On
Newsstands
Now
Current Issue

Melo’s Transition Game

Drug bust. Bar fight. Gangster cameo. Benched at the Olympics. Feuds with his coaches. After a season to forget, 21-year-old Carmelo Anthony is an NBA star who’s now learning to live without the ball.

By |

One night last June, over a hundred guests gathered in the enormous backyard of an enormous Cherry Creek Village mansion for a fancy soiree. Food servers hustled across the plush lawn toting trays of sushi and popsicle-green party drinks. Under a big, white tent, the predominantly white crowd, dressed in country club casual, mingled. In the midst of it all, next to the tent, a backboard and rim had been raised, for that one night for one person, Carmelo Anthony. The Denver Nuggets’ franchise player had on his best baggy jeans, Nike sneakers, and a backward baseball cap over his tight cornrows.

The party was a fund-raising dinner and auction to benefit Colorado’s 24 Family Resource Centers, which assist local families who’ve fallen on hard times. However, the draw for many if not most of the guests-the reason they’d each paid a $500 tax-deductible fee to attend-was Anthony. The affair was officially billed as “A Very Melo Summer Evening.” Not long after he put on the Nuggets uniform three years ago, Anthony began working with the charity, a decision he made with his mother, Mary. A single mother who’d raised Anthony and his three siblings in East Coast ghettos, she understood what it was like to need a helping hand. Mary had even joined the charity’s board. She was there at the Cherry Creek fund-raiser, along with Anthony’s fiancée, MTV veejay Alani “LaLa” Vasquez, and Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe.

Anthony didn’t spend much time in the big, white tent. The 21-year-old multimillionaire quickly headed to the half-court and started shooting baskets. As the auction began, everyone in the crowd kept one eye on the auctioneer and one eye on Anthony. It was impossible to resist watching him gracefully release three-pointers, out there at one with the ball and the net and the rhythm of a dribble. There was something sweet and soulful in the spectacle. There was also something a little sad. Here was a young man surrounded by so many people, who’d come to be near him, yet he was off by himself, like a lonely kid, playing a game. Every so often he’d stop to pull up his pants.

The first item up for bid was a weekend in New York and a visit to MTV, courtesy of LaLa. It went quickly. So did several sets of Nuggets tickets. The momentum built, the bids fast in coming. Next up was a painted portrait of Anthony soaring toward a basket in Nuggets pale blue and yellow. The auctioneer asked for an opening bid. Nothing. Not a sound. The picture sat up there propped on its easel, with the crowd staring at it silently. Out on the court Anthony stopped dribbling and turned his attention to the auction. The moment was intensely awkward, one where guests wanted to look away, maybe race off to get their keys from the valet. But then Anthony tilted his head, threw his kid-like smile, raised his hand, and made the first bid. On himself. Immediately, the tension broke and the bidding resumed, with the portrait going to an obviously well-heeled fan for $1,100.

The directions to find Carmelo Anthony aren’t the best. One of his “people” had told me the cross streets and that I should look for a tan and pink building. So now, sitting in my car, I see four buildings that fit that description. And they all have bars on the windows. It’s a few weeks after the Family Resource Centers event, and I’m trying to get to the recording studio where I’m supposed to meet Anthony. I’m told he hangs there practically every day when he’s in town and not on the court.

There’s a parking lot behind one of the buildings. I see three guys standing around some 4-foot-high speakers, under a basketball hoop. I walk over and tell them I’m supposed to meet Anthony at a recording studio. I ask if this is the place. The three young men aren’t quite sure what to make of me, a middle-aged white woman in a minivan, asking for Anthony. Yeah, they say, he’ll be here. We just saw him, they say, but he’s always late. The guys introduce themselves: Zeezo, Daniel, and Mars. Daniel sits on a folding aluminum chair. He says he’s a singer and that he does a lot of gospel.

