DENVER – So there was Allen Iverson dribbling down the left side of the floor, a fast break that started a month ago in his mind. Across the court, Carmelo Anthony was running with him, eyes locking, and soon 'Melo was rising and rising, reaching for the pass – the possibilities of it all.
Now, Iverson had stopped in the middle of the Denver Nuggets' locker room on Monday night, watching that fourth-quarter lob over and over on the wall's wide-screen television. The postgame show kept showing it, again and again. They slowed it down, and speeded it up, and it kept flickering on the screen.
And for a fleeting moment, there flourished an instant validation to the vision that this could all work with Anthony and Iverson. The pass was too high, but Anthony grabbed it with one hand and slammed it on Memphis' Mike Miller.
"That was crazy," J.R. Smith blurted across the dressing room.
"That was crazy."
Soon, Eduardo Najera barked, "That was a tip-in. That was no dunk!"
Eventually, everyone turned to Anthony. He rolled back his head in laughter, confessing the secret to his climb back. "Fresh legs," he said.
After his 15-game suspension was done, Anthony still wore that wonderfully sopping wet No. 15 jersey. No rush to get undressed. No rush to get to his press conference. With all of that electricity in the building, all that joy in this locker room, you could tell Anthony wanted to cradle it like a newborn.
Hours earlier, before he had come back to a long, loud standing ovation at the Pepsi Center and scored a sluggish 28 points on 25 shots in the Nuggets' 115-98 victory, Anthony had a small confession.
As he pulled on his jersey to start the night, Anthony stopped for a moment before bringing it all the way over his head. They called him a punk and a thug for that sucker punch at Madison Square Garden on December 16, called him an unworthy heir to the modern basketball Rushmore with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. And now, the long, lonely 36 days between basketball games would end with him letting that uniform top linger for a few moments on his face because he felt like doing the most intimate thing with it.
"I smelled it," Anthony said.
"I missed it."
The chaos of the Garden melee had finally been restored to order for the Nuggets. The fight, coach George Karl says, still comes to him in his sleep.
"Nightmares," he said Monday morning. "Something pretty embarrassing on my watch."
When all hell broke loose against the Knicks, Karl deserved a significant share of the blame for creating a climate where his volatile young stars – Anthony and Smith – could allow their immaturity to send them spiraling into the knucklehead abyss.
Yet, Anthony is responsible for running out of nowhere and throwing that regrettable right-cross at New York's Mardy Collins. "I would take it back," Anthony said before the game. Now, Anthony has to restore his name, his reputation, his standing as the face of the franchise.
The sport came down hard on him, leaving Anthony to rebuild his standing in the game. Iverson had arrived with his own scars, his own baggage and his own unapologetic message for 'Melo.
"He's going to take his hits," A.I. said. "But this is something you've asked for. If you want to be a star in this league, then you've got to deal with everything that comes with it."
Iverson has gone to generous lengths to tell everyone that these are Anthony's Nuggets, and that he was going to ride shotgun to 'Melo's burgeoning greatness. So far, Iverson has been reborn in Denver, proclaiming that, "This is my 11th season, and it feels like my first."
He has been a relentless pro for the Nuggets, engaging the writers every day with endless conversations. He dispenses perspective and prism on tap. Iverson has stayed late to mingle with corporate sponsors. He's still turning the ball over too much, but he's trying hard. Give Iverson that: He's desperately trying to make this work for everyone.
And after he had delivered his 23 points and seven assists, A.I. talked of a burden that he was glad was gone out of his life. "I've been on teams where I scored 50 points and lost, 40 points and lost," Iverson said. "I don't have to do the things that I had to do in Philadelphia here. I don't have to put the pressure on myself."
As much as anyone, the pressure belongs to Karl and Anthony now. Finally, management gave them the supporting cast that they needed to make a move in the Western Conference. In the end, this won't be so much about the star's willingness to share the ball as it will be their willingness to defend.
"A lot of it falls on him not just being a scorer, but being a responsible player to all aspects of basketball," Karl said of Anthony.
These Nuggets can score points falling out of bed in the morning, but they they'll never beat Dallas and San Antonio unless they defend. And as much as they'll score, they'll never out-shoot Phoenix.
For one night anyway, in an AAU game against a toxic team that has lost 10 straight times on the road, the Nuggets were the center of the NBA. Denver had survived the suspensions of Anthony and Smith to go 7-8 and lose just 1½ games in the Northwest to the Jazz. There will be issues for these Nuggets because Smith is a relentless chucker – launching a dizzying 14 threes in 24 minutes on Monday – and because Marcus Camby will ultimately be the odd-man out of the shot chart.
"Negativity sells in this world," Iverson said. "Bad news sells. That's going to be the main topic – that it can't work."
Only, there were the Nuggets standing in the winning locker room, watching it work over and over on the wide-screen TV. It looked almost like they needed to see for themselves. Of course, it won't always be Memphis. It won't always be this easy.
All of them, though, were enthralled with watching the freshest legs and most grateful heart in the gym rising through the air, reaching for the stars again.
- the Nuggets