Carmelo Anthony (center) is seen as he marches to city hall, which was being protected by soldiers from the U.S. Army National Guard in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 30, 2015 during a demonstration over the death of Freddie Gray. (Getty Images)
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In the early morning hours of July 8, Anthony was in his 4,500-square-foot apartment on West 24th Street in Manhattan when he stirred awake. His sleep had been haunted by the shootings the previous night in Dallas, when Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed and killed five police officers near the end of a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally. Thousands had been on hand to protest the recent police killings of Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Castile in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Anthony was overwhelmed by the need to do something, anything. In April 2015, Anthony had marched in Baltimore protesting the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who had died after suffering a spinal injury while in police custody, but now Melo wanted to do more.
He flipped on the television and watched a news channel replay the horrors of the previous 72 hours. As the clock approached 3 a.m., an idea for action began to crystallize.
He had made high-profile missteps in the world of social activism before. In 2004, he appeared in a “Stop Snitchin” video that threatened violence against anyone who helped law enforcement solve crimes, especially in inner-city America. Anthony didn’t trust police then—he’d seen cops terrorize kids in his Baltimore neighborhood—but he later admitted his cameo in the video was a mistake.
But now, in the middle of the night, alone with his thoughts, recalling his experiences as a boy in Baltimore, he took to Instagram. Over the course of several minutes, sitting in the darkness of his $11 million Chelsea apartment, he wrote a 307-word post to his 4 million followers. He was setting the table for himself.
In the Instagram post, Anthony included a 1967 photo of Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and other black athletes who had gathered to support Ali’s refusal to go to Vietnam. It was a powerful image of athletes engaging in social issues of that era, and now the message from Anthony was clear: The past needed to become prologue for this generation of athletes.
For years, team officials and agents had told Anthony and other high-profile athletes to avoid political issues, believing that speaking out would erode their popularity and jeopardize their next contract. Michael Jordan was infamous in the ’90s for keeping his mouth shut on social issues seemingly for fear of costing himself endorsements and damaging his carefully cultivated Air Jordan brand. A quote attributed to him in 1995 in Second Coming, a book by Sam Smith—“Republicans buy sneakers, too”—had followed him like a stale odor for years.
But now Anthony was all-in, financial consequences be damned, and on July 13 he expanded his thoughts in an essay he wrote for the Guardian:
“Do athletes have a responsibility to stand up? I don’t want to put it all on athletes. I believe all people need to rise up and make their voices heard. But I do think athletes have the biggest reach, especially now with social media and all the people that follow us. We have one of the biggest platforms to speak out, one where people pay attention to what we have to say, whether it’s everyday civilians or those in positions of power. We have that influence. It’s just a matter of if we want to use it or not.”
Anthony meant to be heard, hoping his words would hover over America for all to see as if they’d been released by a skywriting plane.
But were people listening? And where did Anthony’s own internal call to action spring from? Was he trying to be Ali 2.0, or just trying to try?
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Carmelo was born in Brooklyn in 1984. When he was two years old, his father, Carmelo Iriarte, died of liver cancer. A native of Puerto Rico, Iriarte was a member of the Young Lords, a militant group in New York City that employed confrontational methods to fight different inequalities. The Young Lords, for instance, seized hospital equipment and gave it to the most desperate in poor neighborhoods. As a teenager, Carmelo Anthony—who now has a Puerto Rican flag tattooed on his right wrist in honor of his dad—researched and read about his father’s activism.
Six years after Iriarte died, Mary Anthony moved Carmelo and his three siblings to West Baltimore. A devout woman who was a housekeeper at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Mary covered their walls with religious items, reminding her children to do right. This wasn’t easy, because temptation lurked outside their townhouse door.
But Carmelo stayed away from the dangers of the neighborhood—it’s called the “Pharmacy” because of the availability of drugs and is the perilous setting of the HBO series The Wire—by focusing on his true love: basketball. His first hoop was an old wooden crate affixed to a door of an abandoned building.