Twenty minutes later, a guy who introduces himself as Adelio Lombardi shows up and lets me into the building. The recording studio is also his apartment. It’s a cavernous loft, light on the decorating. There’s a big tan and steel couch and a big TV rigged with a Sony PlayStation. Lombardi, a Denver native, says he was a record producer in New York but then moved back here to work. He’s young, thirtysomething-ish, and handsome. He tells me “Melo” is a quick study, that it took him no time to run a recording session by himself. He says they never talk about basketball.

Anthony walks in, so quietly it’s as if he just appeared. He’s dressed in baggy shorts and a gray, long-sleeved, cotton shirt trimmed in bright yellow, with “Melo” stitched on the back in small yellow letters. He says, “Hey,” and leads me into the soundproof control room of the studio. It feels protected-a womb with lots of blinking buttons and knobs. It has taken an entire month of two to three phone calls a week with the Denver Nuggets publicity person and with Anthony’s agent, Calvin Andrews, for our meeting to take place. Anthony was at an event with Philip Knight, the chairman of the board of directors of Nike, in Portland. He was in Prague shooting a Power Bar commercial. He was in New York doing a photo shoot with Michael Jordan. He was riding in Cleveland Cavalier star LeBron James’ Bike-A-Thon. He was on Fox Sports Net’s Best Damn Sports Show, Period. It was LaLa’s birthday.

I like sports. I like basketball. I’ve interviewed Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. But I’m not a basketball wonk. I don’t have time for that; I’m a working single mother of two girls. All I know about Anthony is what I’ve seen on the court and in the news. His people advised me not to talk too long, not to wear him out. They are weary of what might come of this.

You can’t blame them for being a little anxious. After all, there are a lot of hopes and dollars tied to this 21-year-old kid. The Nuggets are paying him $10.4 million over three years. There’s his multimillion-dollar deal with Nike. The company sells Melo sneakers for $120 a pop, along with assorted Melo gear. Nike also trots out Anthony to represent its Michael Jordan line. Power Bar signed him to a multimillion-dollar endorsement contract, and so did video-game manufacturer EA Sports. And lately, their star’s press hasn’t been good.

Anthony’s sophomore NBA season could be described as “a series of unfortunate events.” He was benched by Coach Larry Brown at the Olympics. He got into a fight in a New York nightclub. He got busted with marijuana in his bag at DIA. He turned up on a DVD produced in his hometown Baltimore, chillin’ with some dudes who said drug informants ought to be killed. On the court, he injured his ankle and missed a few games. When he returned to play, the Nuggets lost and lost some more. He got caught up in the firing of one coach. He got off to a rocky start with the present Nuggets coach, the formidable George Karl. Never mind his engagement to LaLa or the Nuggets making the play-offs for the second season in a row. What little good news there was got drowned out by the hard headlines.

Throughout it all Anthony did his best to dodge the press and deflect questions. As he tells me, “I didn’t come outside. I didn’t talk to nobody. I’d come to practice 15 minutes before and leave right after practice.” He even talked to Nuggets GM Vandeweghe about taking some time off. “I just wanted to go into the mountains and lay low for like two weeks.” For Anthony, being in Denver then was a little like being at that auction, surrounded by people who want to like you and who you want to like, and your portrait is on the block and no one bids, and you feel alone, like a kid who can count only on himself.

Today, though, he’s here and he’s talking. And despite what his press people have told me, as Anthony and I discuss his tumultuous season and why, as he says, he’s “glad” that it all happened to him when it did, he’s downright grateful to answer questions. He doesn’t pick up his cell phone when it rings. He doesn’t make excuses to leave. “I’m good,” he says. “I’m just so used to being straight-up with everybody and telling it the way it is.”

At the end of a day, good or bad, Anthony goes home to his 12,500-square-foot house in Lakewood. It’s got a half-court and a game room on the lower level. He heads upstairs to the bedroom for his nightly ritual. He opens the little fridge that LaLa bought him and takes out a strawberry popsicle. He curls up with one of his dogs, a rottweiler puppy he named Capone, and he gives the remote a click. He watches back to back episodes of the The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and laughs as city kid Will Smith adjusts to a different life in a rich new world. He takes out a second popsicle and stays tuned for the The Cosby Show. He watches the Huxtable family-mom, dad, and several children all under one Brooklyn roof, living an idyllic family life. Some nights he watches two Cosbys and wonders what that would have been like.

