Late last week was an odd period for the Oklahoma City Thunder, as both of its new forwards made returns to their former locales – Paul George coming back to Indianapolis after asking the Indiana Pacers to trade him, and Carmelo Anthony returning to New York to play against the Knicks after 6 ½ up-and-down seasons.
George, who was loudly booed from warm-ups to the final whistle, had his moment, and though he shot poorly, his new team silenced the Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a win. A few evenings later – and a thrilling triple-overtime win in Philadelphia – Anthony’s return to New York was a charged one where after he started off hot in his former gym, he (and the rest of the Thunder) sputtered for most of the second half. Despite holding down Madison Square Garden in a home-heavy first two months on the schedule, New York’s win over OKC proved that they could play a full four quarters without Kristaps Porzingis for the first time. (They’re awful on the road as they have been since that last playoff push in 2012-13; a story for another day.)
Whereas George’s return was expected to be a hostile one, how the MSG crowd would receive Anthony was quite debated until tip-off. The very question of showing appreciation for Carmelo was a bizarre one in the first place, but if you live here, it was also unsurprising.
Sure, the fans gave Anthony a warm ovation during the pre-game introductions after a well-done tribute from the Knicks themselves. And yet those in the arena must have already made their decision before they arrived: cheer to be polite because the world is watching… then boo to be, well, assholes because the world is watching.
Saturday night was another display of the Knicks fan base having been a divided one for YEARS. The divide is rooted in the lack of sustained title contention since Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals, but it is further widened by the chaos of Knicks ownership and a media landscape thirsty for surface-deep narratives instead of nuance. The fan split isn’t about disagreements over how the team should be built, but rather it has always been about who shoulders the blame when things have gone awry.
If you’re the fan who sat in the lower bowl at MSG because you worked at the right company, you regularly fall for Big Media’s trolling of the team (or LeBron James’) or you consider talk show blowhards like the retired Mike Francesca your god, there’s a strong chance that all you saw was a player who was never going to be good or great enough enough for you. A missed shot was an existential failure. Iso-ball was completely and only of his making, not compelled often by the lack of offensively astute teammates until Porzingis’ much-needed arrival. Defensive shortcomings were his alone, not the fact that the 2012-13 squad was the lone of his tenure that featured several capable defenders. The bellowing of ‘Melo who?’ is common, though it ignores that the team’s current best player is using quite a bit of his true mentor’s repertoire, including that iso-ball so often criticized when #7 utilized it.
But if you’re like the huge chunk of the fan base in the city that sees sports for more than entertainment, Melo always meant a bit more. He was the first superstar player in recent history for any of its teams that not only embraced all the annoying and lazy clichés about New York – big stage, big media market, ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena,’ the conveniently located hypebeast of local and national media, etc. – but he took in its honest state that Big Media would never, ever show. From his growing political awareness that extended to his other native home in Baltimore to his honest assessment of what’s it’s like to “be a New Yorker” to even his bodega game, Anthony connected to the city – and though implied, it should be said he connected to its black and brown residents – in a manner than guys who won titles and MVP awards here never could.
After all, name an active pro athlete who played in NYC that would visit juveniles at any prison, let alone the infamous Rikers Island.
But the loud and proud blamed him for just about everything: the end of Linsanity, ineffectiveness of other players, a contract well within his rights as a player, coaching and executive upheaval… hell, he might have been blamed for the so-called jinx of the team’s sweet orange jerseys. All the while, he stood up and accounted himself for it all. He took the hits for Jeremy Lin’s departure, despite leading a far superior team a season later that was knocked out of the second round by the Pacers and his new teammate, Paul George. He rose above Amar’e Stoudemire’s belated shots, knowing that STAT couldn’t reconcile his own issues here. He dealt with Phil Jackson’s management schizophrenia – and for those who forget, Steve Mills’ very presence – far more professionally than anyone ever could.
So when Carmelo said that he didn’t expect the tribute from the team during pre-game warm ups, there’s likely truth from that, considering those final exhausting weeks that forced even some of his staunchest critics to beg for his mercy. Even after Jackson was gone, the team proceeded to not even make a mere mention of his existence, with Mills showing that he wasn’t all that much above the fray.
On Saturday night, people in the building had their cake and ate it too. They purported some form of class with the ovation, but were likely snickering about how they would lay it on him when he got his first touch of the ball. And with Oklahoma City’s struggles on full display, the overachieving Knicks pulled out a great win by playing the kind of basketball that Anthony’s former teammates admittedly wished they showed when he was in New York.
It was telling that both former teammates and some media members that knew Anthony well talked about that aforementioned embrace of his birth city. As many others who have come to the NYC metro area, he’s one of those successful athletes in business (investing money in SeatGeek and other companies, growing a soccer team in his late father’s native Puerto Rico, etc.) that took full advantage of the resources he developed here. Yet, he also took in the culture that reminded him why the Knicks mean so much to the city. It was never just about the people in the arena or even about those outside of it who were looking for moments where the ‘Knicks gonna Knick.’
Melo had exactly the attitude and accountability that many New York area sports fans claimed they want star athletes to have, but was still treated like a villain by far too many. He may not be the most unappreciated sports figure this city has ever had – that distinction goes to the guy who walked through the fan divide years before, Patrick Ewing – but he’s certainly in the consideration for second place in those unofficial standings. Even if this Knicks team figures it out in the coming years, Carmelo Anthony’s contributions deserve far greater appreciation than what they got on Saturday night.
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon's beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school's 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.