The Fierce Urgency of Melo

From Baltimore to Broadway to Rio and late nights in bed confronting police violence, Carmelo Anthony has found his voice as the superstar conscience of professional sports. What's he going to do with it?

By Lars Anderson

Illustration by Cun Shi

September 22, 2016

Bleacher Report

He walked through the dusty streets and narrow alleyways of the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro, the young and the old pointing at the tall American basketball player strolling through their slum. From afar, he looked perfectly at ease, a man at home, but up close his eyes were on fire with intensity, as if on alert. He had seen this before, every day, but he was starting to see things clearly now, all over again, the way he only used to see the bottom of a net.

Nearly 8,000 people live on this steep hillside where concrete and wooden shanties are stacked on top of each other like toy building blocks. Some of the homes are without electricity, but that didn’t stop word from spreading that Carmelo Anthony was in the neighborhood.

On August 15—two days before Team USA played Argentina in the quarterfinals of the Olympic men’s basketball tournament—Anthony left his plush room on the private cruise ship where the team was staying and traveled to Santa Marta, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Rio. The police presence was minimal. With no security guards protecting him, he strode through the favela, where young men openly smoked marijuana and discreetly dealt cocaine. Anthony knows this world well: He grew up in a small townhouse on the west edge of Baltimore across from a public housing development known as “Murder Homes.’’

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Carmelo Anthony goes on a tour in Rio de Janeiro on August 15, 2016. (Getty Images)

In the favela, Anthony eventually came upon a basketball court. He took one shot, then another, and soon kids and adults swarmed him. Within minutes, a horde of locals had left their ramshackle homes to greet and hug Anthony. They had found one of their own.

“I grew up in my own favela in Baltimore,” Anthony said. “I know what it’s like to struggle. I want people to know that there is real poverty here. I wanted to go and see and let these people know they are not alone.”

Anthony’s trip to Santa Marta—he was the only member of the Team USA squad to feel the pulse of the have-nots in Brazil in this way—was another impromptu act in a summer laden with bursts of social activism, of the baby-faced Baltimore kid facing the struggle head-on. The New York Knicks forward, the one-time inconsistent player who would look disinterested on the court for maddeningly long stretches of time, the young man who used to text on his phone in the middle of interviews, has been a major actor in a rapidly transforming sports universe the past three months. And in a testament to confronting the racial fires burning across America, it had little to do with his on-court performance in the Olympics, where he returned for the fourth time as the unofficial captain of the gold-medal-winning Team USA.

“Carmelo taught us all this summer what it means to use your position to influence the world,” said Olympic teammate Kyrie Irving. “He taught us that we need to stand up for what we believe in and that athletes need to get involved in the social issues that are affecting us all. I don’t think you can overstate the impact that Carmelo’s had on athletes in all sports.”

“The world is full of problems, and Carmelo finally said, ‘I’ve got to do something,’” said Jerry Colangelo, the managing director of USA Basketball. “He showed other athletes that it’s good to be visible and it’s good to express your views. It just shows you how much he’s matured.”

Indeed, it may have been the summer of Colin Kaepernick—the summer we lost Philando Castile and then Alton Sterling, Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott—but in the summer of Melo, the basketball prodigy finally grew up—and found his voice, a voice that now carries social and political weight, a voice developed on the street and honed in the glare of the New York spotlight.

Will he continue to speak out? Will his PR people, whispering in his ear, convince him to stay silent because he may lose endorsement deals? Or will Melo, in the coming months, continue his march to becoming a generational leader in bridging the racial divide in the country he so beautifully represented in the games of the 31st Olympiad?

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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.  

First off let me start off by saying " All Praise Due To The Most High." Secondly, I'm all about rallying, protesting, fighting for OUR people. Look I'll even lead the charge, By Any Means Necessary. We have to be smart about what we are doing though. We need to steer our anger in the right direction. The system is Broken. Point blank period. It has been this way forever. Martin Luther King marched. Malcolm X rebelled. Muhammad Ali literally fought for US. Our anger should be towards the system. If the system doesn't change we will continue to turn on the TVs and see the same thing. We have to put the pressure on the people in charge in order to get this thing we call JUSTICE right. A march doesn't work. We tried that. I've tried that. A couple social media post/tweet doesn't work. We've all tried that. That didn't work. Shooting 11 cops and killing 5 WILL NOT work. While I don't have a solution, and I'm pretty sure a lot of people don't have a solution, we need to come together more than anything at this time. We need each other. These politicians have to step up and fight for change. I'm calling for all my fellow ATHLETES to step up and take charge. Go to your local officials, leaders, congressman, assemblymen/assemblywoman and demand change. There's NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore. Those days are long gone. We have to step up and take charge. We can't worry about what endorsements we gonna lose or whose going to look at us crazy. I need your voices to be heard. We can demand change. We just have to be willing to. THE TIME IS NOW. IM all in. Take Charge. Take Action. DEMAND CHANGE. Peace7 #StayMe7o

A photo posted by @carmeloanthony on

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.