The Brooklyn home Anthony knew was an apartment in the Red Hook projects. He shared it with his mom, dad, older sister, and two older brothers. He doesn’t remember what it was like when his family was whole. His dad, Carmelo, died of cancer when Anthony was 2 years old. In just about every picture Anthony has of his dad, his father’s standing with a basketball. But the game wasn’t Anthony Sr.’s only passion. He wrote poetry. Anthony has a few of his dad’s poems. His dad was Puerto Rican, yet wrote a lot about black power; Anthony says he doesn’t understand why his dad wrote what he did. The only other memento Anthony had of his dad was his gold necklace with a crucifix. It was stolen, ripped from his neck when he was 5. So what if Anthony’s Brooklyn wasn’t made-for-TV fantasy? When you’ve given up on sitcom-perfect, good enough is plenty. Anthony has nothing but fond memories of Brooklyn. “If I could live anywhere,” he says, “I’d live in Brooklyn. There was so much love there.”

Baltimore was another story. When Anthony was in third grade his now-single mother, Mary, decided she wanted to try something new, so she moved to Maryland. His two big brothers, Wilford and Robert, were old enough to go off on their own, so it was Anthony and his big sister, Michelle, who headed south to the new town with Mary. In Baltimore, when Anthony entered his new school, he told everyone that his name was Tyrone. In his autobiography for children, published last year, Anthony wrote that he changed his name because people there had trouble pronouncing Carmelo. A kid reading the book might not understand that Anthony was a small, fatherless boy in a new, strange city who was confused and hurting.

Anthony’s got a disarming smile. It’s genuine, boyish. It reels you in. You’ve probably seen it on the Nuggets billboards or on TV, or if you’ve been to a game you’ve caught him flash it, often when he has the ball, just before he pulls off a dazzling move. It’s his biggest connector and a large part of what makes him so marketable and so likable. As we talk, he flashes it often, but talking about his father, it recedes. “Just growing up seeing people out there with their fathers.” Anthony stops mid-sentence and shakes his head. “Especially now, I sit back and think, ‘Damn, what if my father was here.’ I want him to be watching me. Just knowing that he was there, if he was alive that would have made my life a little bit easier.” In Baltimore, teenage Anthony started writing “Why?” on his sneakers.

Anthony now knows he was “depressed.” Yet he didn’t talk to anyone about it. He didn’t want to bother his mom. Mary was busy making ends meet as a housekeeper at the University of Maryland. Anthony spent his time on the streets. He cleaned car windows with a squeegee for spending money. He watched people get killed. I ask Anthony about the first time he witnessed a murder. He was 10 years old, and looking out his apartment window he saw a guy on the sidewalk below get shot and fall to the curb. I think about my 10-year-old daughter, who’s freaked out by the devastation of Katrina that she sees in the newspaper, and wonder how watching someone get killed might affect her. But for Anthony, this sort of death was just part of life. “Our role model,” he says, “was the guy up the block, selling drugs, driving a Lexus, who’s got a couple dollars in his pocket. We didn’t know anything about Fortune 500 companies out there.”

The basketball court became his DMZ, his sanctuary, and ultimately his salvation. He discovered he was pretty good with the orange ball and that it might be a way out. Or, rather, somebody discovered that for him. Anthony’s play on the court earned him a reputation; it earned him the ability to travel from West Baltimore to East Baltimore without being hassled or beaten to death. And it earned him the attention of Robert “Bay” Frazier. A self-described basketball junkie who was 10 years older than teenage Anthony, Bay saw Anthony play, and thought the kid had skills. Bay organized local games in Baltimore featuring the neighborhood big shots from Baltimore and D.C., and he invited Anthony to compete. He liked what he saw even more. He took an interest in the young man at a crossroads. “Bay seen something in me,” Anthony says. “He saw that I was good at playing basketball, and not good at being in the streets. I don’t think no one is good at being in the streets.”

