Rising from fun to Games

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Carmelo Anthony can't remember anything about the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. He didn't watch or pay much attention, not even to the basketball competition.

At the time, Anthony was an obscure high school player about to begin his junior year at Towson Catholic.

"I was nowhere," he said.

Meaning, he was still in Baltimore, not yet beginning his meteoric rise and what has become a whirlwind existence.

It has taken Anthony to Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., where in 2001-2002 he was one of the top high school players in the country.

It has taken him to Syracuse University, where as a freshman he led the Orange to the 2002-2003 national championship.

It has taken him to the NBA, where he was the No. 3 pick in last year's draft and where he led the Denver Nuggets to one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in league history.

And now, it is about to take Anthony to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, after the 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward was named as one of several late additions to the U.S. team. Yesterday, he had a team-high 19 points, but the U.S. team was stunned by Italy in an exhibition game, 95-78, in Cologne, Germany.

"I didn't know any of this was going to happen - not so soon, anyway," Anthony, 20, said here last week during a training camp at the University of North Florida. "This is surprising to me.

"But I had confidence that I was going to be successful in my career."

Anthony also had, and has, something else aside from an abundance of confidence and talent: a passion that borders on an obsession to prove his critics - real or imagined - wrong.

"A lot of things fuel me, I can't just pick out one," he said. "A lot of things make me upset and make me want to ask, 'Why?' "

Such as, why did the Detroit Pistons pick another teenager, Darko Milicic, instead of Anthony after LeBron James was the top overall pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers? It's a question Anthony would love to ask Pistons coach Larry Brown, who is also the U.S. Olympic team's coach.

In retrospect, Anthony believes that faith and fate put him in a powder blue Nuggets uniform.

"I landed in God's hands when I went to Denver," said Anthony, who averaged a team-high 21 points a game in leading the Nuggets to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. They won 26 games more than they did the previous season.

"Going to Denver was probably the best thing to happen to me so far, up until this point because the Olympics is now. At first, it was like, what was the reason? Once again, I asked why. Was I not that good of a player or did I not fit their system? They won with what they had and we were successful in Denver."

It was during a road game in March against the Pistons that Anthony had his one major bump in the road in an otherwise seamless rookie season. During the fourth quarter of a 19-point defeat, he refused to go back in the game. He was roundly criticized by the national media, but not fined or suspended.

'I learned from it'

What had been a somewhat tense relationship with second-year coach Jeff Bzdelik was further strained. But it appears the two have patched up most of their differences, and Anthony said he learned to take something positive out of what he still calls "the incident."

"It's over with," said Anthony. "It was bad, but at the same time, it was a good experience in that I learned from it, and so did my teammates. We're all right now."

Bzdelik, who came to watch Saturday's opening exhibition game in Jacksonville against the Puerto Rican national team, said he couldn't be happier that Anthony was named to the Olympic team and is getting a chance to play for and learn from an old-school coach such as Brown.

"I am ecstatic about his selection to this team," Bzdelik said before the game. "To me, it's going to accent all the qualities that I am trying to get him to understand - team play, moving without the basketball, improving his defense. It's summer school under the supervision of a Hall of Fame coach."

Joked Anthony: "I've had enough summer school in my life."

Anthony doesn't quite buy the notion that he is hearing some of the same things from Brown that he did from Bzdelik, except that he is listening more closely now because of Brown's gaudy credentials that include being the only coach in history to lead teams to both the NBA and NCAA championships.

"Some things you don't hear until you get to someone like Coach Brown," said Anthony. "Some coaches just stress the fact of working hard, going out there and working your butt off.

"Coach Brown stresses the little things like, 'Slide your feet, be on this spot at this time, rebound the basketball, run the court - all the small things that will make you better as a player. Every coach is different."

Brown usually doesn't like counting on young players, but in the case of a team whose players' average age is less than 24, he has no choice. Anthony is one of his biggest projects.

"I told Carmelo today, I'm going to be relentless in trying to make him better," Brown said after a scrimmage against New Zealand last week. "I don't know if he's going to be happy about it. All these young kids, as gifted as they are, you do them a disservice if you don't coach them. A lot of these guys have a difficult time understanding that."

Defense still problem

Like many of his teammates, Anthony will have to meld his game with other players who are considered among the best in the NBA, and the world. Anthony's playing time in Athens could hinge on whether he can turn his biggest weakness - paying attention on defense - into a strength.

"I believe Carmelo will adapt very well," said Bzdelik. "He's a very smart player, he cares deeply about winning and he will buy into understanding what it takes to win."

Anthony realizes that he will have to prove to Brown that he's more than just a replacement for one of the many players who opted not to go to Athens.

Anthony took a step in that direction when he scored 16 points in the exhibition win over Puerto Rico.

It didn't hurt that three players, including James, had been benched by Brown for missing a team meeting. Though he remains a friend, James has also been a source of frustration for Anthony. James won the league's Rookie of the Year award decisively, though Anthony's stats were comparable.

Asked last week what it's like to play with James on the Olympic team, Anthony said, "Just like the season, every time my name is mentioned, his name is mentioned, too. I'm tired of that. Let that man be himself and let me be myself. We're nothing alike. Coaches are calling me LeBron sometimes."

Then there's a little issue that Anthony has with his hometown.

Aware that world champion swimmer Michael Phelps is getting most of the attention back home - and everywhere else for that matter - Anthony is also hoping to bring notice to Baltimore. He did it when he led Syracuse to the NCAA title, and could do it again this month.

"I've got to take the city over and put the city on my back," said Anthony, who has gone as far as to predict a gold medal for the U.S. team during a recent appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman.

No longer obscure, this head-banded basketball meteor is as hungry as ever to silence the doubters.