RIO DE JANEIRO — Twelve years ago, when basketball first humbled Carmelo Anthony, he ripped off his USA jersey immediately after games and did interviews as a kind of frustrated athletic refugee.
Anthony didn’t represent the United States, at least not well. He represented his own disappointment and immaturity. He was 20 years old and spoiled. He wasn’t getting to play much, and the U.S. men’s basketball team was embarrassing itself, suffering three of its five Olympic losses in a single tournament. And with NBA players, too. Somehow, the team salvaged a bronze medal, but Anthony symbolized a problem that wouldn’t be as easy to remove as a uniform top.
Two gold medals later, Anthony enters the Rio Olympics as the first American male basketball player to compete in four Games. He is 32, still an NBA all-star and one of the most versatile and unstoppable players in international competition. And for the next 17 days, he is the most relevant basketball player in the world.
You have to respect his leadership and commitment to Team USA. And whether you like it or not, you’re going to listen to him, too. He’s growing in social awareness at the right time, sharing his voice and his ability to get people to assemble responsibly, hoping to stem the violence and misunderstanding between African Americans and police officers. The boy throwing a tantrum 12 years ago is now an adult with an admirable agenda who understands the power of his platform.
Anthony said he has entertained the idea of making a political statement during these Olympics. He hints that he will and then backs off and then vows, if he does do something, it will be tasteful and with a unifying intent. All eyes will be on Melo, just in case. While waiting, don’t ignore the statement he already has made with persistence.
In 2004, Anthony was considered among the problems with USA men’s basketball. Since then, he has grown as the program has recovered.
“I know what it felt like to be at the bottom,” Anthony said. “And I know what it feels like to be at the top of the game, as well.”
The same can be said for his career. Anthony has gone through many phases as a star: freshman national champion at Syracuse, co-star with LeBron James in the NBA’s supposed modern-day Magic-Bird rivalry, reckless young icon involved in alcohol and marijuana incidents, gunner who supposedly can’t win big, the New York Knicks’ great hope, aspiring entrepreneur. But Melo, the social activist and wise old veteran, is by far the most compelling.
He started raising his voice in July. In an Instagram post, he challenged athletes to work for change after the police shootings that killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the sniper attack that claimed the lives of five Dallas police officers. Later, on stage at the start of the ESPY Awards, he joined James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul in sending a similar message about athlete activism. He continues to speak out, and he also organized a meeting in Los Angeles for athletes and community leaders to discuss violence and racial issues. Members of both the men’s and women’s national teams joined him in that town hall.
At his fourth Olympics, Anthony has captured the curiosity of an international audience. Reporters stood 10 rows deep and shoved each other for position to listen to Anthony on Thursday afternoon. Kevin Durant might be the biggest star on Team USA, but Anthony is clearly the most important right now.
“There are things going on all over the world,” he said. “For me, I was just speaking on something near and dear to me that I was dealing with at the time and still dealing with. For us, as players and representing the United States, this is the best way we can go out there and send a message. It’s by winning a gold medal and showing the world that we’re united through all the turmoil going on back in our country.”
Over the past 10 years, Jerry Colangelo has watched Anthony grow while serving as the USA men’s basketball managing director. Colangelo can look back to his first meeting with Anthony — a breakfast in D.C. in 2005 — when he planted a seed with the young star about being selfless and committing to the program despite his bad experience in 2004, when he struggled to earn the trust of Coach Larry Brown and managed just 17 points and 11 rebounds in seven Olympic contests in Athens.
Colangelo didn’t guarantee Anthony a roster spot that day. He vowed only to look at him with fresh eyes. That’s all Anthony needed to hear. He called Colangelo a few times during that NBA season, wondering, “How do you think I’m doing? Really, how am I doing?” The interest paved the way for a long and rewarding relationship.
Colangelo and Coach Mike Krzyzewski have been together for the entire U.S. revival. And Anthony is the one player who remains with them. Since they took over in 2006, Anthony has competed in every major tournament except the 2010 world championships. His best basketball friends — James, Paul and Wade — aren’t in Rio, but Anthony couldn’t miss this.
“Honestly, I’m just very proud of, one, his career,” Colangelo said. “Two, the fact he is so committed to USA Basketball, and if I were in his shoes, I would be, too, because he thrives in international play. He’s been stellar.
“As far as his activism, we’ve supported it all the way and continue to do so because the world is full of a lot of issues right now, and our players, they’re very visible. They have a platform. And we’re very supportive of Melo and any other players if they are so inclined. I’m just very proud. It’s been wonderful, the experience of being with him.”
The pouting 20-year-old is now “the kind of guy you want to represent you,” Colangelo said.
From petulance to pride, Anthony is the most relevant basketball player in the world at this moment. He won’t be ripping off his No. 15 USA jersey this time, not after a dozen years of struggle and growth. Not after all the respect he has earned.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.