RIO DE JANEIRO – With that silly looking wreath replacing the trademark headband on his cornrows, and a bronze medal hanging around his neck like an anvil of failure, Carmelo Anthony had the rudest of rude introductions to his international basketball career as he stood on that podium in Athens as part of that suicide squad known as the 2004 Olympic team.
Team USA had taken enough of a hit back home, but Anthony absorbed an unfair portion of the blame in Greece for someone who rarely played. Because he did a poor job of hiding his frustration, he was often captured after practices shirtless instead of covered in USA Basketball gear – and coach Larry Brown had no problem singling him out – Anthony’s behavior was interpreted as someone who didn’t want to be there, and hadn’t bought into the program. It was a tough spot for any kid – especially a barely 20-year-old who had just finished his first season in the NBA. Anthony was hurt, misunderstood and always knew that he wasn’t going out like that.
“It left a bitter taste in my mouth,” Anthony told The Vertical. “I’ve always owned up to whatever it was. Even if it wasn’t my fault, I always take the onus on my shoulders and roll with the punches. But that’s what makes this situation much better.”
This situation is the one Anthony still couldn’t have seen back then, or even back in March, when he wasn’t exactly convinced that he needed to put his body, or his family, through an unprecedented fourth Olympic Games. But after some convincing from his former college coach from Syracuse and Team USA assistant Jim Boeheim, Anthony decided to give Rio de Janeiro a chance, even as longtime buddies LeBron James and Chris Paul elected to take a break.
The experience has been both rewarding and cleansing for Anthony, allowing Anthony a chance to assume some enhanced leadership responsibilities on a team with numerous new faces and, at times, take on the role as resident grump, rolling his eyes at morning sing-alongs and the joking nature of his younger teammates.
When Anthony returns home to New York, he will own the title as the leading scorer in U.S. Olympic men’s basketball history and – should the Americans defeat Serbia in Sunday’s final – a third gold medal that no other player in his sport can claim. Anthony has been criticized for his inability to capture an NBA championship – and the failings of the New York Knicks in recent years – but didn’t hesitate when asked hypothetically if he would trade all of his medals for one ring in the league.
“I wouldn’t trade, hopefully my three gold medals, in for nothing,” Anthony told The Vertical. “I hope I’m never put in that position. That’s a tough position. But I always say, ‘Winning is winning is winning.’ No matter what level you win on. Hopefully, I do get an NBA ring, but that’s two things. … I wouldn’t try to compare or force myself to make that comparison.”
Anthony has come to rely on his summers with USA Basketball to provide some balance for his complex career and stumbles in his personal life. When he started recruiting talent to fill out the country’s pool for international competitions, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo told Anthony he would overlook any past mistakes and give him a clean slate. Anthony raised his hand as one of the first to commit to what would require him to sacrifice three consecutive summers. They have proven to be beneficial: He made his first All-Star team the season after participating in the 2006 world championships. He led Denver to the conference finals the season following the 2008 Olympics. And he led the Knicks to their first division title the season following the 2012 Olympics.
“We ask the guys for a commitment and selfless service,” Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “But Carmelo is a perfect example of commitment for the Olympics. That’s his entire playing career and to devote that amount of time is remarkable really, and it’s not been done. He’s been such a good guy to coach.”
Representing his country also gave Anthony the chance to form an eternal bond with players who would otherwise been rivals in the league. Anthony, James, Paul and Dwyane Wade are affectionately known as the “banana boat crew” because of their annual beach vacation, but their unified quest to avenge the bronze, and a 2006 loss in the world championships, culminated in the Redeem Team’s restoration of gold-medal glory in 2008 and established a brotherhood that won’t be broken.
“It’s something that’s been going for 10-plus years now,” Anthony told The Vertical. “Me and LeBron, we met in New Jersey in high school on the steps in a hotel. D-Wade was part of our draft, and CP was kind of like the little brother who came a couple of years after. But we was always linked someway, somehow, and our relationship just grew and grew.
“I think, being on the team in ’08, it kind of brought us together a little bit more and we started to realize what was important and what wasn’t important and taking those things into consideration, of forming that brotherhood that people didn’t want to see,” Anthony continued. “People didn’t want to see the top athletes in America being friends. Back in the day, you didn’t see that. In sports, everybody wants rivalries. We’re all competitors. We compete. But at the end of the day, we compete on the court. And off the court, it’s something completely different.”
Wade didn’t join Anthony, James and Paul four years ago in London. Paul and James didn’t join Anthony this time around in Rio. But James, who used this summer to rest after delivering Cleveland its first NBA title, has stated recently that he hasn’t necessarily retired from USA Basketball, leaving open the door for Tokyo in 2020. Anthony could only chuckle when asked about James’ plans.
“He can have it. He got it,” Anthony told the Vertical, without completely ruling out a return. “I don’t know. That’s too far ahead for me be thinking. That’s too far ahead. This decision was hard to come back this year. I think it was just the timing of what was going on in the world, what was happening here [in Brazil], what was happening in our country. Also taking into consideration family, or being healthy.”
Anthony credited Boeheim with being the nudge he needed to again put on a USA jersey. “At the end of the day, he made up his own mind,” said Boeheim, who is experiencing his third stint as an assistant on Krzyzewski’s Olympic staff. “I think he thought about it a little bit. He wasn’t positive. I think two things we talked about – he’d be a leader for our team, and I thought, for him, it was important to have a real good basketball experience after a couple of bad years in New York. I thought that would be good for him – and I think it has been.”
Playing on this team has brought back the “joy” that had been missing as the Knicks struggled, a joy that he was finding difficult to mask. Anthony has been having fun on a team that features 10 new teammates, and even joined the social media site, Snapchat, during the Olympics just so he could crack jokes on them. He has gone from being among the youngest, to being the oldest, and has taken a good ribbing, as well. Before the games began, DeAndre Jordan joked, “We’re a group of guys that range from age 24 to, I don’t know how old Carmelo is, 40?”
Regarded as one of the game’s best scorers for most of his 13-year-career, Anthony’s versatility, range and shooting touch have been exploited to greater efficiency on Team USA. International ‘Melo isn’t often asked to create in difficult isolation situations, as he is in the NBA, and he excels with a quick release. He owns the U.S. record for most points in a game, coming off the bench to drop 37 points in 14 minutes on Nigeria in 2012. The current Olympic team hasn’t asked him to score as much, but he carried them to a close win over Australia in pool play by scoring a tournament high for the Americans with 31 points.
“I adapt to my environment. Sometimes, that’s to a fault,” Anthony told The Vertical. “Putting me around the greatest players in the world, it gives me a chance to adapt, because I know I’ve got to bring a different type of game. I’ve got to work even harder to gain that respect from my peers.”
Anthony has already earned the respect of his teammates on this team. And if Team USA can win a third straight Olympic gold medal, Anthony can at least feel secure in knowing that he not only helped usher in the change for American basketball but came back again, and again, to make sure that status remained intact. “Over the years, just to become a part of USA Basketball culture and to be at the beginning where we experienced losing, to now, having a chance to win our third gold medal,” Anthony told The Vertical, “that’s special.”