Behold the man in his element: back to the basket at the right elbow, ball held high, roughly 17 feet away. It’s a sight embedded deep in the culture, as instantly recognizable as a logo for a national brand. To see him there, in person, is like visiting a famous landmark, a place to pay respect to a different time.
You know who it is without the name. You can see it. I know you can. Ball held textbook-tight and chin-high, leaning back into the defender as if pondering the wisdom of a trust fall — it is equal parts iconic and divisive. Millions of words have been devoted to analyzing it. Data has discredited it. The sport he plays has almost entirely abandoned it. It is inefficient and stagnant and antithetical to the team concept. More than that, it’s no longer cool. Everyone wants to be Steph and KD and James, to hit 3s and fire their bodies to the hoop and create art from chaos. Nobody wants to back someone down and go to work. Nobody wants all that trouble.
But think about this: If he stands out there at the 3-point line, waits for a pass and hits a wide-open shot, nobody really feels it, you know? And if his man gets washing-machined in a pick-and-roll and he happens to find himself alone at the hoop with the ball, the only thing he’s proved is that he can run a play. It’s test-tube basketball, calibrated to three places right of the decimal. But this post-up iso thing, man, just him and a defender? That’s some zero-sum business out there on that elbow: one winner, one loser. Pure.
Separate the man from the art. Forget the perceived selfishness, the supposed stats-and-money fetish, the alleged view of winning as a tertiary (at best) concern. Instead, just watch him use the ball as a weapon, stabbing it toward the defender’s face, whipping it close enough to scrape the floor, swinging it like a sword. This is what you get if you come any closer. And the jab steps: over and over, a high-speed tic, as if his feet are trying to keep time with a drum solo.
Imagine finding yourself out there on that elbow, roughly 17 feet away, feeling like an extra in a historical reenactment. Just when you think he can’t possibly give you one more ball fake he gives you three. He might turn and face you; he might not. It’s striking in its peculiarity. And then he rises to shoot, his feet scissored slightly in front of him, his body angled in a way that makes your late jump to block it look obligatory at best, pitiable at worst.
The problem — backed by evidence both empirical and aesthetic, espoused by everyone from the lowest-level intern to the MIT-educated general manager — is simple: This is not good basketball. Outside the pinpoint focus of that elbow, nothing is happening anywhere else on the floor. Everyone waits as the man ritually violates the game’s new commandments: constant movement that creates layups, 3s and drives to the hoop that draw fouls. The non-paint 2 — the midrange shot that has accounted for most of his 25,115 career points — has become the game’s vilest epithet.
The world has moved on, and he’s trying to move with it. Lord knows he’s trying. But for 15 years, Carmelo Anthony has tied his worth to what he can create from this one spot. It has given him 10 All-Star appearances and a scoring title and a cosmopolitan lifestyle that comes with nearly $250 million in career earnings. He drinks only the best wine and smokes only the best cigars and is close enough with Barack Obama that the two of them are in the process of finalizing Anthony’s future role in the Obama Foundation. It has also created divisions on teams, serial conflicts with coaches and none of the postseason success that his talent seemed to portend when he left Syracuse in 2003 after one championship season.
But through it all he finishes every practice the same way: out on that elbow, roughly 17 feet away, rolling through the cafeteria line of post-up moves, feeling the ball leave his fingertips to rise and fall with a helium lightness. It’s vintage, is what it is, and he could be happy doing it all day. He watches the sport change around him, sees offenses expand from sideline to sideline and from baseline to half court like filled lungs, and he says, “I watch guys work out in the summer, and it’s just straight shooting 3s and pick-and-rolls and ballhandling. Nobody works on the stuff I work on. It’s a lost art.” He knows all the criticisms, could recite them chapter and verse, and he says, “To be honest with you, I think I might be the only person in the history of the NBA who gets criticized for what he’s great at.” He laughs hard at that, and he says, “That’s OK. I’d rather be criticized for something I’m great at.” Fifteen years out there on the elbow, roughly 17 feet away, chiseling stones for his own personal pyramid. It’s a way of reaffirming his value in a world that no longer agrees.
So when he’s asked to change, to fit his game into this new paradigm, you might have to live with him easing his way into it. As you might have guessed, it’s complicated.
