Carmelo Anthony asked a simple question, one that obviously has dwelled in his mind for months.
“Will they boo me?” Anthony asked.
He was wondering about his Wednesday return to Pepsi Center, where he labored 7 2/3 seasons as a forward for the Nuggets. We were talking in August outside the Olympic Basketball Arena in London.
I grew up within walking distance of Pepsi Center, and I’ve watched Nuggets games since ancient days when the team was known as the Rockets.
Yes, I told Carmelo, Colorado fans will boo you. They will boo you without mercy. And they will boo you forevermore.
He grimaced and shook his head as he talked a few minutes after a United States victory. He had to go. Kobe Bryant was calling him to get on the team bus.
“I haven’t seen those people for a long time,” he said before departing.
Trust me, he will wish it had been a longer time. This will not be a happy homecoming.
Carmelo earns an astonishing stack of cash to play basketball. He’s been a celebrity since his teens. On certain nights, when his shot is dropping, he reigns as basketball emperor of New York.
He remains, despite everything, genuine. He’s not a distant, homogenized superstar who has tamed his emotions. He could pretend he doesn’t care how Nuggets fans react when he steps on the court.
But that’s not him. He’s vulnerable. He wants to hear cheers, wants fans to remember the dozens of victories and dunks and fun nights he delivered. He’s not afraid to say he seeks Colorado love instead of disdain.
In many ways, I hate to say this:
Anthony trashed his chance. He could have made his stand here. He could have become our state’s basketball version of John Elway. He could have spent the rest of his life in Colorado, our nation’s finest state, as a folk hero.
He resurrected a franchise. (And, yes, I realize resurrection requires a death.) He took the NBA’s worst team on seven straight trips to the playoffs. He packed the Pepsi Center.
Still, in many ways this rise remains filled with depressing what ifs. Anthony won only two playoff series with the Nuggets. Greatness – for him, for his team – always seemed just around the corner. It never arrived.
This creature of the East Coast never fully moved here, always keeping his eyes on the exit. He always yearned for the glitter and the money of New York.
He made a mistake. New York stripped its roster to obtain him. The Knicks are decent, but far from mighty.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets rank high on the list of NBA teams of tomorrow. Denver is generous, deep, entertaining, youthful and, best of all, climbing. George Karl has crafted one of the NBA’s top six current teams, and even better times are ahead.
Anthony currently limps on two battered knees. He arrives as a shadow of himself, which is sad. A healthy Anthony might have stampeded into his old arena, scored 45 points on the Nuggets and danced away with a I-shut-you-up victory.
Instead, a gimpy Anthony arrives with a struggling team. He’s still stuck with J.R. Smith, who believes he was placed on our earth to launch off-balance 3-pointers. He’s surrounded by role players. He looks on his way to yet another first-round playoff elimination.
Anthony forced the Nuggets to trade him. He had this vision of returning to New York, the city of his birth, and rescuing the Knicks, who have found ways not to win an NBA title since 1973.
He departed what could have been his basketball nirvana.
Will Anthony listen to boos when he’s introduced?
Oh, yes, and the scorn will resemble thunder.
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