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.
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.