With his mother’s blessing, Anthony was enrolled in Towson Catholic High School, a private school and basketball powerhouse. Towson was a 40-minute commute from home-a world away from what little family and friends Anthony had. Freshman year he got cut from the varsity team. He hated JV. In his mind, he had come all this way to play basketball and if he wasn’t going to get to play then he didn’t care about class. He described his attitude that sophomore year as a “hangover” from freshman year and, as Anthony puts it, he was late “like 125 times.” But he grew five inches the summer before his junior year, and that season he led his team to a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference title. That spring, on his birthday, he decided to go to Syracuse University.

Syracuse was his way to escape the drug-dealing thug life. It was his way to the NBA. His dream. A few days after he committed to Syracuse, however, his dream turned to a nightmare. He received a letter from Towson saying that he wasn’t invited back for his senior year for “academic reasons.” Never mind why the school had let him continue to play basketball during the championship season. “After that,” Anthony says, “I was like, ‘Man, I’m not fooling with this, I’m in the streets…whatever.'”

Whatever. Anthony throws the word out more than a few times as we talk. And though it may sound like an apathetic surrender, coming from him it’s something else entirely. Whatever means This ain’t over. I’ll find a way. And it was his mother and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim who helped Anthony see the way. They steered him to Oak Hill Academy in rural Virginia. Mary liked the Baptist boarding-school part, and Boeheim knew well that it was a basketball factory. But, first, Anthony had to attend summer school to catch up. “I’m thrown into the woods,” Anthony says of that summer at Oak Hill. “There ain’t no buildings there and I’m calling back home almost crying, like, ‘Please come get me.'”

Anthony’s days were long that summer: He had five hours of class in the morning, and his afternoons were spent studying; then from late afternoon into the night he worked on his game in the sweltering gym. Late that summer, Anthony headed home for a short break before he was to return to Oak Hill. But when the time came for him to start his senior year, no one could find him. He wasn’t at home. He wasn’t with Bay. He was hiding out, holed up at the home of one of his best friends. The phone kept ringing. He told his friend not to answer it. He insisted that he wasn’t going back. The assistant coach at Syracuse finally found him. Anthony begged to stay in Baltimore. Please, he said, don’t make me go back.

But he gave in to reason. “Oak Hill was the starting point for me. [I realized] the only person I can rely on is myself. I don’t know anybody in this school. There was no love. … I just put myself in a shell.” At Oak Hill he had to wake up at 7, follow a dress code, be in his room by 8 that night, lights out at 10. Even his hair had to pass the test-no braids. But then basketball season arrived. He led the Warriors to a 32-1 record, with a No. 3 final national ranking by USA Today. Oak Hill, Anthony says, “humbled me. It calmed me down. It showed me there was a different life.”

By the time he landed in Syracuse Anthony was used to walking into a mostly white world where he was expected to work magic with a basketball. But in upstate New York, he had finally found a place he could play basketball and feel at home. Coach Boeheim had a lot to do with it. “The thing I liked about him is that he never talked about basketball,” Anthony says, referring to the first time he met Boeheim. “He was just having a general conversation, which really impressed me. He was just talking about his family, my family. I was like, ‘A college coach is talking like this?’ It really clicked on. I was like, man, I’m coming.”

Everything came together at the Syracuse Carrier Dome. “I get there and, man, I’m like the savior of this city. We was like the Beatles up there.” The team, ranked 65th at season’s start, kept winning. It also became clear to Anthony and to Boeheim that college was going to be a quick stopover for Anthony. “I knew that he was more than ready to play in the NBA,” Boeheim says. “But the one thing he did that was great, he said, ‘Coach, let’s not even think about it till the season’s over.’ And he did that.”

