony play Tuesday and proudly wore a powder-blue No. 15 Nuggets jersey. Buie, who said he has followed Anthony's career since high school, believes he'll eventually end up with the New York Knicks.
"It's a major market, and his wife is from there," Buie said. "New Jersey is not as ready to win as New York, and so I think that's why the deal will go through. He's one of the five best players in the NBA today. I've just always liked watching him play. He might not have anything spectacular to his game, but he does a lot of things well. I think he has earned his reputation as a superstar because he's backed it up by proving he's a winner."
Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.