To hear Carmelo Anthony describe one of his beloved Padrón cigars reminds you of his life: smooth. He is the living, breathing embodiment of the successful new NBA player at the close of the first decade of a new millennium. His life is nothing if not international, abundant, even crowded with activity.
As he fits his six-foot-eight frame onto a sofa on a dim upper floor of Baltimore's Havana Club, it occurs to an observer that his résumé outside the game is every bit as long as his résumé in it. He won a national championship his only year at Syracuse and Olympic gold five years later. Now he is an executive producer at Krossover Entertainment, the film company that released Tyson, a documentary about the former heavyweight champion, and is preparing another on Roberto Clemente.
There are endorsements aplenty coming in—Tag body spray, Powerade, a sixth signature M6 shoe (the Air Jordan brand he endorses)—and charity contributions going out, like the $3 million he gave to Syracuse University to create a basketball practice facility. When he isn't slipping off to the monkish solitude of deep-sea fishing to have a smoke, he retreats to his cigar room with a Padrón 6000—or any of his Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series favorites, such as a Monarca, Torpedo or Diplomatico—to keep him company.
"I smoke a majority of the time at home, right after a game or on the weekend, or I'll sit outside, out in my yard. Or in a cigar room," he says. "I'll light a cigar and drink a glass of red wine."
Oh, yes, and he does play basketball. Basketball stokes the fire of Anthony's hyper-enriched, rounded-beyond-rounded lifestyle. But if a young man can make $80 million guaranteed over five years, and have all the trappings that go with it, what is the added incentive for his team to win an NBA title?
Anthony and his 20-something Olympic pals LeBron James and Dwayne Wade have been called basketball's second Holy Trinity by a national magazine. This second triad follows (some would argue at an appreciable distance) Trinity one of a generation ago—Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. But if you are already the axis around which an immeasurable planet of experiences revolve at 25, what's to inspire you to chase legends? An NBA championship is one of the few things missing in Anthony's short life, which has included so much.
Having something missing is nothing new for Anthony. His father (also named Carmelo) died when he was just two years old. That left his mother Mary to care for him and his three older brothers in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. "So I was just like any other kid, growing up in a single-parent family—no dad, and having to make ends meet," Anthony says. "My mom raised four of us and two cousins all by herself."
His oldest brother Wilford (knicknamed Direll) was an accomplished basketball player, and "was the talk of Brooklyn," Anthony recalls. "I was watching him come home with five- and six-foot trophies. I could watch him from my home window, where I could see the whole court." As he looked out on Direll competing, little did Carmelo know that he was seeing his own future.
When he was eight his mother moved the family to Baltimore, to a neighborhood called "The Pharmacy," a section later made famous as the setting for HBO's "The Wire." If you're guessing it didn't get the name because of the number of Duane Reade outlets on every corner, you're right. It was overrun with drugs and crime.
"It was the ghetto," Anthony recalls plainly. "I wanted to be a teenager running the streets." His mother held the reigns: if he got out of line, he was forbidden to play sports.
By the time he reached middle school he stood six-foot-one and liked a variety of sports in addition to basketball. He entered Towson Catholic High School as a 14-year-old in fall 1998. He played pitcher and first base for the baseball team, and he was competitive at football, but there was no sign that he would make a career of his first sport—he was cut from the varsity basketball team. Then the following summer it happened.
"I grew four inches and I thought I was going to die, literally," says Anthony. "When you grow that fast your body is not used to that; my joints were hurting, my elbows, my knees, my shoulders—it was just painful."
The pain was dulled by the awards the now six-foot-five swingman and ball-handling whiz soon collected. The growth spurt brought his game to new levels. He won Baltimore Sun's metro player of the year in 2001, as well as Baltimore Catholic League player of the year.
He thought of college but university life wasn't automatic for a young man with a below-C average and low ACT scores. He and his mother decided that a change of scenery—and a tad more discipline—would be beneficial. He attended Virginia's Oak Hill Academy, a Baptist boarding school with a basketball reputation. There he was named to the McDonald's All-American Team, not to mention being named a USA Today First-Team All-American and a Parade First-Team All-American. "My career blossomed from my junior into senior year in high school,"
Anthony recalls. "It was just a matter of me—if I loved it and really wanted to go after it." He had raised his average to 2.5 and his ACT to 19, above the minimum score of 18 needed to qualify for Syracuse.
He could have jumped to the NBA, but didn't want to. "I wanted to go to college. I had the option; I had the grades. I could have gone to the NBA. I had committed to about five schools, including Georgia. I was just happy to be recruited. But I opted for Syracuse."
The draw was the coach. "It was [coach Jim] Boeheim, and me being born in New York." And what he got in college would make him a poster child for the NBA's "one-and-done-rule," in place since 2006, requiring draftees to be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school.
The one year at college was an education. "Being on the road, being away from friends, being away from family, going to different arenas and being able to perform in a hostile environment," says Anthony. The college experience "really helped me once I got to the NBA."
