RIO DE JANEIRO — The Summer of Carmelo came to a fitting end Sunday night, with tears.
For all the justifiable and understandable page views and sports talk hours Kevin Durant's free-agency decision produced the past seven weeks, this was Carmelo Anthony's offseason, in so many different and meaningful ways.
It ended with a third gold medal for Anthony Sunday, with Anthony's U.S. team bludgeoning Serbia by 30, in what was Anthony's last game for USA Basketball. And as he did the postgame interview with NBC, he choked up.
"I was kind of thinking about everything that was just kind of going on back home," he said as he left a final news conference Sunday night, on the way back to the bus that would take the U.S. men and women to their charter flight back to the States.
"For us to be kind of at the pinnacle of, you know, at the highest level you could possibly be at around the world, throughout the world, what we're representing is bigger than just basketball at this moment," he said. "So all of those emotions just started coming out."
This was indeed the summer that Anthony did so much more than play games.
He spoke passionately, along with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul, at the ESPYs in July about the impact police shootings against people of color in communities of color. That followed his Instagram post a week earlier when he said that athletes had to be more vocal speaking on the issues of the day.
"We can't worry about what endorsements we gonna lose or whose going to look at us crazy," Anthony said in the post. "I need your voices to be heard. We can demand change. We just have to be willing to. THE TIME IS NOW."
While he was in Rio, he went to one of the city's favelas, the poorer neighborhoods that have dealt with so many of the issues that the affluent and protected in this city could ignore, or drive around -- the crime, the sanitary disasters, the police killings, the bleakness that recession and political corruption has produced here.
It was part of a continuing education for the 32-year-old Anthony, who had declined in the past to make his voice heard.
'Melo's for sure the leader of us. He's the voice of this team. It seems more and more, the further we got into this thing, really the more vocal and the more he picked it up for us.
– Team USA's Paul George, on Carmelo Anthony
"I always had it," he said. "I always -- how they sort of say, pick your battles? I always was, I don't want to say careful. I picked my battles. I spoke when I needed to speak. A lot of times, you have too many voices, and sometimes you can get overshadowed, and you can get lost in the shuffle. I felt like at this time, there wasn't no voices. So for me, it was the perfect time to step up."
His fourth Olympics -- no U.S. man has played in more Games, scored more points or grabbed more rebounds, and no man has won three gold medals in basketball -- began with a verbal dustup. That was when Anthony took some hits for saying during the first week that he thought he'd still have a good career if he won a third gold medal but never won an NBA title. DeAndre Jordan said the same thing this week, and there were, relatively, crickets in response.
That is life when you're still the New York Knicks' biggest star.
Even as New York has faded from relevance as an NBA power, the back pages still can project power and importance well above a team's actual impact.
But the truth of what Anthony said was neglected.
For many years, writers (myself included) who covered the NBA would refer to The Finals champions as the "world champions" of basketball. But most of us stopped saying and writing that after it was pointed out by people outside the States that no team outside North America played in the NBA. Thus it was presumptuous to believe the NBA champion was the best basketball team in the world.
The Olympics and World Cup are truly the world championships of basketball. A team that wins them can rightly state it is the best basketball team in the world. And Anthony has now been on that team three times. Add to that his nine All-Star appearances, and a national championship at Syracuse, and you have someone whose ticket to Springfield has already been punched, no matter what the BullKnicks and Kristaps Porzingis bring to the party next season, and in the years to come.
I always was, I don't want to say careful. I picked my battles. I spoke when I needed to speak. A lot of times, you have too many voices, and sometimes you can get overshadowed, and you can get lost in the shuffle. I felt like at this time, there wasn't no voices. So for me, it was the perfect time to step up.
– Team USA's Carmelo Anthony
Anthony has evolved, from one of the young guns that Larry Brown barely played in Athens in 2004, to a solid role player and occasional starter in '08 and '12, when he was the second-leading scorer on the team, to the oldest member here. On a team with 10 players making their first Olympic appearance, he was the guy most everyone looked to for advice.
