Sam Brand had seen the slender kid around. He was skilled enough, but skilled guards were not hard to come by on the recreational courts of Baltimore.
Brand spent a year away at prep school, and when he came back, he saw the same dude at an AAU practice, four or five inches taller and somehow more skilled than he had been as a little man.
“Mind-blowing,” he recalled.
That was Carmelo Anthony.
Twenty-two years later, Anthony, who retired from the NBA on Monday, is a renowned figure around the world, one of the most prolific scorers in the history of his sport and a voice for social justice in the communities where he fought his way up. But it was in Baltimore where he became the player capable of making all that other stuff happen.
As he walks away, it’s difficult to argue for anyone else as the greatest ever from this basketball-mad town.
“Melo represents the gold standard for Baltimore basketball success,” said Brand, who would go on to play at Morgan State and win state championships as a coach at Poly before becoming director of Anthony’s Team Melo youth basketball program. “There’s been guys like Sam Cassell and Will Barton, Reggie Lewis, who have played very high-level NBA basketball. But even NBA players from our town have to look up to and revere Carmelo and his career.”
Cassell, one of the cleverest scorers and trash talkers of his generation, won three NBA championship rings. Some older fans will tell you Skip Wise was better than any of them until off-court troubles derailed him. But Malcolm Delaney, who followed Anthony’s path to Towson Catholic and eventually to the NBA, said no player carried as much weight as Anthony with subsequent generations of Baltimore hoopers.
“He was the guy that everybody looked at from my generation, the guy that made it seem possible,” Delaney said. “We played through the same rec centers, and Melo was the guy. … He was the one people wanted to be, with how they wore their hair, the headbands, the tattoos. I know a lot of people on AAU teams would argue over who got to wear No. 15.”
Asked if Anthony is the best player ever from Baltimore, Delaney did not hesitate: “Yeah, it’s not even a debate.”
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In the video he released announcing his retirement, Anthony nodded back to his youth, living in the Murphy Homes and honing his game at the Mount Royal Rec Center.
“I remember the days when I had nothing, just a ball on the court and a dream of something more,” he said over clips of him dunking in his Towson Catholic Owls jersey. “I am forever grateful for those people and places, because they made me.”
Anthony had not played in an NBA game since April 5, 2022, when he scored 10 points for the Los Angeles Lakers in a loss to the Phoenix Suns. By then, he was a half-decade removed from his peak as one of the elite one-on-one scorers of his NBA generation, a matchup nightmare who could get the shot he wanted against any defender at any time.
His statistics — ninth-leading scorer in league history, 14 straight seasons as a 20-points-per-game scorer, 23.1 points per game in the playoffs, 10 All-Star games — testify to his unstoppability.
Anthony never played in the NBA Finals, but other greats such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant accepted him as part of their rarefied club. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Olympics, where he won three gold medals and played in more games, 31, than any man in USA Basketball history.
At his last Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Anthony was an elder statesman to younger superstars who had chosen to represent their country in part because they had watched him do it in 2004 and 2008 and 2012.
“For me, this is something that’s very genuine, very natural, very organic, for me to just come in and be that guy who’s there for them to talk to, to give advice,” he told The Baltimore Sun at the time.
Anthony had become a man in full by then. He made his share of immature mistakes during his early years in the NBA, appearing briefly in an underground video that warned Baltimore youth to “Stop Snitching” to police and serving a 15-game suspension for his role in a brawl at Madison Square Garden. But in 2015, he marched with protesters on the streets of his hometown after Freddie Gray died in police custody. The next year, he stood with superstar peers James, Wade and Chris Paul on the stage at the ESPY Awards to call for a new wave of athlete activism.
“Things were happening right in my backyard, being in Baltimore,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 2016. “Having the opportunity to go down there and experience that and see the people and talk to the people … I think that’s what kind of sparked me to talk from the heart and speak to the people.”
In subsequent years, he made trips home to speak with young people, in increasingly raw terms, about the depression and anxiety he’d felt growing up in public housing in West Baltimore. His work to promote criminal justice reform earned him the NBA’s inaugural Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award.
The wider basketball world got to know Anthony when he was the top high school player in the country at Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy or at the latest when he carried Syracuse to a national championship as one of the greatest freshmen in NCAA basketball history.
But those who watched him as a junior at Towson Catholic knew that storm was coming.
Recalled Brand: “I was quite clear when I walked into the gym for that AAU practice — I believe it was a Baltimore Select practice — I was going into college and I had just gotten finished playing with [future NBA standout] Caron Butler, and I was like, ‘Holy cow, Melo is way better than anybody else in here,’ and it was all the best players in Baltimore. When he got to Syracuse and did what he did there, if you had seen him play over the past year or two before that, I think most of the city knew that was coming.”
Delaney was 5 years old when he first watched Anthony, who played with his older brother, and he remembered the same metamorphosis Brand described as Anthony went from a skinny, sometimes awkward sophomore to a scoring force no one could reckon with.
“His development was crazy,” he said. “That’s when I definitely understood he was going to be a different-type player coming out of the city.”
Mike Daniel helped to guide that ascent as coach at Towson Catholic. He’d watched Anthony come up under the strict coaching of Darrell Corbett at Mount Royal Rec. And he’s actually one of those old-school guys who still isn’t ready to say Anthony is the unchallenged greatest player from Baltimore.
“When you start talking about Skip Wise, it’s a little different,” Daniel said. “But Carmelo got better and better. We played the best all over the country, and Carmelo always was ready to challenge that. I loved the kid. Best I’ve ever coached.”
Those who know Anthony say it’s important to him that Baltimore kids see themselves in his story, that they feel pride when they wear his name on their jerseys playing for Team Melo. He has been a more visible presence at Team Melo games since he stopped having to travel to his own games. He sends encouraging texts to rising players.
“Our middle school and older teams play a national schedule, and not only do we get to wear Melo’s name on our jersey — the greatest player from our town — but he’s there,” Brand said. “He represents so much about the city.”
As Delaney stared at the end of his professional career last year, he struck up a partnership with Anthony to help expand Team Melo’s programs for elementary and middle school players. Kids that age didn’t watch Anthony play in his prime, so for them, personal connections outweigh highlights or gold medals.
“It’s more because they get to see him,” Delaney said. “For years, he was busy. We didn’t really get to see him; it was his play that motivated us. Now, he’s more in-person. It’s a different Melo.”