It turns out that Carmelo Anthony’s final NBA press conference took place a year ago in Denver’s Ball Arena, the same place where his pro basketball career started.
As Melo shuffled into the shoe box room quipping, “I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” I was one of the half-dozen people crammed in there with him.
Melo had told us when the time came to retire: “You ain’t going to hear no whispers. You’re going to hear it straight from me.” His prediction came to pass on Monday morning, when the 38-year-old announced via social media video a “bittersweet goodbye to the NBA.”
It was made a little more bitter that one of the NBA’s 75 greatest players had not suited up for an NBA team this past season. The last time we saw him, sadly, was toiling for a 33-49 Lakers team that might have been the most miserable super team-up ever created.
But of course that year, Melo had been a bright spot, offering a bit of levity in a slog. By that time, he still retained the easy charm of a superstar, but he also had the perspective of a role player. He understood that every day of his career was a blessing, and it would be a shame to to see it any differently.
“Me personally, I had a good year — as far as happiness, as far as being able to compete and play my part on this team,” he said in that curtain call in Denver. “It was good days, it was bad days. But we got through it and I got through it.”
If you look back on Melo’s origins, which he outlined in his autobiography “Where Tomorrows Aren’t Promised,” it’s easy to understand why he had so much gratitude for how far he came. He was born in Red Hook projects in Brooklyn, moved to the Murphy Homes of Baltimore at 8, learned the cold cruelty of violence early in life when his cousin — who tragically went by “Luck” — was killed.
But he lived a dream that many kids have but few achieve: From his early stint at Towson Catholic, basketball was a vehicle that took him out of poverty and into wealth and superstardom. And even few NBAers reached his heights: In his prime, he was worth a front-row ticket to Madison Square Garden — a post-up nightmare, a midrange magician. Melo was a walking bucket, and New York Knicks fans lapped it up.
Melo has legit bonafides: He was a 10-time All-Star and six-time All-NBA honoree. He led the league in scoring in 2013, the campaign swaying one voter enough that LeBron James was denied a unanimous MVP that year. His 62-point performance in 2014 made him one of just 34 players with a 60-plus point game in NBA history, and he’ll retire with 28,289 career points for No. 9 all time in NBA scoring.
But there was a smoothness off the court that I got to see firsthand, even in an arm’s-length pandemic-striken season. People liked Melo. They lit up and smiled when they talked about him. He had stories. Knew his wines well. He had two decades’ worth of knowledge about NBA cities and where the best spots were to enjoy them.
Contrast that with our modern understanding of Michael Jordan, for example: a man constantly grinding, sparking and exaggerating petty feuds and generally wearing on even his teammates. Melo was the opposite of that.
“Stay Melo, man,” one of his coaches once told me. “It’s legit, that nickname.”
To see him in this stage of his career was humbling, especially because he had spent so much time out of the league. For more than a year, no NBA team would touch him after he was bounced from a Houston Rockets team that came out of the gates cold. Words like “entitled” and “ego” circled him in national sports punditry. Even as he teased fans of a comeback — his playful rise from the front row at MSG is a legendary meme to this day — there was a conventional wisdom that Melo would have to change his game a lot in order to resume his NBA career.
Stars at Melo’s height and luminosity have a hard time evolving this way. Allen Iverson is a key counterpoint, out of the league by 34 as his athleticism declined but his game stayed frustratingly the same. The jury is still out, but Russell Westbrook’s rigidity could similarly cut his career short.
Then something stunning happened: Melo did change.
When he finally got a second crack in Portland in 2019, he emerged as a willing bench player, taking more analytics-friendly shots from behind the arc. Melo would play big when called upon — he had a few games at center in his Lakers tenure — doing the dirty work he had largely managed to avoid during his superstar era.
He probably never got enough credit for his adaptability. Melo was labeled a volume scorer, which critics perceived as a barrier to real winning. He managed to change a little of this perception with his Olympic career, winning three gold medals and setting the mark for most rebounds with Team USA. Though he could not measure up to LeBron James’ or Dwyane Wade’s NBA title achievements from the 2003 draft class, when he suited up alongside them, he more than belonged.
The most impressive evolution of Melo’s career, however, probably had nothing to do with basketball.
He courted controversy in his early years in the NBA, but his run-ins with marijuana possession would probably not get much more than a shrug these days, to be honest. Come July, those won’t even be crimes in this state.
But his appearance in the infamous “Stop Snitchin’” video in 2004 was a gut check moment for his career. At the exact moment when the NBA was trying to separate its image from Blackness — enforcing dress codes and other policies that in retrospect say a lot more about the audiences the league was trying to draw — many were labeling him a “thug.”
He proved over time that he was much more dynamic and principled than a lot of people expected. He gave a lot of his money to charitable causes, including in Baltimore. In 2006, he donated $1.5 million to what was then the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center. Earlier this year, he hosted a basketball tournament with his name at Morgan State.
As the NBA grew into an organization willing to take powerful social stances, Melo was at the forefront. He was among those speaking out after the death of Trayvon Martin, and he was onstage during the 2016 ESPY Awards when NBA superstars spoke out about Black people who had been gunned down by police. When the league introduced a social justice award named for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Melo was the first recipient.
Amid a Lakers season that ended with the coach being fired as he walked off the court and several of the superstars lashing out at one another, Melo’s exit through the backdoor was widely overlooked. It feels a shame, given how big of a star he was, but very few really get to celebrate their retirement with fanfare. It is, more often than not, something that is not inherently obvious as it happens — even if everyone knows the end is approaching.
We reporters asked, in so many ways, about his dissatisfaction with a season that had started with championship aspirations, and what he would look for if any other opportunities that crossed his desk. Melo had trouble seeing his situation in our terms.
“I’ve been trying for 19 years to win a championship,” he said. “But I’m blessed. I’m blessed to still be able to do this 19 years in. Still able to enjoy it and still get motivated by it. Love going to work and love being around the guys. So a lot of times, I’ll take that over a championship if I could, because that’s my happiness.”
Melo never found that ring, but he understood the blessings of his life. Unlike many tortured superstars who can’t appreciate what they have for what they never got, Melo knew — whenever the book closed — that it was a pretty good story, anyhow.