You be you. Through training camp and the first six weeks of the season, that was the unofficial mantra of the Oklahoma City Thunder, or at least its three headliners, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Anthony. Whenever a problem arose with the Thunder’s offense, and there were many, one of the three would tell another, “You be you.” It sounded cordial, even magnanimous, and it was delivered in a conciliatory, we’re-all-good-here kind of way. But as far as solutions go, it was pretty thin. What it lacked in specificity it made up for in confusion.
By Dec. 1, it was clear you be you wasn’t working. The Thunder were 8-12 and ranked 24th in the NBA in offense. This grand and unexpected experiment — the trades for George from Indiana and Anthony from New York to team with the NBA MVP Westbrook — was in danger of collapsing under the weight of everyone being themselves. You be you meant nobody was really anybody, and it was obvious that somebody needed to be someone else.
“I think starting the year by letting them work through some things was the way to go,” says Thunder coach Billy Donovan. “I wanted to see how some of this stuff played out. Well, everybody being them wasn’t going to work. ‘You just be you, you be you, you be you’ — no, it just wasn’t going to work. Russell is this great transitional player. Paul is so great at flowing, cutting, moving. And sometimes Carmelo wants to say, ‘Let’s slow it down; let’s grind in the half court.’ Well, we can’t come down and say, ‘OK, let’s run and cut and move, and let’s get out on the break, and let’s slow it down.’ It can’t happen.”
It was natural for the revamped Thunder to need some time to process and adapt. During a training-camp news conference, general manager Sam Presti, with his trademark loftiness, said, “The vision for our team and the way we’ve gone about our business has always been to see things for what they can be, not for what they are.” They were built for June, for one seven-game series after another, with a tightened court and a shorter rotation and a predictable succession of days off. But at 8-12, with the season threatening to dissolve into an indecipherable and sclerotic mess — one night a blowout loss to the Mavericks, another a rousing win over the Warriors — Anthony approached Donovan after a practice and asked to talk.
Carmelo opened with a question:
What do you need from me?
Fifteen years. Fifteen years of Kiss Cams and half-court shots and taco giveaways and Addams Family bumpers and renditions of “Everybody Clap Your Hands.” Fifteen years of hearing one of three variations of “Jump” (Pointer Sisters, Van Halen, techno) at every held ball and the first nine bars of “We Will Rock You” whenever the sound operator thinks you need a little morale boost. And those countless public-address announcers who preen and yowl — with impressive insincerity and at a volume a tick below the threshold of feeling — from tip to buzzer. Fifteen years of it, man. Fifteen years.
Anthony is sitting on the sideline of one of the Thunder’s practice courts in the kind of connected leather-sling chair you’d find at an airport gate. Assured there would be no photographic element to the interview, he is shirtless, fresh from the weight room. At 33 he is fit (just reporting here) and seems less doughy than in previous years, perhaps a nod to the changes in the game’s pace and spacing. His teammates treat him like a cool older brother, the kind who can read the room and change the mood whenever needed. The word, I suppose, is chill, and he wears it like an honorific: Carmelo Anthony, Chill. Steven Adams says, “He’s a piece of living history, mate.” Terrance Ferguson, a leggy 19-year-old rookie who looks like a kid the varsity coach hopes will fill out by the time he’s a senior, grew out his hair and braided it in second or third grade to be like Carmelo. He cut it as soon as Carmelo did. “Oh, no, I can’t tell him about the braids, man,” Ferguson says. “I feel like that would be weird. I’m on the other side now. I don’t want to be a fanboy.”
After the Thunder lost to the Cavs on Feb. 13, amid the forced quiet of the locker room, Anthony walked from the shower to his locker carrying his phone. Smooth jazz rolled like syrup through the phone’s speaker, and one by one teammates turned their heads to follow the sound. “Where’s that coming from?” someone asked, an edge to it. “Melo,” Patrick Patterson answered, which seemed to settle it. Minutes later, as Anthony stood in front of reporters to answer questions, the music a faint presence at his locker, he interrupted himself and, with the tone and delivery of a late-night DJ playing only songs of love, smiled and said, “Don’t mind my background music.”
“I’ve been on teams with bad guys,” says Thunder backup point guard Raymond Felton, who played with Anthony in New York. “Bad guys don’t interact with teammates. Bad guys don’t care about anybody else. He’s not that guy. The stuff that was being said about him in New York upset me. I’m glad he’s out of that situation.”