"I think this was a coming out party in terms of leadership for him," USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said Sunday night. "I think that's going to bode well for the Knicks and for Carmelo going forward, and I just want to thank him for his great service to USA Basketball."
I asked Colangelo what was different about Anthony this time around.
"More mature," Colangelo said. "'Melo was a different kind of guy. He'd been around the track a few times. This was, he wasn't sure he was going to do it. I think in retrospect, he's happy he did."
Anthony's experiences gave him empathy and cache to guys like Paul George and Jimmy Butler, first-time Olympians who came off the bench in Rio.
"Melo's for sure the leader of us," George said. "He's the voice of this team. It seems more and more, the further we got into this thing, really the more vocal and the more he picked it up for us."
Anthony was such a different person than he was in '04, when he sulked through his first games.
"I kind of wanted to come off the bench in '08 and '12," Anthony had said. "It was a different experience coming off the bench but I actually enjoyed coming off the bench and kind of being that spark, kind of feeling the game out and seeing what's happening, and then coming in there and infiltrate right in there as soon as we get in there. Especially on this team, I kind of enjoyed taking that role and I've seen and talked to Paul and Jimmy and those guys, and it seems like they're enjoying it too. It's different for everybody. Everybody can't start. On this team, we're all starters in our respective minds. We all know that we can't be out there at the same time."
This was the Absent Olympics for so many NBA players -- LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The team that was selected showed more of the depth of the U.S. program than anything else. The ball stuck too often and there was too much one on one offensively.
But this team's calling card was defense, with a second unit of ballhawks that also included the Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry, the LA Clippers' DeAndre Jordan and the Sacramento Kings' DeMarcus Cousins both doing man-sized work in the paint and on the glass, keeping everything on the perimeter. And in the end, there was another gold, and that's all that matters, giving Mike Krzyzewski five golds -- three Olympics and two World Cups -- as his tenure as the U.S. coach came to an end.
Krzyzewski said in the postgame news conference that Anthony helped shape the culture of USA Basketball during one of its darkest moments -- the 2006 semifinal loss to Greece in what was then called the World Championships, in Japan. That was the last loss for the men's senior team in international competition.
"We shared a press conference in 2006," Krzyzewski said. "He set the tone in that press conference for what was to be one of the standards of our program, and that's collective responsibility. We didn't make any excuses. We took responsibility for the loss and gave credit to the Greek team, and we built on that. I call it character. At that moment, sometimes in a loss, you find out a deep character in someone, and that's what happened with Carmelo."
The commitments of so many players followed from there, forming the spine of the U.S. team, that has now won 53 straight games in FIBA competition, since winning the bronze in Japan. Anthony has been on the floor for all of those games.
Anthony didn't shoot it great throughout the games, other than a 31-point burst against Australia in pool play. He only had seven points Sunday (though he was put back in the game late in the fourth quarter to cherry-pick the rebound that gave him the U.S. rebounding record.) But scoring is never a problem for a U.S. team, and it wasn't here. His presence was much more than the points he scored; playing almost exclusively power forward here, he still tilted the floor.
We didn't make any excuses. We took responsibility for the loss and gave credit to the Greek team, and we built on that. I call it character. At that moment, sometimes in a loss, you find out a deep character in someone, and that's what happened with Carmelo.
– Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, on how a 2006 loss shaped Anthony
"He can score on just about anybody, but when they put the fours on him, they can't guard him," Durant said. "They put Aron Baynes on him, and he had 31. They put (Nikola) Jokic on him, from Serbia, and he was scoring, 'Cause they can't guard him. They can't stay in front of him. You don't see those guys guarding him in an NBA game."
Anthony now played, I had offered earlier in the week, the Kobe Role, the elder statesman.
"No," Anthony said. "No. Kobe was 35 when he was in 2012 with us."
Okay. How about the 2008 Kobe Role, on the Redeem Team in China -- a guy that could still bring it when needed, as Bryant did in the gold medal game against Spain?
