The Last of a Dying Breed

Although Carmelo’s lack of Postseason success, combined with his disastrous tenure in New York, argues otherwise, his legacy is already solidified.

A few days ago, while waiting in line at a deli, I overheard two kids arguing over whether or not Carmelo Anthony was “trash.” The Melo-Deli-Debate featured two combatants: Pro-Melo looked to be 14 years-old; while his peer, Anti-Melo, couldn’t have been much older than 10 years-old. After trading baseless barbs back and forth, Pro-Melo threw down the gauntlet, by saying, “You’re too young to remember when Melo was God!” Initially, I found it humorous that this youngster felt his three or four-year advantage on his companion, gave him the right to play the back-in-my-day card, considering he may have not been alive when Melo was drafted 14 years ago.

But then it hit me. This small age difference goes a long way in determining how fans in their cohort assess Melo’s career. To put things into perspective, as recent as 2013, Melo finished third in the NBA’s MVP voting and was unanimously considered a top-five player. Over the last four seasons, Melo’s ranking, in terms of the NBA’s top players, has fallen drastically. While he was still considered a top-ten talent in 2014, he dropped into the top-20, top-30, and top-40, from 2015–17, respectively, as the former superstar declined statistically, while failing to make the playoffs.

More than anything, the deli encounter forced me to come to terms with something I’ve previously failed to accept. Put simply, there is an entire generation of NBA fans who will forever associate Melo with his volatile New York-tenure, not only because that’s all they’ve known, but also because as we get further away from his generation’s peak, Melo’s lack of success will prevent him from being celebrated alongside his peers, a la LeBron, Wade, and even, Chris Paul.

With that said, a ten year-old’s opinion of Melo forced me to re-assess my own generation’s view of the star. Because you see, although the 30-and-over crowd will scoff at his legacy, for every twenty-something, Melo’s influence is forever-lasting.

In 2003, while the sports-media was salivating over a high-school basketball prodigy, a college freshman was capturing the hearts of basketball fans around the nation. His name was Carmelo Anthony. En route to steering Syracuse to its first national championship in school history, Melo became a star in every sense of the word. While Melo’s superior basketball skills laid the foundation for his star-potential, the head-band-wearing, cornrow-laden freshman, radiated with a charisma straight out of the hip-hop culture. More than anything else, this identity symbolized his capability of becoming the future face of the NBA.

If you strip away championships, win-loss records, individual awards, and statistics, you’ll find that basketball, at its core, is predicated on style. And rightfully so, considering it’s a sport built on its playground roots, a culture in which showmanship and swagger are superior to box-scores.

Suppose you brought a foreigner, specifically, someone with a general understanding of the sport of basketball and America’s culture, but no previous knowledge of the NBA and its stars, to the shoot-around before last year’s All-Star Game. If you asked them to point out the best player on the Eastern Conference’ team, after overcoming the initial shock of LeBron’s size, Giannis’ length, and Kyrie’s ball-handling, there’s a good chance they would settle on an unexpected guy — Melo. With that said, it’s less surprising when you consider the skills that are displayed, and hold the most weight, during a shoot-around, specifically, a player’s shooting stroke, and most importantly, a Command-of-the-Room quality.

Melo has always possessed both; with his breathtakingly smooth touch, and his unmatched, yet subtle, swagger. For a point of comparison, let’s look at the NBA’s greatest Command-of-the-Room guys. It’s easy to arrive at the following ten usual suspects: Wilt and Shaq (based on their sheer size), Dr. J (the afro, amongst other things), Magic (movie-star charisma), Barkley (force of personality), MJ (alpha-dog aura), Robinson (his physique and model-like looks), Kobe (unrivaled brashness), AI (ferocity), and LeBron (a mix of Magic’s charisma and Robinson’s specimen-like build).

Let’s take it one step further and look at the guys from the post-Jordan generation who possess this trait. Along with Kobe, AI, and LeBron, the following seven guys would round out the top-ten: KG (carried himself like a heavy-weight boxer before a fight), Melo (possesses a natural, celebritized swagger), Dwight (magnetic personality), Durant (smoothness of a PG in a 7-foot body), Draymond (carries himself like Floyd Mayweather), Russ (unparalleled intensity), and John Wall (flashy and joyous).

With that said, it’s easy to narrow down the list to two guys — Melo and A.I. — who share an uncanny, authentic charisma that their peers can’t match. Comparably, Kobe’s brashness was copied straight out of Jordan’s playbook; LeBron, Dwight, and Wall always seem to be trying a little too hard to be liked; KG and Russ’ intensity was and is, too unprecedented to resonate; Draymond’s swagger seems a tad exaggerated; And Durant’s command-of-the-room quality is more so due to his build, than charisma.

Melo and A.I., though, carry themselves like the most-popular rapper in hip-hop, mixed with a movie-star-esque persona. Which leads us to another wrinkle — Melo has always had “the look.” In this regard, Melo is the A.I. of his generation, in that he embodies the hip-hop culture that A.I. is credited with bringing to the NBA. Their shared signature style, comprised of cornrows, tattoos, and the headband, exudes a certain street-mentality. Which is why it’s shocking that Melo hasn’t become a cult-hero like A.I.

Throughout the ’00s, while the league moved past the hip-hop era, with an implemented dress code steering stars toward the current GQ-era of stylistic trends, Melo was still donning cornrows. In a sense, he seems to belong to a previous era, one in which NBA stars were praised for how well their on-court style blended with their off-court flair, rather than simply measuring a player’s long-lasting influence by how many titles and MVPs they win.

And yet, as trivial as it may seem, you can’t diminish the impact that a superstar’s unique flavor has on their legacy, even if there’s no way to measure it. Already, Melo is considered the tragic figure of the LeBron era, with his lack of postseason success disparaging how we quantify his legacy.

For a generation of ’90s babies, though, Melo will always be an icon. Future generations will have to sift through his endless array of failures, the disastrous Knicks’ chapter, and the realization that his resume stacks up very poorly with his peers. Under all of that clutter, lies a transcendent career.

Unfortunately, unlike most legends, you can’t showcase Melo’s greatness in moments. Sure, he has a bunch of 50-point outbursts, the 62-point performance at MSG, and game-winning shots, but none of them happened on a big stage.

And so, Melo’s influence on the game will be hard to describe to those who didn’t live it. At the end of the day, though, Melo mattered. In the mid-to-late ’00s, aside from Kobe and LeBron, there wasn’t a more popular or more recognizable player, than Melo. In hindsight, his significance, as short as it may have been, is more impressive considering he reached a level of transcendence without winning a title.

Instead, Melo had everything else: the braids, tattoos, shooting-sleeve, and breathtaking stroke. All of these qualities contributed to his look. Essentially, Melo had the cliche “it” factor. And while the current NBA isn’t without its fair share of egos and charismatic stars, the redundant personalities make it seem inauthentic and forced. When we look back years from now, maybe that’ll be Melo’s lasting-legacy — with him being seen as the bridge to another era, i.e. the last of a dying breed.