Nineteen-year-old Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to its first ever national championship game. The night of the final Boeheim had eaten something bad and left the pregame meeting early. “Melo was worried about me,” Boeheim says. “He thought I was nervous. So he comes over to me, puts his arm around me, and says, ‘Don’t worry, coach. We got this one.’ That’s just the way he is.” Syracuse defeated Kansas 81-78. That night, Anthony scored 20 points, with 10 rebounds and seven assists.

Boeheim comes off as a self-effacing, caring dad, even on the phone. “As a parent, you like to say, ‘I love all my kids,'” he says. “But I think even as a parent you might have a favorite. He’s certainly one of mine. His attitude was always great. You don’t expect a freshman to say, ‘We’ve got these games.’ You’re in the Final Four and it’s a pretty big eye-opener for most people and he played his best.”

At Oak Hill, it was all about tough discipline. At Syracuse, it was all sweet adulation. In the NBA, Anthony would learn, it’s all business.

The Detroit Pistons had the second pick of the 2003 draft, and team representatives had left Anthony feeling certain that he was their guy. Anthony couldn’t have been happier. The Pistons were a team on the rise, coached by living legend Larry Brown. Three days before the draft, Anthony was supposed to work out for the Pistons. It was a done deal, as far as Anthony was concerned, and the workout seemed like a get-to-know-one-another session before the first season of the rest of his life. However, that morning Anthony got a phone call from his agent, Calvin Andrews, who told him the workout was off; the Pistons had decided to take someone else, Darko Milicic.

Anthony ended up the third pick, going to the Denver Nuggets. “I didn’t know anything about Denver,” Anthony says. “The only thing I knew about Denver is the airport is in the middle of nowhere. I was worried. Coming from New York, Baltimore, it’s like, OK, going to the Midwest-what’s this?” Denver is a white-tipped airport, white-covered peaks, white people, home of the blond-haired, blue-eyed, very white Broncos icon John Elway.

If Denver wasn’t sure what to make of Anthony-and it wasn’t-that all changed when he led the Nuggets to the play-offs for the first time in almost a decade, smiling along the way. All of sudden the team went from punch line to headline. And all of sudden, the black kid from back East was that grinning, cuddly Melo. All of sudden, Anthony was going to the Olympics. The Olympics! “The town started embracing me,” Anthony says. “The fans were cool. And I’m like, alright, I gotta create something here now. Around the city people started falling in love with me, with us, the team.” It was like being the Beatles back in Syracuse. And then, just as quickly, it wasn’t.

That summer in Greece the Olympic team, with a roster of superstars, was losing games no one thought they should lose. Certainly not Olympic coach Larry Brown. The same coach whose Pistons had passed on Anthony, Brown put him on the bench. Brown complained specifically about Anthony to the press. “He’s not buying into what we’re doing; he’s having a hard time accepting what we’re doing. You can tell by the way he acts, by the way he plays.” Anthony was lambasted in the press for being selfish and a whiner. His smile faded. His tall frame collapsed into a full-body slouch on the bench while the world watched. Publicly, Anthony said nothing. Privately, he made a call.

From his hotel room in Greece, Anthony calls Kiki Vandeweghe’s house in the middle of the Denver night. He tells Vandeweghe how much he wants to make this work, to be useful to his team, to make Brown happy. Vandeweghe explains that sitting on the bench is a unique experience for him and that trying to take charge on the court is not the only way to contribute.

“A lot of players, if they were going through a tough time, especially the stars would say, ‘Oh well, it doesn’t matter,'” Vandeweghe says about the call. “But he was so concerned about making his coach happy and being useful to his team and making his team successful. That doesn’t happen that often. You don’t get a player like that.”

