When the 2019-20 NBA season began, Carmelo Anthony was in the desert. As metaphor, it’s a bit on the nose, but he actually was in the desert. On the day before the first games of the season, Anthony posted a picture to Instagram of himself dressed in camo and looking out on a desert landscape through a pair of binoculars, with a caption that reads: “REAL EYES; REALIZE ‘Wisdom Lies In Not Seeing Thing, But Seeing Through Things #STAYME7O.” The desert was providing some sense of clarity and enlightenment for the ten-time NBA All-Star.
But, obviously, he would have preferred to be playing basketball. If you’ve followed the NBA at all for the past few years, you’re certainly familiar with Melo’s saga. After six and a half years toiling away in New York, he was traded to Oklahoma City, then signed with the Houston Rockets in 2018, and was traded to the Chicago Bulls in January 2019, having only played ten games that season. He was waived by the Bulls and no team picked him up.
When an athlete is washed, there isn’t much to be done; try as they might, there isn’t a way to turn back the clock and relive the glory days once it becomes clear that their body will no longer cooperate or their skillset has drastically diminished. Melo was clearly slowing down. He wasn’t as potent an offensive weapon as he was even six years ago, when he won the scoring title on 28.7 ppg. And a number of different factors, including the move toward analytics as game strategy, have so altered NBA basketball that Anthony’s isolation-heavy midrange prowess isn’t as coveted by teams wanting to launch from three or attack the basket. These are certainly reasons why he might have been in a position to receive less playing time. But none of them are reasons why he spent so long languishing without a job.
The NBA is one of few institutions where labor wields a significant amount of power, and that has become more true in this era known of “player empowerment.” Beginning with “The Decision” in 2010, the league’s biggest stars have been able to dictate the terms of their employment in ways that were previously up to team executives. Increasingly players are deciding where they play, who they play with, influencing coaching decisions, and being compensated with the largest contracts in league history (and with guaranteed money at that). This is great for the players (especially the best and most popular players, but it’s not working out so bad for everyone else) but it also means that owners and executives are gradually losing their own power. We’re not there yet, but it could be the case soon enough that the players could turn to the owners and say “You work for me” rather than the other way around.
In order to maintain the current power dynamics, these owners and executives must send messages in other ways. In the case of Carmelo Anthony, it seems to have come in attempt to “humble” him (he couldn’t even field an invite to join the woefully lackluster Team USA, even given his success in the international game).
Anthony is employed now, starting at power forward for the Portland Trail Blazers since being picked up in mid-November. He got off to a slow start, which was to be expected after having not played an NBA game in over a year, but in his second week back he averaged 22.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.7 assists while helping the struggling Blazers peel off three straight wins and revive some hope they could get into the Western Conference playoff race. For his efforts, he was named Western Conference Player of the Week at the end of November. And now he's hitting game winners and making clutch plays with alarming regularity.
His numbers aren't quite high as they were back then, but they’re in line with his one year in OKC, and he’s shooting the three at almost his career high (39 percent), overall proving that in his seventeenth year that even though he may not be the All-NBA caliber player he once was he is more than capable of contributing to winning basketball. So why didn’t he have a job for so long?
There were parts of the sports commentariat that simply believed Melo could no longer play in the modern NBA. ESPN’s Max Kellerman was adamant that Melo would not be able to fit in because he had never been a good spot up three point shooter or defender, and teams that were not looking for isolation scorers needed specialists that could fill those needs. This isn’t the worst argument to make, but I would counter by asking if anyone thought during the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest that Vince Carter would one day be a knock down three point shooter, or that Blake Griffin would step outside the paint and shoot the three ball at 36 percent? It’s not impossible to strengthen parts of your game, even late in your career.
Most of the arguments for not signing Anthony had little to do with his actual game, but instead with his attitude. It was assumed he would never accept a role coming off the bench (he didn’t do himself any favors by laughing off the notion during his first press conference in OKC), that his massive superstar ego would not be able to handle a change in duties and he would become toxic in the locker room. Anonymous executives were saying it would be too hard to look down the bench and see a future Hall of Famer be the tenth, eleventh, or twelfth man down and not getting any playing time.
What has followed Melo throughout his career is the narrative that he is selfish and does not care about winning. After LeBron James made his way to Miami in 2010, Anthony similarly made an “empowered” move by forcing a trade from Denver to New York. James made a move to play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in search of the best chance to capture his first championship; Carmelo made a move to the moribund Knicks in what was seen as move become an even bigger star. When he became a free agent in 2014, the going wisdom was that, for his best chance at winning, he would have to leave the Knicks and join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah on the Chicago Bulls; Anthony opted for the five-year $130 million contract offer from the Knicks, $30 million more than any other team would have been able to offer. He was criticized for years for not getting his teammates involved in the game (he has never averaged more than four assists per game) and earlier this year former teammate Chauncey Billups said in a radio interview that scoring 30 always meant to much to Melo, to the point that if he failed to do so he would be down even if his team won. When he was traded to OKC to play alongside Westbrook and George there was speculation that he would be unhappy playing the role of the third option.
A lot of people have said a lot of things about Carmelo Anthony and what he can or can not or would or would not do… and none of them took the time to ask the man himself. In an early August interview with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, Anthony addressed these swirling narratives about his willingness to come off the bench or to take a pay cut, saying: “None of this stuff was ever discussed with me, as far as me coming off the bench. All I needed was somebody to communicate that with me.” Undoubtedly it would have been a blow to his ego, having never come off the bench in his entire basketball career (and Anthony admits as much about his ten game stay in Houston where he did come off the bench), but what he said in that interview about no one discussing it with him is incredibly important because it shows a lack of respect for him as a player and a person. Instead of approaching him, laying out the team’s game plan and his role within it, asking him directly to accept a position within it, and giving him the opportunity to say no or to adjust, the assumptions about his stance were allowed to rule the day and he was put in the position to fail both in his mental adjustment to a reduced role and in his on court production.
Carmelo Anthony is, by skill and career accomplishments, one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time. His game can be knocked, like anyone’s, for certain flaws, but it is undeniable that he has been one of the best and brightest stars to come through this league. None of his teammates have a bad word to say about him and he has been an active community member, being a part of the rise of the politicized athlete in the neoliberal era. He deserved a conversation.
I won’t pretend to be writing this as an entirely impartial critic. I like Melo. Last year I recorded a podcast pilot with him (I can tell you now since it is unlikely it will go past that pilot) that was meant to be a companion piece to a documentary he was producing on the lives of black boys. I found him to be open, curious, funny, clever, and heartfelt. I was a fan before and became more fond of Melo after that day.
So I do say this with a sense of protectionism around him. But I also think of how he has been treated and know that this is the kind of backlash that labor will face as they assert more control over their lives and working conditions. Carmelo Anthony was “selfish” in that he made decisions throughout his career that were best for him and his family rather than what was best for the organization whose logo he wore on his chest. Failing to control him financially, owners and executives decided he was not “humble” enough to continue playing in their league. “I was ready to walk away,” he told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in early in December. He ran away to the desert to find the “humility” required to appease the people preventing him from playing the game he loved and being a part of the league he helped grow.
Because the only power that owners and executives have left is to break a player’s spirit.
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Originally Appeared on GQ