All By Himself

From the way he carries himself, it seems like Carmelo Anthony is immune to both criticism and praise. (USA TODAY Sports)

From the way he carries himself, it seems like Carmelo Anthony is immune to both criticism and praise. (USA TODAY Sports)

Carmelo Anthony is profane. He strong-armed his way to the Garden. He plays a brazen style of hero ball. He’s a cowardly provocateur. He’s got a big painting of himself in his living room. When Jeremy Lin started to make like an inspirational TV movie climax in February of 2011, Anthony was out with a groin injury. As his return date grew nearer, the press openly wondered if he would ruin Linsanity, as if they feared he was made of fun basketball antimatter.

Sometimes you know in your bones that something exists on the Internet. Highlight compilations set to “Hate Me Now” are one such thing. You think to yourself I bet people are setting dagger threes and slow-motion chest-thumping to a wan anthem from Nas’ persecuted rich guy phase, and, yup, it turns out people are absolutely doing that. It makes too much sense that operatically insecure shiny suit rap with verses like Nike copy — double-birds to the doubters and all that — would be used to lend pull-up jumpers some gothic heft. This is to say many NBA players have their own “Hate Me Now” compilation. (My favorite is Danny Green’s, because I like how he silences his critics with impeccable shot selection and fundamentally sound weightlifting technique.) You would expect Carmelo Anthony to have one. By my count, he has three.

At first glance, “Hate Me Now” fits Anthony about as well as any player in the league. He’s polarizing, which is a word that used here means “widely loathed but adored by a vociferous few.” He’s the target of an inordinate amount of priggish columns trying to take him down a peg, and his game is defined by a luxurious overconfidence. He’s easy to read as an anti-authority figure or a tiresome hardhead because he doesn’t play The Right Way. It’s not a stretch to interpret his 62-point game earlier this season as an arrogant triumph. It’s similarly not a stretch to say he habitually takes a lot of dumb shots despite almost never making a majority of them.

But no, “Hate Me Now” still doesn’t quite work. This isn’t because Carmelo on his worst day is still significantly more appealing than Nas’ ‘97-Jetta-struggling-up-an-incline flow. (Though that should definitely be taken into account.) It’s because Anthony’s too shameless to be defiant. He’s no Jesus of Nasareth.

If you watched LeBron James during his first season with the Heat, you could see him trying to recalibrate his identity in real time, because being beloved was integral to how he conceived of himself. (Remember when he tried that out-of-character heel turn in Portland?) Melo’s career has been marked by no such existential crisis. He has always been comfortable as a collection of appetites: He loves to score, loves to take big shots and does everything else begrudgingly and sometimes not at all. Dwight Howard waffled on his way out of Orlando because he was afraid of being disliked. Melo’s breakup with the Nuggets was messy, but he transparently didn’t care. He wanted to play in New York, and he wanted to get paid like a superstar to do it.

While you can use this evidence to cast Melo as either ripe for comeuppance or a giddy and awesome sports-nihilist, I’m becoming increasingly convinced both of these interpretations gloss over Carmelo’s fundamental uniqueness.

You know when a sudden rainstorm ambushes you, and, if you’re in a certain type of mood, you take umbrage, like the sky is raining at you? The universe can seem cruel when it’s actually indifferent. Here’s a strong take: Carmelo Anthony is like the universe. What I’m saying is the guy with a big painting of himself in his living room, who unapologetically forced a trade to New York and takes a lot of dumb shots because he stridently believes in his ability to make them might be a little bit egotistical. You don’t have to search far and wide to find an NBA star with a sizable ego, but Melo’s seems to function as a sort of impervious insulation mechanism. Self-interest is all that moves him. He happens to us, not at us and definitely not for us.

This is relevant because we’re set for a new round of Melodrama. Anthony’s going to opt out of his contract this summer. He’ll be 30 in May. He would obviously like to win a title, so maybe he’ll flee to Chicago or Houston, but then being youngish, rich and attractive in New York is always a compelling option, so he could also stay a Knick and hope Phil Jackson has an impressive aptitude for a job the Zen Master has never done before. If you trace the history of thought about Melo, you can see, like on a subway map, the predictable patterns of narratives and opinions that will emerge depending on the choice he makes. The future is familiar before it even happens. To the side of all that is Carmelo, in his own world, figuring out what he wants for himself. You can say whatever you want about him. I’m sure he can’t hear you.

2 thoughts on “All By Himself

  1. Nice–and sounds just about right. The mystery is why any team would want him. There seems no plausible scenario in which Melo brings a NBA championship home for any team out there.

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