He still seems a little stunned that he’s here. A week before training camp started, he was hosting a group of NBA players for a week of workouts he calls “Black Ops” at his gym in Manhattan. (“No media, man,” he says. “There’s a reason I call it Black Ops.”) Anthony’s relationship with the Knicks was frayed and nearly severed. The corrosive codependency had run its course; both sides needed out. Trade talks — he had lifted his full no-trade clause for Houston and Cleveland — were headed for some kind of resolution. Westbrook was among the players at this very secretive Black Ops deal, but the two never talked about the Thunder. “I just never thought OKC was a place that would make the move,” Anthony says. But on Friday, Sept. 22, three days before the start of training camp, Anthony got a call asking if he would be willing to add the Thunder to his list of approved teams if a deal could get done. “Listen,” he said, “if OKC can pull the trigger, get the deal done.” By Sunday, the deal was done.
He flew to Oklahoma City that night, leaving behind his wife, LaLa (he gives no indication of a reported separation), and 10-year-old son, Kiyan, who Carmelo says is rated as one of the top 10 fifth-grade basketball players in the country according to people who apparently know such things. He wants you to know he left something else behind: his New York lifestyle.
“Now it’s like, ‘OK, he cares about winning. He wants to win,'” he says. “The story changed itself by me coming here. It shifts the focus of the perception.” He’s rolling now, making it clear that this is what you need to know right here, and so he starts speaking in lyrical fragments, as if answering criticisms as they form in his head. “OK, he was willing to sacrifice and change at this point in his career … go out there to Middle America … OKC … who would expect Melo would be in OKC?” He laughs and looks around the practice facility, which right now represents an entire region of the country. Yes, he is here, Melo, smack dab in the middle of a city that doesn’t wake. “Yeah,” he says. “That’s what changed.”
You know what’s weird? He likes it here. He lives in a big house in an old neighborhood. He likes to explore, so he leaves his house and picks a direction to see what’s out there. “I love to walk, so I just walk around and try to take it all in,” he says. “I find myself in a lot of pubhouses, eating and watching games.”
Oklahoma City is the type of place that views decisions such as Anthony’s as a referendum on civic worth. Having him and George here means something, especially after Kevin Durant‘s departure 18 months ago. (They adore Westbrook for his loyalty; weatherworn “In Russ We Trust” lawn signs are still around.) It’s not an inferiority complex, necessarily; that would require a level of defensiveness that doesn’t seem to exist. It’s more of a sincere hope that something good might happen. They serenade George, a soon-to-be free agent, with “We Want Paul,” as if imploring a coach to play the last kid on the bench. Hundreds of them showed up at the airport to greet Anthony when he arrived from New York after the trade. They chanted “Me-lo Me-lo Me-lo” before transitioning to “Pres-ti Pres-ti Pres-ti.” A bunch of them wore sleeveless hoodies to let Anthony know they were hip to the “Hoodie Melo” meme.
“In New York, there was so much going on with the organization and the city,” Anthony says. “It was very tense up there, and you never really get a chance to have stability there. Here, man, I’m having fun with the game again. The joy of it — that’s what guys know me as: laughing and smiling and enjoying the game. I think over the past couple of years I’ve lost that, and I think guys around the league have seen it.
“That was the toughest part for me in New York, having to go in and go to work and still put a smile on my face and still deal with everything and not be as happy. Having the effects of that carry over to being around family and friends, being down so much but still having to be strong. It’s pulls at you. You’ve got to be strong but you’re feeling down, and I had to deal with that.
“Then you come here and” — Anthony stops to draw in a massive inhale before exhaling into a sharp laugh — “it’s refreshing. Fresh air here.”
What do you need from me?
Donovan absorbed the question — one he couldn’t have been expecting — and thought it over. He tends to give long, involved and enlightening answers that often include “So, to answer your question …” somewhere around the midpoint. His eyes narrow as he goes, and the lines in his forehead deepen as he makes his point. He is almost never glib.
What do I need?
Well, here goes.
“Carmelo,” he said, “I think for our team, we’re going to need you to fill a role. You’re going to have to stretch the floor, and you’re going to have to recognize mismatches. We’re going to need to create space for Russ and Paul to play downhill and be creators for us. There might be times when you go four or five or six possessions and you don’t get the ball. You might get missed on the break. Those are all adjustments, but we can’t be the full team we’re capable of being unless you’re playing well.”
Never in his career — not in his eight years in Denver nor his seven in New York — had Anthony been open to the idea of reducing or even altering his role. But as Donovan spoke, he nodded along and said, “OK, Coach. I’ve got it.”