Anthony’s dreadful Olympic summer was followed by a dreadful fall. A DVD surfaced. It was an amateur video of black men in the Baltimore ghetto where Anthony grew up. The men in the DVD talked about “niggas” who “snitch.” In one scene Anthony stood next to one of the guys who apparently would like to see these “rats get AIDS and die.” The public didn’t seem to buy Anthony’s explanation that he’d just been hanging out in the old hood and personally did not subscribe to the snitch-killing message. Next came the newspaper reports of his fight in a New York nightclub. Only weeks later, he was busted at DIA, caught with marijuana in his backpack. Watching ESPN one night, Anthony hears a sports reporter refer to him and LeBron James as “two phenoms going in the opposite direction.” The reporter depicts the Cleveland Cavalier James as a gifted athlete carrying himself with dignity and doing it right, while Anthony is a gifted athlete acting like a knucklehead thug.

When I ask Anthony about these controversies he’s no longer mellow in his chair. He leans forward, then back, throws his arms open wide, as if, to say, OK, then, I’m bringing the truth. He’s animated and agitated. Not agitated at being asked-to hear him tell it, he’s agitated that he was a kid and nobody gave him the benefit of the doubt. “The DVD,” he says. “I’m just back home in my neighborhood showing love. Then the thing comes out and I’m like, ‘What DVD?'”

“The Olympics.” He brings it up. It’s as if he’s been keeping all of this in, asking himself, “Why?” And now eager to give his answers. “Sometimes players and coaches have tension, that’s what it was. One thing happened over there: We lost to Puerto Rico by like 35 points and I don’t play. So I’m just sitting back and watching us lose. And then there’s this big story: Carmelo Anthony’s selfish and he’s not putting his team first. How y’all gonna say I’m a selfish player if I didn’t get in the game?”

From the topic of the Olympics he goes right on to the nightclub brawl: “Then I get home and we had a bar fight. My fiancée’s ex-boyfriend spit an alcoholic beverage in her face, and it was just like a lot of things started happening back to back. I let a lot of stuff ride, but when the situation gets serious, it’s time for me to step in. I’m disrespecting her if I stand there while he’s spitting in her face. If any man could disagree with what I’m saying right now, they’re not a real man.”

The pot bust at DIA was the not-so-grand finale to what Anthony refers to as his “Dead Man Walking” phase. Almost everyone who heard his explanation laughed it off. Anthony said the backpack was his, but that it had been borrowed by his friend James Cunningham and the pot was Cunningham’s. Indeed, Anthony’s story sounded an awful lot like Greg Brady’s excuse when Mrs. Brady found the pack of smokes in his varsity jacket: “But, mom, they’re not mine.” The charges were eventually dropped when Cunningham signed an affidavit admitting the marijuana was his.

“I wouldn’t take pot anywhere, better yet to an airport,” Anthony says, still pleading his case. “We had just gotten done playing the Milwaukee Bucks in Colorado Springs, so I came home and just grabbed a bag real quick…. I get to the airport scan. [Security says], ‘Can you come with us please.’ [They said], ‘We’re gonna ask you one more time, ‘Do you have anything in your bag?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ I took my bag off and I said, ‘You can check.’… A lady whispered, ‘Check all the pockets.’ So the police checked the pockets and there was a small bag rolled up with marijuana. I was like, ‘Oh my Goooood.’ I just wanted to die right there.” Maybe the difference is Greg Brady didn’t sport cornrowed braids and a “Me Against the World” tattoo across his chest.

Whatever. You know what, Anthony told himself, you can make all this stuff turn good. If you just get your story out there and do what you gotta do on the court, people will forget about this off-the-court trouble. But the press and the pressure were too much. The Nuggets and Anthony played terribly and lost. On the court, Anthony found himself questioning his instincts. “I started worrying about if I do this move and I mess up, what are people going to say? ‘Oh, he’s thinking about what he did the other day or what was in the papers.'” His life seemed to go from dreadful to hopeless. Anthony injured his ankle and missed a few games, losing games. The Nuggets fired Coach Jeff Bzdelik and Coach Michael Cooper. Then, along came George Karl, a coach infamous for taking no mess from nobody.

