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.
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."