DENVER – Carmelo Anthony isn't sentimental about his return to the Pepsi Center, a place that will be filled with loud jeers and muffled cheers on Wednesday when his New York Knicks play the Nuggets in Anthony's first visit to town since he was dealt in a blockbuster trade.
"I don't think it will be emotional," Anthony, who played for the Nuggets from 2003-2011, told Yahoo! Sports. "I think it will be crazy sitting on the other bench, sitting on the other side of the court, being in the visitors' locker room. But as far as being emotional, I don't think so."
While about two years and a month have passed, many Nuggets fans are still upset about Anthony's departure.
"Any time a city invests in a star player and there is a perception that a star player doesn't like them there is emotion," said ex-Nugget Scott Hastings, now a Nuggets color analyst and sports talk radio show host in Denver. "There was emotion and there probably still will be emotion. Time heals and it will probably take until the end of 'Melo's career where people will say he gave many good years in Denver."
Mile High fans appear hyped for this game, ready to let Anthony have it. Nuggets coach George Karl has received lots of ticket requests for Wednesday. Karl called the 2010-11 season of Melodrama the most draining of his coaching career.
"Every day something was talked about," Karl said. "Every day someone was making an innuendo, gossip or an accusation. I'm sure it was difficult for the players, but for me every day I had to answer questions, the same questions five or six times a week. If you are in a different city, still the same questions and it gets tedious.
"I thought we hung in there really. But I can't deny that the last week or two it was getting edgy. I was kind of in a triangle. I had 'Melo and how I handle him. And I got 14 other guys looking at how I'm handling it and them. I always call it pinball. I'm the bumper in the middle. I was hit from all sides."
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Anthony's wife, LaLa Vazquez, won't be in Denver for the game, preventing potential ugliness in the stands in what's expected to be an emotional night for fans. There is wide perception that Vazquez was the driving force behind Anthony's desire to become a Knick. She is a New York native, an actress and television host who landed her own reality show once back in New York.
Anthony said that perception about his wife is far from the truth.
"It wasn't mutual at all," Anthony said. "Actually, she didn't want me to go. I would never put my wife out there on the line like that. She had nothing to do with the trade. Nothing at all."
Why did Anthony want to go to New York so badly? Other than the huge marketing opportunities a large market like New York offers, he says the other big reason was that teammates Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Marcus Camby and possibly Chauncey Billups (team option) were going to be free agents in 2011, likely going elsewhere and he didn't want to be on a rebuilding team.
"People didn't really know the business side of the situation we were in," Anthony said. "Everybody's contract was up. They had plans of going younger. People from the outside looking in didn't really get it."
The Nuggets' Masai Ujiri, who was then in his first season as general manager, had two deals to choose from regardless of Anthony's hopes. One was to the Brooklyn Nets that would have included a combination of rookie forward-center Derrick Favors, three draft picks, center Troy Murphy and guard Devin Harris, according to a source. The Nuggets, however, preferred proven players over draft picks which led them to give Anthony his wish by trading him and Billups in a 13-player deal that included the Minnesota Timberwolves on Feb. 22, 2011.
The Nuggets received a long list of talented young players: forwards Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, centers Kosta Koufos and Timofay Mozgov, and guard Raymond Felton to Denver. Both teams have made the playoffs both years since the trade, but haven't advanced past the first round.
"Everybody was lucky the way it happened," Ujiri said. " 'Melo got to go to New York. We looked at every situation and tried to look at what was best for the organization."
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Now two years removed, several of Anthony's former Nuggets teammates say what he did for Denver is not appreciated. Karl also credited Anthony for much of his success in Denver.
"I laid everything on the line for Denver," Anthony said. "I did everything I could for Denver. They opened the city up for me when I was 18, 19 years. We grew together. I never want anyone to forget that."
The Nuggets won 17 games during the 2002-03 season and missed the playoffs for the eighth straight season. The most popular Nugget was Super Mascot Rocky, who won a fan poll in The Denver Post that season. But since Anthony was selected with the third overall pick in the 2003 draft, the Nuggets have made the playoffs every season, including one trip to the Western Conference finals.
Anthony averaged 24.8 points during his tenure in Denver while also making four All-Star and All-NBA team appearances. Camby re-signed, and the likes of Billups, Martin, Allen Iverson and Andre Miller came to small-market Denver in large part because of Anthony.
"NBA fans associate a star player with a city, and he brought that attention to Denver being one of the marquee players," Miller said.
Karl and Ujiri expect Anthony to get a rousing ovation from Nuggets fans during pregame introductions. Camby wonders if Anthony or ex-Nugget J.R. Smith will get booed louder. Hastings expects Anthony to get booed, but not as hard as Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant does here every time he touches the ball. As for Anthony, he expects to get boos but hopes a mutual respect will eventually return.
"I never would have any hard feelings for anyone in Denver," Anthony said. "I don't really know where the hard feelings are coming from."
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