Anything but an Olympic gold medal would have been viewed as a massive failure by the U.S. men’s basketball team, but that doesn’t mean that members of Team USA felt anything less than elation Sunday, after clinching gold with a 99-66 win over Serbia.
In the immediate wake of that victory in Rio, no player was more emotional than Carmelo Anthony, who became the first men’s basketball player with three gold medals. As his teammates celebrated on the court around him, the 32-year-old Knicks forward declared his Olympic career to be over. He also used the moment to call for national unity, in another expression of the political activism in which he has recently engaged.
“It was a special moment for me,” Anthony said, while fighting tears. “I know this is the end. This is it for me.” He began to say, “I committed to something ….” before having to compose himself.
“I committed to this in ’04,” Anthony continued. “I’ve seen the worst and I’ve seen the best. I stuck with it; we stuck with it. I’m here today, three gold medals later. I’m excited for me, but also for the other guys who have never experienced anything like this.”
Then Anthony turned from himself, his team and the USA Basketball organization to his nation back at home. “I just want to say thank you for allowing me to be one of the leaders, not just of our team but of the country,” he said.
“Despite everything that’s going on right now in our country, we’ve got to be united. I’m glad I did what I did, I stepped up to the challenge, but this is what it’s about: representing our country on the biggest stage you can be on.
“America will be great again, I believe that,” Anthony continued. “We got a lot of work to do but one step at a time. I’m glad we represented it in the fashion that we did.”
It is unclear if Anthony meant to echo Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” slogan, but his comments follow several earlier ones about the state of the U.S., in particular its race relations, in the wake of high-profile killings of and by police officers. The most visible of those remarks came at the ESPY awards in July, when Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul (the latter three of whom chose to sit out this year’s Olympics) began the ceremony by standing together on stage and urging their fellow athletes to “use this moment as a call to action.”
“The system is broken,” Anthony said at the time. “The problems are not new, the violence is not new and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to great change is at an all-time high.”
Prior to that, Anthony had taken to Instagram to urge his fellow athletes to “step up and take charge” and “demand change.” He also wrote an essay for the British newspaper The Guardian, in which he described the Summer Games as “a platform where we should — we as athletes, we as Americans — use it for something.”
In Rio, the Baltimore native used a day off to explore one of the favelas, the desperately poor neighborhoods near to and yet oh-so-far from the glamour of the Olympic events. Anthony even got in some hoops with local kids while he was at it.
Anthony closes his Olympic career with the unprecedented three golds, medals that, in his mind at least, more than make up for the bronze he and his widely criticized teammates settled for at the 2004 Games. During this year’s run, he also became the U.S. men’s all-time leader in points, rebounds and games.
But Anthony also used these Games to continue his journey toward greater awareness of some of the challenges facing the less fortunate. It remains to be seen what form of activism he will take upon his return to the United States, but his country’s highly charged environment clearly was not far from his mind in Rio, even during an emotionally satisfying victory celebration.