DENVER – When Carmelo Anthony encounters Nuggets fans, he seldom hears a discouraging word.
They lavish him with appreciation, which makes sense. They realize he’s itching to depart Colorado, but hope applause persuades him to stay.
“When I go anywhere around here, I still feel the love from the fans,” Anthony said after practice this week. “I still let them know that I’m here right now and it’s all love. There’s no hard feelings right now.”
Notice the most important words in Anthony’s discussion of “the love.”
He said “right now.”
And he’s correct. Right now, Nuggets fans embrace Anthony as they hope, against hope, for a miraculous change of heart. Anyone who cares about basketball in Colorado wants Carmelo to keep dribbling, dunking and winning in downtown Denver.
If he departs, and his departure appears inescapable, these warm feelings will convert to fury, and this switch will be instant.
I doubt rage in Colorado will rise to the fiery level that overtook LeBron James fans in Ohio, where summer nights were brightened by burning No. 23 jerseys, but Carmelo could soon find his popularity hovering only slightly above that of The Shoe Bomber, who resides behind bars near Canon City.
Anthony offers the ideal word for his stalemate with the Nuggets.
“Confusing,” he says. “On the court, easy. Off the court, confusing.”
Anthony, according to dozens of reports, wants to abandon the Nuggets to play for the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks or New Jersey Nets. He’s declined to sign a three-season, $65 million contract extension.
He wants out, but he’s still here, pushing his teammates, taunting defenders after dropping 3-pointers. As we enter the twilight of the Carmelo Era, he still wears a Nuggets jersey, earns a Nuggets paycheck and listens to kind words from Nuggets fans.
Yes, that is confusing.
When Anthony arrived, he transformed the Nuggets. When he departs, there’s a reasonable fear a plunge will begin. Anthony pushed the Nuggets to the playoffs seven straight seasons while winning 338 games, and if those numbers fail to impress you, consider this:
In the seven seasons prior to Anthony’s arrival, the Nuggets did not travel to the playoffs and won 165 games.
He’s averaged 24.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists. He’s one of the NBA’s top eight or nine players.
And he’s looking for the exit.
Carmelo has every right to choose his future employer. So did LeBron. So does any other NBA star.
Poor George Karl. He’s the coach cursed with the task of bringing order to the chaos that is the Nuggets. He was trained in the game by Dean Smith at North Carolina, where it was all about loyalty and team and continuity.
He understands an athlete’s right to freedom. He doesn’t quarrel with this truth.
But he wonders about the pro game’s future. Karl grew up in Pennsylvania and remembers following the Steelers and the Pirates in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He watched Franco Harris and Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente.
In those ancient times, fans watched superstars who became local landmarks. They stayed in one place.
Today, Karl realizes he might soon wave goodbye to the most valuable player in Nuggets history.
“Nobody is loyal to anybody anymore,” Karl said, “and then you try to coach a game of trust without loyalty.”
Karl, who was frowning, asked the most important question:
“Who is loyal to the fan?”