And he got one other small thing that was quite unexpected. In the spring of 2003 the Syracuse Orangemen won their first NCAA Championship since the tournament began in 1939. "I was in a blessed situation. I was lucky to go to college and get a national championship," he says. "Some people don't get to do that in four years."
And no one in the country expected them to walk off with a title, not from the start of the 2002-2003 season to the last game of March Madness. "Coming into the season, I think we were ranked about 50 something," Anthony recalls. "It was actually about 35th," Boeheim says. No matter: the odds were much longer than usual.
Boeheim recalls Anthony as an 18-year-old whose talent level was already off the charts. "He was the most talented player in the country as a freshman—nobody was even close to him," says Boeheim, who has now coached the Orangemen for 33 years. "That's the bottom line." That said, Texas, Kansas and a few other powers were expected to triumph.
"We went on a Big 12 run—in the tournament we beat all the Big 12 schools (located mostly in the central United States), Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Kansas," Anthony says. In the Final Four tilt against Texas he posted 33 points—a record for most points by a freshman—and 14 rebounds. In the title game against Texas he scored 20 points and grabbed 10 caroms. He earned Most Outstanding Player honors for the tournament, only the third freshman ever to do so. The others were Louisville's Pervis Ellison in 1986 and Utah's Arnie Ferrin in 1944.
"I think it was meant to be, man," Anthony says with fresh recall, as if it happened last week. "I look at it like that—it was destiny. Because when we started out, nobody expected us to win. But we just came together at the right time."
If ever a player was set up for the draft, it was 19-year-old Carmelo Kiyan Anthony. Cleveland drafted first and chose LeBron James. Detroit then chose Darko Milicic, the seven-foot forward-center from Novi Sad, Serbia. (Since the draft Milicic, who has played for three teams and has never been more than a part-time player, has stumbled his way to a $6.5 million salary with Memphis). Denver made Anthony their third pick.
"I never expected to be drafted third in the NBA," says Anthony. Dating back to the 1968 season in the ABA, Denver was often comical and entertaining but never a winner. For much of the team's history their fans might be heard saying, "I went to a track meet, and a basketball game broke out." In 1981 the Nuggets set an all-time record with 126.5 points per game (a total practically offset by their allowing 126 on defense, 10 points more than anyone in the league), breaking the 1962 Warriors' mark of 125.4, when Wilt Chamberlain got 50.4 of those points by himself. On December 13, 1983, Denver played a triple-overtime game against Detroit and lost 186-184, both exhausted and thoroughly Bengay-ed teams shattering all existing marks for lusty scoring. In the 1990s the team flirted with playoff glory, but a championship remained elusive, and by the 2002-2003 season Denver tied for the worst record in the NBA.
Anthony quickly showed that Denver chose rightly. "I started proving a lot as a rookie. The previous year before I got there, Denver had only won 17 games. I came in and we won 42 games." In addition to that quantum leap, Denver has made the playoffs in each of Anthony's six seasons. Prior to his arriving the franchise had missed the playoffs for eight consecutive years, dating to 1995.
Over his first five NBA seasons Anthony eschewed rest to spend three summers competing on two Olympic teams and in a FIBA World Championship tournament. The team from the 2004 Athens Olympics took home bronze, but seemed outplayed from the start. The United States lost to Puerto Rico in their first game, 92-73. Following wins against Greece and Australia, America lost to Lithuania. An 89-81 loss to Argentina in the semi-final cost the Americans any chance at gold.
College players play barely 30 games a year, then suddenly play three times that many with an 82-game NBA season and playoffs to follow. The adjustment proved tough. "We weren't ready for that scene right then and there," Anthony recalls of the disappointing showing. "You know, 18 and 19 years old, playing on an Olympic team. We just had a very challenging season and to come off of that and go right in—it's like being thrown to the wolves. I was sitting on the sideline and learning the game."
That's an understatement. Coach Larry Brown played the NBA's Rookie of the Year runner-up just 47 minutes over the entire Olympic tournament. Anthony complained about playing time, as any proud player would, and drew Brown's wrath. He was smacked with bad press back home. Still, he committed to the 2008 Beijing games. But before that Olympic contest the 2006 FIBA World Championship was contested in Japan. The United States—with a team that included Anthony, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwayne Wade—entered the semifinals having won their first seven games before losing to Greece, 101-95. They again took bronze after beating Argentina.
In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the team built by Jerry Colangelo, the former owner of the Phoenix Suns and the National Director of USA Basketball, played more like a team. Colangelo had asked his 2006 players for a three-year commitment to establish the necessary continuity to win in 2008. It worked. They were 5-0 in competition, with an average victory of 103-71. They avenged the 2006 loss to Greece, drubbing them 92-69. They then dusted defending world champion Spain, 119-82. They also settled a score from 2004 with Argentina, dunking them 101-81. Against Spain in the gold-medal game they prevailed 118-107. But the game was not without tension, as the United States led by only two points with eight minutes left.
