Carmelo Anthony’s other activism
In a summer when we celebrate Carmelo for embracing the mantle of social change, we should recognize his Olympics career as activism of a different stripe
The first time I considered Carmelo Anthony an American hero was eight years ago this month.
Eight minutes and ten seconds remained in the 2008 Olympics gold medal game, and Melo was sent to the bench. This was a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is moment and Melo owned it.
He was decent to that point — he’d scored 13, second on the U.S. — but we led Spain 91–89 and needed a defensive infusion. Coach K pulled Melo for his fellow captain Dwyane Wade. And while Wade starred on the floor, Melo led from the bench.
He rarely sat. I remember one late possession where Melo stood the whole time, the only man on the bench standing, so when you looked at the court it looked as if we had six men on the floor.
In the game’s final minute, Anthony laid down a towel, knelt on it, and watched much of the rest of the game from that spot, his hands usually on the floor in front of him like a man on a prayer rug.
In the game’s final 13 seconds, Anthony stood with both fists in the air. When the buzzer sounded he was the first man off the bench to celebrate with his teammates, hugging Wade and soon after sharing an embrace with LeBron James, his other co-captain.
Every Olympics offers an American hero. Think of any Games and at least one comes to mind. 1984? Carl Lewis. 1936? Jesse Owens. 1968? Tommie Smith and John Carlos. 2012? Gabby Douglas. 1994? Bonnie Blair. 1992? The Dream Team.
These athletes are heroes for different reasons, their heroics borne of athletic skill in some cases, courage in others. But they owned their Games. Owned our memories.
Anthony should join them. And I thought this before he took to Instagram, the ESPY stage, or organized a town hall to urge his fellow athletes to “step up and take charge” in the fight for black rights and overall peace.
I thought this because before he addressed social ills, Anthony was worthy of our celebration this summer as one of America’s greatest Olympians. And his Olympics career is another form of activism: he has helped transform the legacy of the U.S. men’s program, which itself has restored American pride in the most American of Olympic sports and changed the reputation of a significant piece of American culture.
Let’s take a look at Melo the basketball player, first.
AKA the greatest player in U.S. senior men’s history.
Much has been written about Melo becoming the first American male basketball player to play in four Olympics, but his accomplishments run deeper than that. When he steps on the floor in Rio tonight, here’s a rundown of what’s at stake:
- Four Olympics is not just a record for U.S. men’s basketball players, but is second all time for either gender. Only four basketball players have played in five Olympics: Teo Cruz of Puerto Rico, from 1960 to 1976, Oscar Schmidt of Brazil, from 1980 to 1996, Teresa Edwards of the U.S. and Andrew Gaze of Australia, from 1984 to 2000.
- 2016 will likely be Melo’s fourth medal, which will tie the men’s record. Gennadi Volnov (1960–1972) and Sergei Belov (1968–1980) of the U.S.S.R. each won four medals. Anthony currently shares the U.S. men’s record with David Robinson and LeBron James, all three of whom have two golds and one bronze. Cruz, Schmidt, and Gaze never won a medal in their combined 15 Olympics. Volnov won one gold, two silvers, and one bronze; Belov won one gold and three bronzes.
- 2016 will likely be Melo’s third gold, a men’s record of any nation, and tied for second most in U.S. history behind the four golds won by Edwards and Lisa Leslie (and, should they win gold this year, Team USA’s Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, and Diana Taurasi).
- Melo’s fourth medal would tie him with Leslie for second most all-time in U.S. history, with both trailing Edwards, who won four golds and one bronze. Leslie has four golds, the mark Bird, Catchings, and Taurasi are chasing.
- Melo needs 35 points to pass LeBron as Team USA’s all-time leading scorer and 42 boards to pass David Robinson as the team’s all-time leading rebounder. He owns the Olympics record for points in a game (37 vs. Nigeria in 2012), and is one game shy of LeBron and the Admiral for most ever for an American man (24).
All told, this will be Melo’s sixth international basketball tournament, an unprecedented feat for American men.
And this is where Anthony’s recent activism comes into play.
I don’t agree, but a cynic could call Anthony’s actions either irrelevant or insincere, the latter opinion due to a 2014 ESPN article in which Anthony spoke with his branding expert about wanting his legacy to be “bigger than (basketball).”
The irony is that his impact on USA Basketball is itself bigger than basketball.
From 1936, the year hoops debuted as a men’s Olympic sport, until 1984, the U.S. Men’s team played in 10 Olympics, won nine golds and one silver, and racked up a record of 76–1. The team’s one loss came in the notorious 1972 gold medal game against the U.S.S.R., a fluke U.S. loss due to nefarious officiating.
All this time, remember, the U.S. was sending its best college players, because professionals were not allowed to play in any tournaments governed by FIBA, including the Olympics. People often confuse this rule and assume it was American professionals who could not play in the Olympics, when in fact it was NBA players.
Germany’s Detlef Schrempf, for example, played in the ’84 Games with West Germany, was drafted by the Mavericks in 1985, was ineligible for the 1988 Games, and then returned to the Olympics in 1992 under the same rule change that led to the Dream Team.
