It's time to talk 'Melo'
Columnist's Note: The topic of the following column has no value or importance to professional athletes, especially superstars. To them, it's mythical and meaningless. Doesn't actually exist because it's almost impossible to prove and is based in subjectivity rather than fact. But to fans, it's what we live for. It's our oxygen. The "Who's the best?" conversation has meaning to us. It is, plain and simple, a conversation driven by our need to rank or find order in all things, places and people. That said, enjoy the following.
He tells a story, one that explains how he got to this place, how he entered "the" conversation.
"This is the first summer I've really had since I've been in the league where I was able to get my body right and let my mind just wander a little bit."
He finally got some time alone. That's what it was.
"I had the whole summer to myself," he says as the ice begins to melt and water drips from under the Ace bandage wrapped around his right elbow in what looks like a tourniquet. "Without USA Basketball, which I did for four years in a row, I had time to think about everything that happened last year, think about what happened in the Western Conference finals, think about that feeling "
That wandering mind took him places he had never been. It allowed him to think about how close he was. About the Lakers series that had him two games from the Finals, about those two turnovers that probably cost the Nuggets the series
But wait. Carmelo Anthony says people don't understand. He tells me -- a guy who's been campaigning for his name to be in "the" conversation like he was the next Bernard King -- that I don't understand.
"It wasn't just about the loss to the Lakers last year," he says. "Naw, naw! It was the whole season, from the season before last when we played the Lakers in the first round and we got swept. We came into that next season, last season, having aspirations and goals."
When asked, then, what it was if not that, he can't exact it.
"I don't know; something really clicked."
It clicked within him. A drive, a focus, a sense of urgency.
"After winning that gold medal " he sits up now, continuing the backstory to what got him here, to what got him in the conversation, " being on that team with all those guys. Instead of having to go out there and try to score 20 to 25 points every game, I could go out there and say, 'I wanna get 14 rebounds. I wanna go dive and get loose balls and do the little things to help this team win ball games.' It all goes back to that, Scoop. That USA team. Something clicked. It was me. Something just clicked. And every player on that team from Kobe to Tayshaun Prince could tell you that I was the leader on that team. I was able in my own way to lead that team. And somehow that carried over."
Carried over into his beasting himself into a conversation that for the past three years had been relegated almost exclusively to just three people.
But now the question is: Is it too soon? Too soon to write about his place in the pound-for-pound discussion? Or has the conversation/this column just become unavoidable?
Originally, this column was supposed to be written almost six months ago, when the talk first started. It was supposed to be written right after those first two classic "battles" against the not-yet-crowned champs, when Melo did much more than hold his own against Kobe in L.A. The 39 points in a two-point Game 1 loss, and then the 34 points in the three-point Game 2 win, had people on the blocks and in the shops talkin', saying his name -- Carmelo Anthony! -- in the same conversation (and sometimes in the same breath) with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Bryant as the pound-for-pound titleholder of best player in the game.
But then something happened. A falloff. An injury. One 4-for-13, 21-point game, followed by an even worse 3-for-16, 15-point game. And even though the Nuggets were able to keep the series tied until Melo returned to "all-world" status (31 points in Game 5 of a series they eventually lost in six), the damage was irreversible without a Jerry Bruckheimer ending.
And that's what he's talking about. About how most want to think that the constant reflection of that loss is what drove him to come out of the blocks this NBA season like Michael Phelps in a high-tech swimsuit, averaging 37.6 points after the first three games, 31.4 after seven, a start that has MVP whispers following him already.
According to Melo, this reinvention of self that we are all seeing now began once he got back to America and took that Olympic gold medal from around his neck. That's when it clicked for him. That's when he decided to get real with who he wanted to become in this game. It's just taken a year to manifest itself. And finally, so far, we are seeing something close to the finished product. Carmelo is finally showing us what he wants us to see in him when we watch him ball.
Finally, it's happening.
And we are right now inside the "carry over." The season after. A continuation of the growth of a player destined to be accepted (even if reluctantly by some) as one of the four who will define this generation of basketball's greatest. Even if the non-basketballers omit his name at times from "the" conversation. Despite the fact that, at least until the start of this season, his scoring average has gone down every year in the past three (for the record, Kobe's has, too, over the past three, and LeBron's numbers are down over the past two), Melo still knows that he's finally at that place where he can do things and say out loud that this column is long overdue.
"People might look at my scoring, at my points per game last season and say, 'It's down,'" he explains. "But I actually had one of my best seasons last year, individually and as a team."
But now, it's up. It's very early, but he's on pace to score almost 10 points per game more than he did the year before, on pace to score four to five more points per game than the 27.2 he averaged throughout the playoffs last season, the stretch that initiated him into "the" conversation in the first place.
So this new you -- this new, focused, more efficient, 15-pounds lighter, more-driven you -- has nothing to do with wanting to be in the conversation with LeBron, Kobe and D-Wade about who's the best in the league? I say to him.
"Ah, Hell no! Hell no, man," he responds. "I know I'm one of the best players in the game regardless if people say it or not. They know what it is already. I'm focused on that ring. Whether somebody says I'm on the level with LeBron or Kobe or Dwyane, I mean, LeBron ain't won nothin' yet, either. And that's my man.
"But I try not to get into all that. Comparisons and all that. [LeBron] has his own, Kobe has his own, [Wade] his own, and I got my own. The NBA is big, man. There's room, you know?"
Room for a new addition to the Mt. Rushmore of "Who's the best?" His face etched along with the other three; his name in the conversation.
As he puts on his shades and stops to let pictures be taken with a few others who recognize his place among the elite, I ask him one last question before he gets on the team bus.
Because as great as Carmelo is, and as legendary as he is about to become, he is not going to remain for very long in this mythical but nonfictional, all-encompassing and ever-present pound-for-pound conversation that only exists and has meaning outside the NBA if he doesn't win a title.
LeBron will forever be given a pass on this. Melo? Not so much. He's in that place Kobe was before he got to the Finals without Shaq.
So this is my question: Is this season personal, or is it all about getting that ring?
His answer reflects his approach. His answer explains what happened this summer when his mind was allowed to wander.
"Oh it's personal. But it's personal because I wanna get that ring. I gotta take it upon myself to say, 'I gotta do everything in my power to get that ring. It's right there, I gotta get it.' I want that ring."
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for Page 2.