By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
DENVER, Jan. 22 -- Fifteen will forever mean more to Carmelo Anthony than just his jersey number. It also represents the stiff punishment he received for a lapse in judgment, when he couldn't ignore the trash talk of the New York Knicks' Mardy Collins and uncorked the costliest punch of his life. Before Anthony returned to the basketball court to make a highly anticipated debut alongside superstar Allen Iverson last night at Pepsi Center, the 22-year-old forward expressed both excitement and remorse.
"I wish I could take that punch back. I would definitely take it back," Anthony said of the blow that led to a 15-game suspension and 37-day absence from basketball. "But things happen."
Anthony, the league's leading scorer, took the first step in distancing himself from what he described as a challenging experience, as he overcame some noticeable jitters to score a game-high 28 points as the Nuggets beat the Memphis Grizzlies, 115-98. When he was pulled from the game with 4 minutes 11 seconds left, Anthony walked to the baseline near his bench, raised his arms and clapped his hands, while 19,155 euphoric fans applauded. He was moving forward, indeed. "I had a lot of fun, I was like a kid in a candy store," he said. "I never experienced anything like this."
After receiving a standing ovation and simple two-word introduction -- "He's back!" -- Anthony grabbed the microphone, thanked the fans and Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke for their support, then said: "This is like a new beginning for us. We're going to give you something to cheer for."
As the teams prepared for the opening tip, Anthony clapped his hands to ignite the crowd some more, hugged J.R. Smith and stepped onto the floor to make good on his declaration -- and prove that he and Iverson will work together.
Iverson, a former league most valuable player and four-time scoring champion, held true to his statements that he no longer wanted to carry a team and was willing to serve as a wingman to Anthony. He finished with 23 points, on 9-of-16 shooting, and added seven assists, hooking up with Anthony for two impressive alley-oops in a two-minute span in the fourth quarter.
The first was, by far, the most impressive. Nuggets forward Nene blocked a shot, then Iverson scooped the ball, raced up the court and tossed an underhand lob from just inside the three-point line that appeared to be too high for Anthony to catch. Somehow, Anthony shoved the ball through with his right hand to give the Nuggets a 103-82 lead.
Anthony ran down the floor with his index finger pointed toward the ceiling. Iverson chuckled as he ran down the floor, then cupped his left hand behind his ear, and skipped while the sellout crowd rose to its feet. Who said they wouldn't share?
"It was fun, we just want to show the whole world that we could play together. Coming into tonight's game, we knew there were a lot of doubters," Anthony said. "Please don't ask me that question again. I'm tired of it."
They sported matching powder-blue headbands and wore their hair in creatively patterned cornrows; even their bodies looked similar, covered in tattoos. Iverson wore a protective powder-blue sleeve on his right arm, Anthony a protective white sleeve on his left. If not for the 6-foot-8 Anthony towering over the 5-11 Iverson with his imposing size, they'd look like bookend twins.
Anthony returned to a team that was noticeably different from the squad he played with. The Nuggets made two trades to snare Iverson from Philadelphia and later to bring in Steve Blake from Milwaukee. The Nuggets (21-17) went 7-8 without Anthony and will have an opportunity to make a push up the Western Conference standings, with only four of their next 13 opponents possessing winning records.
While Anthony and Iverson finished below their scoring averages, they had plenty of help. Smith, the player who was collared by Collins to set off the brawl at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 16, had 19 points off the bench. Camby had 17 points, 17 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. Blake had 12 assists and five points.
The debut of the duo was successful but difficult to judge, given the competition. The Nuggets couldn't have asked for a better opponent to test the Anthony-Iverson experiment -- a Grizzlies team that possesses the worst record in the NBA (10-32) and was in the midst of a controversy following several reports that their star forward, Pau Gasol, had demanded a trade. "I don't think we played great basketball," Nuggets Coach George Karl said.
Iverson was encouraged with the belief that he is finally part of a team that can deliver the championship ring he has sought for 11 years. "If I didn't feel like we could win a championship, there was no need for this organization to trade for me," he said. "If I didn't feel like we had a shot to win it, I would hang my sneakers up. Obviously, I believe."
Anthony was asked if he could convince people that he is a better person following the whole ordeal. "You can't," he said. "What I've learned is that you can't force nothing upon people; just continue being yourself. I'm a real humble, laid-back person. That incident had a lot of people thinking twice about me. . . . I'm back on the court. I'm happy."