Professionals in most other leagues, though, were not considered professionals under FIBA rules. Members of the Soviet teams that beat the U.S. in 1972 and 1988 were playing professionally in Europe.
In 1988, these professional “non-professionals” included future NBA stars Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis of the U.S.S.R. Sabonis’s reputation in the U.S. was solidified in his battles in 1986 and 1988 against David Robinson, while Marciulionis was such a scoring wizard that Michael Jordan made him his personal assignment in the ’92 games.
“Sarunas was so strong with the ball that the best thing to do was not let him get it,” Jordan told author Jack McCallum in his 2012 book “Dream Team.” “You can’t do that for a whole game, but you can do it for a while.”
This was the beginning of the notion that “the world has caught up to the U.S.” — a phrase Dick Enberg used nearly verbatim at the end of the 1988 U.S.S.R loss.
One year later, FIBA voted overwhelmingly to allow the world’s top professionals to play in its tournaments, including the Olympics. This vote famously led to the Dream Team, but more significantly as it applies to Carmelo, the vote led to the American tradition of creating a new “Dream Team” every two years, sometimes less than a month before play began.
So what happened? Well, American dominance diminished. After the Dream Team romped in 1992, Team USA’s margin of victory shrunk over the next five tournaments through 2004. (The U.S. sent collegians in 1998 due to the NBA lockout.)
The 2004 Olympic team was built in response to that 2002 6th-place finish, anchored by two of the NBA’s biggest stars: Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. That made the team’s struggles even more glaring: three losses, including a 19-point blowout in the opener against Puerto Rico, the worst Olympics loss in U.S. men’s history.
The experience was so toxic that the team-oriented, soft-spoken Duncan declared the day after winning the bronze that he was 95% certain his international career was over.
Carmelo had a decidedly different reaction.
“Put me down for ’08,” Carmelo said during his disappointing 2004 Olympics, in which he played fewer than seven minutes per game and even bagged a DNP. “I’ll be back. I ain’t worried. I still have ’08 and maybe ’12.”
Melo’s statement epitomized the new Team USA.
“We knew that we kind of had to destroy and rebuild after that for USA Basketball,” Anthony told NBC for an oral history of the 2004 Olympic team.
The collective attitude of Anthony, James, and Wade matched the vision of Jerry Colangelo, who USA Basketball named manager of the senior men’s team in 2005.
Anthony led the 2006 team in scoring at 19.9 points per game, and was named USA Basketball’s 2006 Male Athlete of the Year. Ten years later, Team USA senior men’s team has lost only once in five tournaments and is now riding a 35-game winning streak, starting with the bronze game in 2006:
The beauty of what Anthony, James, and Wade started and what Anthony has continued is that they embraced a decidedly un-American instinct: the need to humble oneself to catch up with the world.
Because here’s the thing: American pride does not swing with other sports.
Some of the best U.S. moments in Olympics history have occurred in the 200-meter run, for instance, where we have won 17 of our 25 competitions, including Jesse Owens in 1936, Tommie Smith in 1968, Carl Lewis in 1984, and Michael Johnson in 1996.
Since 2000 though, we’ve only won gold once, and have been defeated the past two Olympics by Usain Bolt.
And yet Americans love Bolt. Honestly, do you know any Americans who talk about the loss of American dominance in the 200 meter? I sure don’t.
But when we fail to win gold in basketball, we notice.
Remember in 1998 when our men’s hockey team trashed their hotel room? The response was, “Look at those obnoxious hockey players.”
When our men’s basketball teams trashed their opponents in ways deemed unsportsmanlike or uncivil, the response was “Look at those obnoxious Americans.”
Anthony, James, and Wade did not simply restore Team USA’s talent, but its pride, humility, and international respect.
Back in 1992, Magic Johnson saw the Olympics as his chance for redemption following his diagnosis with HIV. He embraced the role of Dream Team captain and spokesman, and took the advice of an NBA PR man to choose jersey number 15, as reported in McCallum’s book.
Olympic basketball jerseys run from 4 to 15, you see, and players are announced before games numerically. If Magic chose 15, the PR man told him, he would be announced last. He could run onto the floor carrying the flag. He could be the face of USA Basketball.
Magic took his advice. It worked. He was the face of USA Basketball. For one summer, he was no longer “the basketball player with HIV.” He was the leader of the Dream Team, the greatest of all time.
I don’t know if Carmelo Anthony chose number 15 for the same reason. He couldn’t wear it in 2004 and probably chose it in 2006 simply because it was his number in college and, at the time, the pros.
But as the years have rolled on the jersey has grown more and more fitting. Anthony is the Magic Johnson of this team — not its best player, but the one who cares the most about USA Basketball, and the emotional leader of the world’s best basketball team.
In March, Anthony said he was looking forward to the Olympics to “feel what that success feels like.” Unlike his longtime Olympics co-captains James and Wade, Anthony does not have an NBA championship on his resume.
No matter. When he runs out this summer for the team’s pregame announcements, he will do so as the greatest player in the history of the Team USA men’s program. He should be celebrated as an Olympian in the same way we will spend this summer celebrating Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and so many others.
Might not seem like it now, but one day we’ll realize that three golds are worth more than one ring.