Without saying it, Donovan was asking him to be Olympic Melo, the guy who holds nearly every offensive record for Team USA and is the only men’s player with three gold medals. Will Donovan get that guy? Again, it’s complicated. In the Olympics, playing against inferior competition and with the world’s best players, Anthony was willing to sublimate his ego, and his isolation game, for the greater good. But NBA coaches have pined for Olympic Melo before, notably Mike D’Antoni, who created the Olympic offense that created Olympic Melo only to watch his tenure as Knicks coach end after he and Anthony clashed over the deployment of that very same offense.
“I had to tell myself, ‘OK, this is different,'” Anthony says. “Russ did things his way here, Paul did things his way in Indiana, I did things my way in New York. We were all solo artists. So now the question is, how do you bring your solo artistry to this band? We all bring something different to this band. I think once we realized and appreciated what we bring to this band, that’s when things started to click for us.
“The hard part is adjusting to having this opportunity. You have to sacrifice and change your game for the sake of what works for this team. Early on, it was like, ‘Damn, it’s not going to be the same game no more.’ I had to get a grip on that and realize it’s for the better. It took a little bit for me to understand — ‘Oh, wow, we’ve got Russ, Paul, Steve. I got guys now.’ Takes a lot off me. Takes the burden off me to go out there and have to be a superhero night in and night out.”
The conversation with Donovan allowed Anthony to voice what was already growing inside him: He would be the one who would try to be somebody else. He had agreed with everything Donovan said. He had nodded along when his coach told him he needed to cut down the isolation plays and keep the ball moving and shoot more 3s. He kept reminding himself: I’ve got guys now. Without saying the words, he said he would make every effort to bring Olympic Melo to OKC.
The next day Anthony called Westbrook and George together and told them the new plan. “I’m gonna accept this role,” he told them. “Until we accept that things are going to be different, we’re just going to be this average team.”
The Thunder hit the All-Star break at 33-26. They won six straight in December and eight straight in January and are 25-14 since Donovan told Anthony he needed him to be someone else. (The Thunder are 3-6 since Jan. 27, when Andre Roberson‘s season-ending knee injury created a hole most people didn’t realize he was filling.) Still, it’s hard to see the fifth spot in the Western Conference, behind Minnesota and barely ahead of Portland and Denver, as anything other than a disappointment. Again, they point to June, and seven-game series, and the idea that it was important for this team to attempt an opulent makeover rather than risk turning another year of Westbrook’s prime into a season-long solo act and a first-round playoff exit.
And when it’s working, when Westbrook’s in 10th gear and George is at his smoothest and Adams is big-rigging his way through the lane and Anthony is hitting open looks, it’s easy to believe in Donovan’s vision. “Good luck if they’ve all got it going,” Felton says. “Good luck to you.” By the break, they’d climbed to 10th in the league in offense, with Anthony averaging 17.1 points and 6 rebounds, with a career-low 24.2 usage rate.
He’s trying. Lord knows he’s trying. And there’s no doubt in his mind: There will come a time when they’ll need Vintage Melo. It’ll be a playoff game, with the defenses clamped down tight, the game close, the clock winding down. They’ll need to slow things down, run some clock, maybe coax a foul out of someone in trouble already. They’ll need his guile. He’ll stand out there at the 3-point line, assess the situation and then do exactly what he’s done for 15 years: head for the elbow, roughly 17 feet away, and demand the ball.
And that is why he dutifully heads out to that elbow after every practice and before every game. He ticks down the names of the active players from his ’03 draft class: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Nick Collison, David West, Zaza Pachulia, Kyle Korver. He and James are the only remaining starters; Wade is taking a final bow in Miami, Collison is a de facto assistant coach in Oklahoma City, the others are fading role players. Anthony, a metallic defiance edging into his voice, says his situation is different, presumably more like LeBron’s because “I don’t think age and experience add up in my situation. You can say I have 15 years in, but I’m only 33.” It’s a warning: Do not confuse sacrifice with surrender.
“I’m not saying, ‘Oh, I accept this role because this is almost over,'” he says. “I don’t see the end. No. I accept this because I want to win, and that’s the only reason.” And that’s why, after he and Donovan were finished with their conversation and the decision was made, Anthony turned back. There was one more thing.
“Coach,” he said, a sly grin on his face. “Just don’t take it all away from me.”