"We expected it to be a tough game, even though in pool play we won by more than 30 points," Anthony recalls. "I'm pretty sure that they were embarrassed because they were the world champions. We knew the championship game was not going to be a blowout. We were trading baskets and intensity in the end, but every possession counts. If you loved basketball, you would love that experience."
Anthony recalls nothing in his basketball life that rivals the Beijing experience. "It was more exhilarating than the NBA, the national championship, anything. It was the atmosphere and just knowing the stage we were on. It was the biggest stage that anyone can ever possibly be on."
Now his Denver team has posted consecutive 50-win seasons (for the first time in the history of the ABA and NBA franchise). "And this year we got to the Western Conference finals. And this solidifies a lot for me as an individual."
It surely does. The leap from five consecutive first-round losses to a conference final is huge. If the Nuggets had made a few more plays, they might have upset the heavily favored Lakers. Anthony scored 39 points in game one but their bid to swipe one on the road died when Trevor Ariza stole an inbound pass with under a minute left to help Los Angeles to a 105-103 victory. Behind Anthony's 34 points and nine rebounds the Nuggets did steal the second contest, 106-103. But the Lakers won three of the next four games, with Bryant averaging 34 for the series.
Anthony averaged a solid 27.5 for the series, but shot just 41 percent from the field. Over the last four games he hit just 22 of 69 shots, for a lowly 32 percent. These things happen in the life of a scorer, but they are not supposed to happen to members of the Trinity. The last time that occurred was in the 2007 finals, when LeBron James' Cavs were swept by San Antonio and James shot just 36 percent, hitting only 32 of 90 shots.
"I think it came down to more experience," Anthony assesses. "As a unit, I think the Lakers had more experience." No doubt. And the NBA at times seems like a league where you have to lose once or twice before you learn how to win. Just ask Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal. "Nobody is going to get there without obstacles," Anthony concludes, adding "I think we need another big man."
But when the conversation turns to NBA titles, Anthony's talk gets a little tepid. You would think that his having won a national championship with Syracuse and an Olympic gold medal in 2008 makes the time right for a title, or at least some tough talk about getting one. But his reply is different. When I ask about using Jordan's career as a model, he says, "I think everybody wants that career. A guy like [Charles] Barkley had a hell of a career, and didn't win a ring. Elgin Baylor didn't win. You have more great players that didn't win than did win."
But if a magazine anoints three players as part of the second Holy Trinity—and leaves Kobe Bryant, probably the best player in the league, out of that company—isn't it expected that you win? Coach Boeheim sounds a similar note: "It's just so strong out in the West; that's the problem." But a 25-year-old Anthony, with the right cast around him, could overcome that problem.
Anthony still has global goals and expectations. "I just want to bring everything I can to the game, being the best player on the court, being an ambassador of the game and being a face of my community. Not just in Baltimore or New York or Denver, but being a face of the young generation. We are going for a title this year. We were almost there, so we definitely are going to pick up where we left off."
Whatever the title hopes are for the near future, Anthony seems to have put controversies behind him. Over a four-year period between 2004 and 2008 he was accused of a litany of piddling offenses, such as marijuana possession (charges were dropped when a friend signed an affidavit taking responsibility for the marijuana), and taking part in an ill-advised video called, "Stop Snitchin'" that warned residents of Baltimore who collaborated with the police that they would face violence. Later, a friend was pulled over in Anthony's vehicle and cited for marijuana possession. Anthony was handed a 15-day suspension for his part in a brawl at Madison Square Garden in which he hit Knicks guard Mardy Collins and then ran. Finally, in 2008 he was arrested in Denver for a more serious charge of driving under the influence, a charge dropped when he pleaded guilty to driving while ability impaired.
None of this seems to rise to the level of carrying a gun without a license and shooting yourself or electrocuting dogs or vehicular homicide while driving drunk—all of which we've seen from NFL players in the last two years. But Anthony felt it was time to change.
"That's when I sat down and had a chance to have a talk with myself. You're not in Baltimore no more. You're in a new era of the NBA, the new generation of the NBA, not just basketball. The young generation as a whole looks up to me. Is this something I really want to do? Do I want to be great, or do I just want to be an average person and an average basketball player? I came too far and I worked too hard just to be average. I want to be great. I had to sit down with myself and dig deep and ask myself what I want to do and really realize that I have my own destiny in my own hands. There are things that you do growing up; I hate to make excuses, but I was 18, 19, 20 and it happened. My big thing is just learning from that mistake."
Trying to improve on his past includes spending time at home with his fiancée Alani "La La" Vazquez and his two-year-old son, Kiyan Anthony, whose father marvels that he has the patience to watch football games from start to finish. And he says he may even try other cigar brands besides his go-to Nicaraguan favorite. "I already know how a Padrón tastes, so I might try something different. But I am primarily a Padrón guy. If I am out and about I might try something else." That sounds like the philosophy of someone who has miles to go before he sleeps.
A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, Kenneth Shouler was the managing editor and chief writer for Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia.