He was certain some NBA team would come calling after the Houston Rockets unceremoniously dumped him just 10 games into the 2018-19 season. Surely, someone would want the services of a 10-time all-star and former league scoring champ. Surely, someone would see the value in adding a future Hall-of-Famer who knew how to collect buckets in bunches. Surely, someone would recognize the 34-year-old forward was far from washed up.
But in the days, weeks and months following his release, Carmelo Anthony’s NBA employment queries went nowhere. Nothing but air balls. Another player would have gotten the message. Another player would have packed away his Air Jordans and moved on.
Although the game he loved no longer loved him, Anthony refused to hang it up. Instead, he shifted his devotion, dedication and determination into overdrive. He began showing up every day at a private, rented gym not far from Madison Square Garden — the arena he once lit up with jumpers and incandescent, Magic Johnson-like smiles during his seven seasons with the New York Knicks. He religiously followed the occasionally tortuous strength and conditioning program his personal trainer designed for him. He continued to hoop it up, alone and in pick-up games.
Nearly a year later, his perseverance was rewarded when the Portland Trail Blazers signed him, with the understanding he would have to accept a role as a sixth-man rather than a starter. The player known as “Melo” was thrilled at this second shot at basketball. He adapted marvelously to his new role, averaging 14.3 points per game in his two seasons in the Pacific Northwest.
And during the early going of this, his 19th NBA season, he’s continuing to prove the naysayers wrong, by averaging 17.7 points for his new team, the Los Angeles Lakers. Sunday night, he scored 18 of his team-high 28 points in the second half to lead the Lakers to victory. Along the way, Anthony leapfrogged Moses Malone into ninth-place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. In post-game interviews, gratitude flowed from the player who remains beloved in Upstate New York for carrying Syracuse University to a national championship 18 years ago.
“I’m still here, doing it,” Anthony said, gripping the game ball his Laker teammates had presented him. “I think that’s what I’m honestly excited about. I’m here in Year 19 still doing what I’m able to do. Still passionate about the game. Still passionate about coming to work every day and getting better.”
And what’s making this season even more special is that he’s sharing it with his long-time friend, LeBron James. Their relationship goes back to when Anthony was 17 and James 16, and they faced off in one of the most anticipated high school basketball games in history. Anthony’s Oak Hill (Va.) Academy team got the better of James’ St. Vincent-St. Mary’s (Ohio) squad, 72-66, during that 2002 matchup, which was televised nationally by ESPN. Both players brought their A games that night, with Anthony finishing with 34 points and 11 rebounds, and James with 36 points.
“I came back (to Akron, Ohio) and told my guys I just saw the best player I’d ever seen to that point,” James recalled recently.
They’ve been friends ever since — traveling an odyssey that saw them become teammates on several NBA All-Star teams and three gold-medal winning Olympic teams. For years, there was talk about them becoming teammates for a full season, and that’s finally come true in the twilight of their sensational careers.
“He’s been doing it for quite a while,” James marveled the other night. “And it’s just beautiful to continue to see, especially when, you know, they gave up on him.”
That Anthony would refuse to give up on himself is not surprising because his life has always been a profile in perseverance. As I learned from reading his recently published memoir, “Where Tomorrows Aren’t Promised,” he is the ultimate survivor. The Anthony I covered and wrote about during his national championship season at SU was this happy-go-lucky kid. But his book provides the rest of the story.
In retrospect, it was miraculous he was able to emerge from the violent, drug-infested streets of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood and, later, Baltimore’s Murphy Homes (AKA the “Murder Homes” that were highlighted in HBO’s “The Wire”). Anthony recalls in chilling detail the death of loved ones and how he and friends would have to dribble around needles and vial caps while playing pickup games on asphalt courts with netless rims while dealers and junkies looked on. His mom, siblings and other mentors in and away from basketball proved to be guardian angels.
There are a few chapters about his time in Syracuse, which he calls “the most magical year of his basketball life.” Interestingly, he was all set to return to school for his sophomore season, in hopes of defending the Orange’s NCAA title. But Coach Jim Boeheim told him to “pack your crap and get the (bleep) out of here” because Anthony had achieved all he could as a college player, and it was time for him to reap the riches of a professional basketball career.
The book ends with Anthony about to be drafted third overall by the Denver Nuggets. While sitting in Madison Square Garden, he reflects on his young life. He wonders how a kid who’d had so many hopes, dreams and expectations beaten out of him by a world of violence, poverty and racism was able to reach this summit.
What a remarkable journey it has been. And, thanks to Anthony’s dogged determination, the trek continues, up and down the court, one basket at a time.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.