Most sportswriters attribute the Nuggets’ 2005 turnaround to Karl. Perhaps. One thing is certain: Karl helped Anthony rebound. Though it happened almost accidently. Before his first press conference Karl called Anthony into his office for a meeting. “I wanted him to feel who I was,” Karl says. “There’s perceptions and spin on everybody, and I wanted him to know I thought he was a young player, a great player.” Whatever else was said in that meeting can only be described as miscommunication. While Karl thought the meeting went well, Anthony left feeling worthless and angry. “After that meeting I felt like, ‘Man, this man is coming in here, he’s tying to destroy my life. So I didn’t talk to him and I didn’t talk to the players. I didn’t talk to anyone. I used to go home crying at night, like tears coming out, and I’d talk to my fiancée. I’d say, ‘I can’t do this no more. I don’t know what this guy wants from me.'”

Vandeweghe had tried to prepare Anthony for Karl and for the philosophical transition. “Before we hired George,” Vandeweghe says, “I spent a long time talking to Melo about how it was going to be tough because Melo had gotten into some habits on the court that were not positive for him. I wanted him to focus on his defense and his rebounding-the little things that make great players, things that George really focuses on.”

Karl was intent on having his team move the ball, play fast, and create baskets. It was all about hustle and transition. Anthony got sick of hearing the phrase “ball-stoppers,” one of Karl’s favorite expressions for something that stops transition and momentum. Anthony tried to stay calm, quell the chaos in his head. Yet Karl, who’d been away from the game for two years, was now this relentless bear, growling in his face.

LaLa told Anthony not to worry, to keep his head up and stay focused. It didn’t matter so much what words she used, it’s that she was there to listen and to help. Both were born in Brooklyn, both raised by their moms, and both successful young. It doesn’t hurt that she was a shooting guard in high school and that they like staying at home and playing ball together. They hang out, walk the dogs. They go bowling. They go to the movies. She makes him Hamburger Helper, his favorite dish. He cooks for her on the George Foreman grill.

The security Anthony feels with LaLa brings out his inherent playfulness. He often calls her and disguises his voice. He calls and pretends his plane is delayed, then knocks on her door 10 minutes later. This year, the two spent Christmas day with kids from the Family Resource Center, and that night he proposed. Anthony popped the question “in his own sweet Melo way,” which is the most she will say about that private moment. With LaLa in his life, for the first time Anthony felt he was no longer on an island of his own, and that he had the strength to confront Karl.

It all came to a head after a game in Memphis, when Karl took Anthony out of an overtime game. “He benched me and I was like, ‘No, this really didn’t happen,'” Anthony says. “Like this guy is not playing around, this guy is serious. What could I have done so wrong that he benched me?” On the ride home, Anthony says, he cried. The next day, he went to Karl and said, “We have to talk.” Anthony asked Karl if he had something personal against him. According to Anthony, Karl said, “I respect you as a person more than I do as a basketball player. But it takes a real man to come up and deal with a situation rather than sit back and moan all day. You came to me.” Anthony told Karl he wanted to find a way to get along with him, because, “I don’t think I’m going anywhere anytime soon, and you’re not going anywhere anytime soon, so we gotta be on the same page.” The rest of that conversation went much better. From that point on the two would meet and talk one-on-one at least once each week. The Nuggets started winning their way to the play-offs. Again.

“His last six weeks of the season and the play-offs were first-class,” Karl now says. “I was amazed how he was getting better by the week, and his commitment to what we wanted to do was big-time. I thought he took a step last year that I didn’t think he could make toward being the leader of this team.”

Basketball stars and bad press are nothing new. One of the best NBA players of all time who had some of the worst headlines of all time is David Thompson, Denver’s first basketball star. Like Anthony, Thompson left his university, North Carolina State, early; he signed with the Nuggets in 1975, on his 21st birthday. On the phone, I ask Thompson if he’s been paying any attention to Anthony. He has been. I ask him if he sees any of himself in the Nuggets’ current boy wonder. He does.