"Yeah," Anthony said. "That's more like it -- 2008 Kobe is more like it. We was actually surprised that he accepted the invitation in 2008. But once he got there it was more of kind of him and Jason Kidd, and kind of looking for those guys for that advice. That's what's happening here now. I'm the only one now. We had a couple on that team. I was the one that was following Kob and wanted to work out with him every day, and train with him, and try to dig into his mindset to see how he was thinking and what his approach was to the game. So I give that experience back to these guys."
It's just hard, man, to see, to know, for me to fathom the fact that one of the greatest players in the world looks up to me, even now. It's crazy -- he looks up to me and I respect him and honor him, his game and his work ethic. That's something that I appreciate about him.
– Anthony, on Team USA teammate Kevin Durant
Anthony and Durant were the alpha males here, continuing a friendship that hasn't gotten the attention of, say, Anthony's bromance with James and Wade. But it's been there just as long.
"We had this conversation years ago," Anthony said. "I've always heard that, from people back home, I've always heard that KD looked up to me. Now, I look at him as my peer. I don't look at him as a guy who looked up to me. I respect that. It's just hard, man, to see, to know, for me to fathom the fact that one of the greatest players in the world looks up to me, even now. It's crazy -- he looks up to me and I respect him and honor him, his game and his work ethic. That's something that I appreciate about him."
Durant chooses and keeps his friends carefully. He considers Anthony to be among the tightest.
"He's a real bro," Durant said. "That's my guy. I've looked up to Carmelo since I was 15 years old. I wanted to be Carmelo. And once I got the opportunity to hang around him and get to know him a little deeper, coming into the Draft, I asked him for advice here and there, and it just made things, it made the relationship even smoother. Coming from the same area -- not close -- he could tell that I wanted to reach out to him, and he wanted to reach out to me. Once we did it, it was just organic and smooth, and he's been a real friend ever since."
Organic is how Anthony also described finding his other voice, the voice that seeks change in the world.
He didn't ask his representatives if they thought it would be a good idea to visit the favelas, where he played pickup ball with local kids and had a mural painted in his honor.
"That was always on my bucket list," Anthony said. "I always wanted to do that. Wherever I go, anywhere I go, I always try to get back to the nitty-gritty of those communities. I just wanted to be there. I wanted to kind of touch that soil and talk to the people, and just be there. Sometimes, you need to go to places like that. It's very humbling. It puts a lot of things into perspective."
"It ain't a lot for us to complain about, you know what I mean?," Anthony said. "Throughout the rest of the world, we all have our own problems in some way, shape or form. Just for me to be there, they've never had people like that come through there. They don't even allow people to come through places like that. So for them to let me come through and actually document that ... I felt like I was one of theirs. I felt at home. I felt at ease. I felt comfortable over there. And they allowed that."
It's what Muhammad Ali used to always do -- go to the neighborhoods of color, to see people who looked like him and came up the way he did. It was what endeared him to so many around the world, who often didn't have champions in their corner, literally or figuratively.
Anthony is just at the beginning of that journey. It is a journey that his wife, LaLa Vasquez, has already been on in her own public life.
"I'm sure that my wife is super proud," he said. "Not just at this moment, but kind of this whole summer, and the way it ended up, and the way that it started. She didn't even know that I was putting that Instagram post up. She's the main one that's, she's more vocal than I am. She's always the one saying 'you need to say this, you need to say that.' I'm like, when the time comes, my voice will be heard."
The time is now. It is a new and uncertain path Anthony now walks, sometimes with people who know him and support him. But, for certain, there will be people who don't support him when he speaks out, and who will act and speak accordingly. It is not a path for the squeamish or the timid. It requires a certain courage. Courage is not doing anything out of the ordinary; it's doing the normal under extraordinary conditions, and pressure.
He says he's ready.
"It feels right," he said. "It's genuine. It's natural. It's not nothing forced. It's not nobody telling me to do it. It's me. It's who I am."