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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.”

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NBA players Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James speak onstage during the 2016 ESPYs at Microsoft Theater on July 13, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)

Skeeters, now an assistant coach at the University of Baltimore, watched Anthony from his living room. He remembered telling Carmelo when he was a boy that if he stayed “on the straight and narrow I promise you’ll make it in life.” And now, Skeeters believed, that promise had been fulfilled. There on the stage at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, Carmelo was a man in full.

Overcome with pride, Skeeters texted Mary Anthony: “I always will love your son as if he was my own.”

Minutes later, Mary Anthony replied. “Words can’t describe how proud I am of him,” she texted. “He has grown up so much, and I thank God every day for blessing such a great young man.”

Two weeks later, Anthony organized a town hall at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club in South Los Angeles. He wanted to foster an open, honest, raw dialogue between the largely white police force and the mostly African-American community they patrolled. This was the first step of Anthony putting action to his words.

His goal was to make people comfortable feeling uncomfortable as they discussed the problems that were destroying neighborhoods such as South Los Angeles. It worked. Michael Jordan, for instance, pledged $2 million to social justice organizations. Scores of other athletes began to discuss social issues. But Anthony also was challenging himself.

After representing the U.S. for four weeks in Brazil, Anthony returned to the United States in late August—and clearly relished being back home. He made one late-night run to his local bodega wearing a monogrammed white bathrobe and blue hat with the Olympic rings, which his wife, La La, promptly posted on Instagram, the man being a kid. He watched as Kaepernick repeatedly took a knee during the national anthem and promised to donate $1 million to the cause Anthony articulated just weeks earlier. And he saw other NFL players raise their fists in the air once the first notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” were played, acts that could be viewed as athletes responding, in part, to the kind of clarion call Anthony first issued in the early morning of July 8.

“Even when Carmelo was young he always tried to do the right thing,” said Jim Boeheim, his head coach at Syracuse. “He’s a giver. Athletes have the strongest voices of anyone in their communities, because kids listen to them much more than they listen to politicians. Carmelo has grown to understand this. A lot of people with money don’t get involved, but it’s become important to Carmelo to become involved because of what he experienced when he was young. He knows he can make a difference in people’s lives, and he certainly has.”

What’s next for Melo? In the immediate future with the Knicks he’ll be teamed with new additions Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee, which means he should be on a contending team for the first time in New York since the 2012-13 team finished 54-28. 

And what do the distant horizons hold for Melo? Will he, too, put a fist in the air when he takes the court this fall?

“You don't really lose when you fight for what you believe in,” Anthony wrote on Instagram on September 21, quoting Ali. “You lose when you FAIL to fight for what you care about.” He added the hashtag #EnoughisEnough.

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United States forward Carmelo Anthony stands for the national anthem before playing against Nigeria during an exhibition basketball game at the Toyota Center. (Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports) 

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Anthony is lounging on a bench in the Rio practice facility. In a few days, the nine-time NBA All-Star will become the most decorated men’s basketball Olympian in U.S. history by winning his third gold medal when the U.S. defeats Serbia 96-66.

He’s asked why, when so many of the NBA’s brightest luminaries stay home from the Summer Games, he’s participated in four Olympics. He flashes a soft smile.

“I like to see different things, different cultures, different people,” he said. “Doing things like going to the favela and seeing how they lived. What you really begin to understand is that we’re all the same, all of us, no matter where you are in the world. We all want the same things. We all want just to get along and live in peace.”

Anthony rises from his seat. He grabs a basketball and launches a 30-footer.

Of course, near the end of this summer, his summer, it touches nothing but the bottom of the net.

Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of seven books, including The Mannings, The Storm and the Tide, and Carlisle vs. Army. Anderson, also an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama, lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, April, and their son, Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71

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