There he was, a year ago this Friday, playing in perhaps his last NBA game, chucking up brick after painful brick. Several shots clanged off the rim. A few ricocheted hard off the backboard. Only one of the 11 attempts by the 10-time all-star and former league scoring champ found its mark before Carmelo Anthony was summoned to the bench. Houston indeed had a problem, and the man known as Melo was forced to sit out the next two Rockets games with what the team described as an illness. Within a week of his scatter-shot performance, Anthony was released. The news floored him. He felt as if he had just been bowled over by Shaquille O’Neal.
There have been rumors ever since that the star of Syracuse University’s 2003 national championship run would land another job. Some even speculated a reunion with old Olympic teammate and friend LeBron James in Los Angeles, but the Lakers weren’t interested in the services of a 35-year-old mid-range shooter who is a defensive liability.
Anthony remains unemployed, but has yet to officially retire, despite his slim prospects. There have been reports that he continues to work out and play hoops almost daily at a closed gym about a 20-minute walk from Madison Square Garden, the famed arena he electrified during his days as a scoring machine with the New York Knicks. Still, with each passing day, hopes of a triumphant return dim. The harsh reality is that Anthony’s stellar basketball career probably is over. Done. Kaput. Finished. There will be no season-long farewell tour like the ones accorded his friends, Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade. His final game likely was that 1-for-11 clunker 12 months ago.
So, what are we to make of Melo’s basketball career? A lot if you ask me, or Jeff Van Gundy, the former Nazareth College point guard and NBA coach turned popular ABC/ESPN hoops analyst. Anthony is a sure-fire Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer; he’ll definitely be enshrined in Springfield, Mass. Not only was he a 10-time NBA All-Star, but also a six-time first-team selection. He ranks 19th all-time in scoring (25,551 points), averaging at least 20 points per game his first 14 seasons, with an average above 25 per game seven times.
“When people say he was a scorer, they say it dismissively, as if that’s a bad thing,’’ Van Gundy told me a few weeks ago during a visit to his college alma mater. “What they don’t understand is how hard it is to score in the NBA. To be able to put up the kind of numbers Carmelo did every night, you have to be the elite of the elite. Defenses are geared to stop you, so you have to work doubly, even triply hard. It’s not like anybody can do this. Few can.”
Anthony’s heroics in carrying SU (with a huge assist from Gerry McNamara) to a national title in his only college season also has to be taken into account, as does his performances on the international basketball stage because the Basketball Hall of Fame, unlike other halls, takes into account a player or coach’s achievements at all levels. Melo averaged a double-double during the Orange men’s march to the championship, and was named Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA tournament after nearly turning in a triple-double in the championship game vs. Kansas. He wound up helping the United States win three golds and one bronze in his four Olympics, and holds the US record for most career points and rebounds.
“When you think about his success at Syracuse, his success as an international player and his success in the NBA, you come to the conclusion that there aren’t many guys who ever put it all together on as many levels as he did,’’ Van Gundy said.
Anthony’s critics cite his lackadaisical attitude on defense, and occasional selfishness on offense. They claim he didn’t make his teammates around him better, that he was a ball hog who concentrated too much on his own opportunities. Van Gundy disputes that. “I don’t necessarily agree because I think if you look more closely at it, he made the teams he played on better,’’ he said. “Carmelo’s Denver teams weren’t great, but they made the playoffs virtually every year he was there, and it was like that during his first several years with the Knicks. It’s not like he was surrounded all the time with exceptional talent. He had to carry the lion’s share of the load for the most part.”
Van Gundy does agree that Anthony might have done a better job adapting later in his career, when his skills began to diminish, but the former coach of the Knicks and Rockets also understands how difficult that is to do. “One of the reasons these guys are as great as they are is because they have such great belief in themselves,’’ he said. “People want these guys to be everything. They want them to be humble, but to have that swagger at the same time. It doesn’t always work that way.”
Anthony also suffered in critics’ eyes because he couldn’t do the things James did. “Comparison is the thief of joy,’’ Van Gundy said. “We love to compare people, and by doing so we have a tendency to diminish those who don’t measure up. So, he’s not LeBron. There’s no sin in that. I mean, how many players in the history of the game are as good as LeBron? Just because he wasn’t as great as LeBron doesn’t mean he wasn’t a Hall of Famer. Anybody trying to minimize the NBA career Carmelo had is making a huge mistake.”
They are failing to appreciate a career that may be gone, but shouldn’t be forgotten.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.