“You’re thrown into a different world,” he says. “Coming in as a young kid right out of college, the pressure to do well is placed on you, especially if you’re one of the top picks and you’re looking to turn the whole franchise around. You want to be in that position, but along with that you’re really under a microscope and any little thing you do is going to be headline news.”

Thompson’s on-the-court airborne acrobatics earned him the name “Skywalker.” He took the Nuggets all the way to the finals of the old ABA. Then, just like Anthony, he led them into back-to-back play-offs in the NBA. Unfortunately, the new “different world” overwhelmed him. He became addicted to drugs and booze. Thompson is now 51 years old and has been clean and sober for more than 17 years. He runs a youth ministry in Charlotte and gives motivational speeches trying to help kids make good choices in life. He doesn’t want to preach unsolicited advice to Anthony. However, hearing him speak of the lesson he learned, he sounds as if he’s talking directly to Anthony. “Everybody wants to get in your business,” he says. “You have so many people coming at you wanting to be your friend. You become a target.”

Anthony’s agent, Calvin Andrews, has been watching Anthony a lot closer. The way he sees it, Anthony’s “biggest problem is that he still thinks he’s an 18-year-old kid from the city of Baltimore who can do what an 18-year-old kid from the city of Baltimore can do.”

“I was 20 years old at the time,” Anthony tells me, referring to his Dead Man Walking days. “Who knows any 20-year-old that could go through what I went through in three months?” I think of my nephew, now 21, who just graduated from the University of Maryland. I don’t think I’d sleep at night if that good-hearted yet naïve kid had access to Anthony’s disposable income and opened his doors to “friends.” And my nephew grew up with advantages Anthony never knew.

Anthony says he is learning the sort of things Thompson learned, the sort of lessons Andrews hopes his friend and client gets before the pressure gets to Anthony the way it got to Thompson. “It was tough,” Anthony says of last season and all that went along with it, “but I was glad I went through it. I’m not happy at the stuff that went on, but I’m glad I went through it when I went through it, earlier in my career rather than later. The most important thing of all is that I’ve learned from everything. It made me a better person. It made me open my eyes up. It made me see who’s real, who’s not, who I should have around me, who I shouldn’t-who I should trust.”

One afternoon during a preseason workout I go to see Anthony at the Pepsi Center. I find him half dressed, pants sliding low, seated in the air-conditioned calm of the Nuggets’ locker room. He’s shirtless, and for the first time I see his tattoos up close: “Mary” on one forearm; his father’s nickname, “Curly,” (his father’s nickname) and “R.I.P.” on the other. He’s got a basketball in flames with his initials on his right shoulder. And on each bicep, reminders of lessons learned: “When The Grass Is Cut The Snakes Will Show” and “Who Can I Trust?”

Carmelo Anthony says he wants to own Denver. He says he wakes up in the middle of the night because he gets so excited about the plans he has for giving back and rebuilding. Breaking ground on a low-income housing development is on his to-do list. It’s a noble and mature game plan. Hearing him talk like that you get the sense that he’s found a home, and maybe found the person or people he can trust-that he’s no longer on an island. He sounds like a budding sports-town icon, and that conjures up a comparison to Denver’s last sports icon, John Elway. He would love to talk to Old No. 7. “I can’t get in contact with him,” Anthony says. “But I’m trying. I’m trying to just tell him, ‘Give me the torch.'”

Anthony and Elway couldn’t be more different. Perhaps the best example of how disparate the California/Stanford guy and the Baltimore/Syracuse guy really are is this: John Elway has a gazillion car dealerships. Carmelo Anthony owns one custom car shop in Aurora. Anthony gets it: “Elway’s got the places where you buy the cars. We got the place where you fix ’em up.” One thing it seems Anthony and Elway have in common is a commitment to the city. Yet while Elway has been cruising off into the sunset, Anthony has just rolled into town. And if there are a few more bumps in the road for Anthony, the mother in me wants to give him a little time. In life, just like in basketball, the kid is working on his transition game. m

Kate Meyers is a Louisville-based freelance writer.

Great Reads