Going into the 2016-17 season, Carmelo Anthony will have played roughly the same amount of time as a Knick as he did for the team he was drafted by, the Denver Nuggets. Yet it's impossible for me to see him as anything but a member of the New York Knicks; when watching Nuggets highlights in the present day, all his memorable moments in Denver (and they are numerous) seem like a 'Melo facsimile, like it wasn't really the 'Melo I was used to on the court.
And that's because it wasn't.
The most consistent warm feeling I've experienced as a Knicks fan in this decade (and they are few) is watching Carmelo Anthony mature as a team leader, as a social activist, and as a man. After Anthony arrived in New York in 2011, the team experienced a brief resurgence that lasted roughly until the end of the 2013 season, before they speed-wobbled out and crashed into a dismal 3-13 start to the 2014 season. The 2015 season was even troubling for 'Melo, as the Knicks sputtered to a franchise-worst 17-wins 65-losses record.
At this point, I was all but ready for the "all-star on crappy team" formula to be played out. I was ready for 'Melo to start pouting and looking for his own stats, cursing out his teammates for being incompetent or his team president Phil Jackson for being too hippy-dippy and adhering to outdated offences. I was ready for him to freeze-out the rookie Kristaps Porzingis, and eventually finagle his way onto another, more contending team. Essentially, I was ready for him to act like the diva I knew from Denver, the guy who infamously threw a right hook at his opponent before moon-walking away.
But that never happened. Instead, Carmelo started praising his teammates, taking the young Porzingis under his wing during the 2016 season. We saw him have his greatest season in assists to date as a direct result of him learning to lead and trust his team. In international play this year, he became the first male basketball player in history to amass 3 Olympic gold medals as the without-question leader of the US team. He stood side by side with marching protestors in Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray's death. And of course, his impassioned monologue at the 2016 ESPY's; standing on stage with fellow NBA stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul, Anthony used his moment in the spotlight to urge younger athletes to become involved in social action and be the change you wish to see in the world.
It should also be mentioned that his game has matured just as well as his attitude. His evolution as a bully-ball playing forward, who's too strong for lighter perimeter players and too skilled to be guarded by larger forwards is largely responsible for his maintenance of at least 20 points a game in each of his 13 NBA seasons.
And yet the dominant narrative still accuses Anthony of being a far lesser player than his Class of 2003 peers LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. After all, both those guys have championship rings and Finals MVP's to their name. I still remember the end of the 2014 season, when the Knicks really started to spiral to the bottom and 'Melo's first contract with the Knicks was done, how the 'Carmelo Anthony to Chicago' rumours flowed as if it was a done deal already. This was peak "all-star on a bad team"; in that I don't think many of the Knicks devoted would've been too surprised if 'Melo bolted for Chicago. It was REALLY bad.
So it definitely surprised a few of us when he re-signed with the Knicks on a five-year deal. During the free agency period, fans are pretty accustomed to players saying the right things and not rocking the boat too hard when asked about whether they will sign with another team, even if they believe it to be a bold-faced lie. Which is why it was so mind-blowing when 'Melo announced his intention to retire as a New York Knick after he signed that second contract: we are well and truly into the age where superstars jump ship to stronger squads when they can't get the championship monkey off their back, and Melo's decision to stay in New York was an emphatic statement that he was either going to win a ring in NYC, or go down with the ship.
That's what I feel a lot of the comparisons to his 2003 classmates gets wrong about Carmelo Anthony. Like his hero Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony will more than likely finish his career without winning a championship but also like Iverson, Anthony's greatness as an NBA player comes from his strength of character and maturity as a person. The best part about watching the NBA can sometimes just come from watching a player grow and seeing sides of their personality you never thought you would see. I also think being able to appreciate players for what they can accomplish instead of what they can't separates the true fans from the fickle ones; I would hazard a guess and say that most Philly fans when asked if they hypothetically would take any other player than Iverson in the 1996 draft and win a championship, or take Allen and have history play out as it did, they would draft A.I. 10 times out of 10.
Watching Carmelo Anthony play for the Knicks has been a similar experience for me. Watching his growth as an individual (as well as his record-breaking success at the Olympics) has been the next best thing to seeing him win a championship for New York. He's just so goddamn likeable as "Dad Melo", the leader of the Knicks who raises the game of his team while going to the local bodega in a bathrobe and gets grumpy when his team-mates start sing-alongs.
And he's also the guy who, when every other player ducked for greener pastures, stuck around.