NEW YORK – Carmelo Anthony was neither playing nor in his home arena on Thursday night at Barclays Center. But when a charity basketball game featuring entertainers and ex-jocks and hosted by MLB stars Robinson Cano and CC Sabathia came to a conclusion, Anthony was immediately flooded by requests for selfies, group photographs, autographs and bro-hugs.
Anthony, an honorary coach for Sabathia’s losing team, obliged a few dozen fans before he eventually needed the assistance of a bodyguard to move people aside and clear a path for him to make an exit.
“I could never leave this,” a grinning Anthony said, with the momentum of the trailing crowd guiding him through a tunnel. “Too much love here.”
Two months away from starting his 11th NBA season, Anthony understands that love in the results-driven professional sports world is not the unconditional kind. Win or be loathed. But Anthony is back in somewhat of a second honeymoon phase after renewing his vows and committing last July to a five-year, $124 million contract with the New York Knicks.
In parts of four seasons in New York, Anthony has only been able to provide one scoring title and one playoff series win. Anthony, 30, is coming off the first non-playoff season of his career after the Knicks finished ninth in the Eastern Conference at 37-45.
“I don’t think we will have another season like we had last year. When I say that, I believe that we will make the playoffs, that’s where I’m coming from,” said Anthony, who averaged 27.4 points last season, finishing second to league most valuable player Kevin Durant, the honorary coach for Cano’s team. “I think we will have a much better season than we did last year. As far as putting a number on the games we want to win, it’s hard to say that right now. But as far as us feeling good about this upcoming season, the way we feel I’m confident in what we’re about to create. I believe we will be in the postseason.”
Anthony had a chance to enter the season with legitimate championship aspirations had he elected to join a ready-made contender in Chicago, which has a former MVP in Derrick Rose, and an all-star center in Joakim Noah but was only able to offer a four-year deal worth a little more than $70 million. Forced to choose between guaranteed financial security or increased odds of winning, Anthony chose the former, but his deep inner struggle resulted in a delayed decision.
“It was close, it was close. I don’t even like to talk about that no more,” said the Brooklyn-born, Baltimore-raised Anthony, who also attracted contract offers from Houston, Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers. “This is home. There is no place like New York. Although the other situations were very intriguing, there is no place like New York.”
Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, who won a national championship with Anthony in 2003, told reporters in New York this week that he felt the six-time all-star would’ve better off joining the Bulls but only stayed because Phil Jackson took over as team president.
“I haven’t heard that. I know [Boeheim] says some crazy stuff. That’s my guy. He’s been the same way for 40 years. But at the end of the day, man, with what we’re trying to create here in New York, it’s a new culture and a new identity and we’re trying to create that,” Anthony said. “As far as me staying here, a lot went into that decision. At the end of the day, I did have to believe in Phil, I did have to believe in my teammates. So that’s all that matters.”
Jackson has done considerable tinkering to the Knicks since taking over in March. He hired Derek Fisher to implement the Triangle offense, traded for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Travis Outlaw and Quincy Acy, signed Jason Smith and drafted Cleanthony Early. Anthony stressed some patience for the pieces to come together and grasp a scheme that helped Jackson win 11 championship rings as coach.
“It’s something that’s not going to happen overnight,” Anthony said of the Triangle offense. “That’s why I’m kind of getting into it right now and kind of studying it and learning it and just trying to figure out where I’m going to be at on the court. It’s not about really me, it’s about everybody else. If everybody’s not on the same page in the triangle, then the triangle is not going to work. So it’s about everybody coming together, playing their role and doing what they have to do to make it work.”
Anthony has already done his part. Underneath a loose-fitting gray sweatsuit with a colorful pattern and a gaudy platinum medallion, Anthony hid a considerably smaller, svelte physique as evidenced by some recent workout photographs posted on Instagram. Motivated to extend his prime and to never miss out on the postseason, Anthony changed his diet to get ready for a season in which the expectations have increased right along with his bank account.
“I’m not the type of guy that becomes bitter, but at the same time I know what I went through last year from an emotional standpoint and I don’t want to feel that again,” Anthony said of missing the playoffs. “I put in all the work that I needed to and I’m still working.”
Eager to return to the floor to prove how much he and the Knicks have improved, Anthony was wearing a black Run-DMC-style fedora on Thursday that mirrored his confidence and regained swagger.
The Cavaliers finished one spot below the Knicks last season but are considered a favorite in the East with LeBron James returning home and expected to soon be joined by all-star Kevin Love. Chicago added Pau Gasol after Anthony spurned them. The Wizards kept Marcin Gortat and added Paul Pierce. Charlotte signed Lance Stephenson. But Anthony doesn’t believe that he will be a spectator when the regular season ends again.
“Regardless of who got better I believe we got better,” Anthony said. “I can’t wait. It’s exciting just for the simple fact knowing the work I put in, the work I know a lot of the guys put in around the league just to get back. You can feel it. I had a pro week this week at my gym and you can feel it. Everybody’s antsy, waiting to get back. I look forward to this season.”
And possibly, a little more love.