“Basketball saved Carmelo’s life,” said Mike Daniel, Anthony’s coach at Towson Catholic, where Anthony attended high school until his senior year. “He was always trying to get better, so he didn’t have time for the stuff on the street, even though it was right outside of his door. So he saw it. He saw it every day.”
At the age of eight, Carmelo became a ball boy for the junior varsity basketball team at St. Frances Academy, where his cousin Tavares Graham played. Graham lived with the Anthonys on the 1100 block of Myrtle Avenue, and little Carmelo looked up to him like an older brother. Carmelo marveled at his basketball skill—Carmelo had childhood asthma and struggled running up and down the court—and he was constantly in his cousin’s shadow. He sat next to him on the team bus and played one-on-one with Graham after practices.
Carmelo also grew close with the coach at St. Frances Academy, Eric Skeeters. The boy called him his “godfather.”
“Carmelo was a nice kid in a tough neighborhood,” Skeeters said. “The projects and drugs and gangs were all around him. I tried to teach him right from wrong, and he always listened.”
Midway through high school, Anthony's cousin began running with the wrong crowd and selling drugs, according to Skeeters and others. He frequently skipped school and had various run-ins with the police. “Carmelo saw police beating his friends, and he saw the police being rough with Tavares,” Skeeters said. “The cops weren’t your friends in his neighborhood.”
Young Carmelo, like virtually all the kids in the Pharmacy, often ran from the police whenever the flashing blue lights appeared. He’d make smart comments to cops, and, if an officer told him to be home by 10, he’d laugh like it was the funniest joke he’d ever heard. “There was no trust there between Carmelo and police,” Skeeters said.
“The cops weren’t your friends in his neighborhood.”
— Eric Skeeters
At 14, Carmelo was robbed of $20 at gunpoint as he walked home from school. Then at 15, he experienced a fork-in-the-road life moment: Graham was shot in the back and killed.
Carmelo immediately called Skeeters. “Tavares got shot,” he told his mentor, breathing hard. “Tavares has been killed.”
“It’s time for you to make a choice,” Skeeters told Carmelo. “Who do you want to be? What do you want to do with your life? You can’t be like Tavares.”
“I can’t be like that,” Carmelo said. “I can’t.”
From that day forward, Carmelo vowed to his mom and his godfather that he would stay away from the street life in his Baltimore neighborhood.
He further dedicated himself to basketball, riding a train and a bus 45 minutes each way to Towson Catholic, where he didn’t even make the varsity team as a freshman. But then he grew five inches before his sophomore year, and by his junior season he was being recruited by the likes of Syracuse and North Carolina.
Carmelo Anthony of the East team dunks over the defense of the West team during the McDonald's boys High School All-American Game at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 2002. (Getty Images)
Still, there was always one thing missing from his game. He could score, he could defend, he could make plays that left college scouts grasping for superlatives. But he could never be mistaken for a leader.
“Carmelo could be immature, and he was not a natural leader for us,” said one of his former coaches at Syracuse, where he would lead the Orange to a national title as a freshman in 2003. “He did his own thing. If something upset him away from basketball, it would affect him on the court. So he had some growing up to do. That’s why what he’s doing now is so remarkable.”
But is Carmelo mature enough to keep his current fight moving forward? He has sabotaged his popularity countless times throughout his career, but will he now be different? Something is clearly upsetting him, but has he merely accepted the stage, or does he want the mic?
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He didn’t have plans to attend the ESPY Awards on the night of July 13. But then his close friends LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade asked him to share his message. The four players then got on a conference call with executives from ESPN, telling them they wanted to speak from their hearts at the start of the awards show. The ESPN brass, especially impressed with Anthony’s passion on the call, green-lit the demand.
Dressed in a black suit, black shirt and black tie, Anthony spoke first, underscoring his leadership role. “We cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America,” he said. “The events of the past week have put a spotlight on the injustice, distrust and anger that plague so many of us. The system is broken. The problems are not new. The violence is not new. And the racial divide is definitely not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.”