In the fifth grade, my lips were chapped and 50 Cent's debut album "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" spun feverishly in my Walkman. I was finally able to shoot free throws without having to jump and I started to figure how to effectively use curse words. Allen Iverson was the face of the NBA in Michael Jordan's absence and everyone cut the ends off knee-high socks to make DIY arm sleeves and sported headbands. This became the turning point for the culture of the NBA: Iverson brought hip-hop culture to the forefront with his cornrows, tattoos, and pregame outfits. He ushered in a new era of unapologetic self-expression and was responsible for the oppressive dress code then-NBA Commissioner David Stern imposed on players.
This was 2003. In the shadow of Iverson's NBA were rookies LeBron James, the high school phenom, and Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony, the biggest thing to come out of the city since Juan Dixon. Baltimore shouted "Melo!" as they pulled up from mid-range on black tops throughout the city and rightfully so: Anthony made a killing near the elbow, blowing past bigger defenders in two dribbles or dodging them with a deadly hesitation crossover. He easily overpowered smaller defenders altogether.
Anthony was the most relatable athlete I had ever seen in all my nine years of life. He wore Acoustix in an ESPN interview. We shared the same Baltimore accent, and he probably could appreciate a good half-and-half. His style was similar to Iverson's, and he had me wanting to buy any headband I came across. While James grabbed most of the headlines and was praised for his maturity coming out of high school, Anthony quietly held his own as one of the other brightest young stars the league had to offer. He went on to be named to the all-rookie team and was selected for the USA Men's national team in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
This team was a disaster. They won the bronze medal, hindered by issues surrounding the lack of team cohesion. This team lost three games total, including a blowout to Puerto Rico. Anthony didn't get much playing time sitting behind Richard Jefferson and Shawn Marion, and he was criticized when he spoke up about it. The criticisms of the 2004 Olympic team and, more specifically, Allen Iverson drew parallels to the same old red, white, and bigoted stereotypes projected on African-Americans and hip-hop culture: too self-absorbed, too lazy, not patriotic, a bad attitude. Tattoos and braids weren't what people wanted accompanying a jersey with the letters "U-S-A" embroidered across the chest.
As the recent controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick's protest of the national anthem shows, these stereotypes are still pervasive.
Early on, the story surrounding Anthony was that he was flawed, too caught up in things he maybe shouldn't be caught up in. Later in 2004, not long after he dared to complain about a lack of playing time, he infamously appeared in the "Stop Snitchin'" DVD. Anthony didn't always fit in the boxes people constructed for him and he was pegged as a troublemaker, which gave him a front seat to telling shifts in basketball politics and the country's discourse about how young black men should or shouldn't act.
So he became a role model at his own pace. Not long after the "Stop Snitchin'" controversy, Anthony appeared in a commercial for his sneakers, the Jordan Melo 5.5. He used the opportunity to lay the foundation of his off-the-court legacy, specifically as a voice for the neglected communities in the city of Baltimore. In the commercial, Anthony wears a black hooded sweatsuit as he walks down Myrtle Avenue. He dribbles past blighted homes, a young Justin Jenifer and friends playing crate ball in an alley way, Syracuse University coach Jim Boeheim on a recruiting visit, and people chilling on their front steps all while being surveilled by a police helicopter, Foxtrot. It was a "never forget where you came from" nod to the city that helped shape both his game and personhood—the sneaker is nearly an afterthought. This pledge of allegiance to Baltimore was distinctly not about the Inner Harbor, the Orioles, or crab cakes.
Since then, Anthony has led the charge in using his athletic prowess to promote change in Baltimore and beyond: He opened the Carmelo Anthony Youth Center, and refurbished the Cloverdale courts; he has also refurbished courts throughout New York and Puerto Rico; he has a series with Vice Media where he shares his views concerning the magnification of his life as a star athlete, and he visits Rikers Island to gain insight on prison culture; in 2011, during the NBA lockout, Anthony organized a huge all-star game at Morgan State University; and during the Baltimore Uprising, he marched with protesters over west sporting a Cassius Clay sweatshirt.
His presence during such a pivotal moment in the city's history was poignant: Baltimore wasn't just the latest city to call attention to police brutality, it was his hometown. His appearance during the uprising raised the stakes for Anthony heading into the Rio Olympics. Earlier this year, he appeared in an updated version of that 2005 advertisement, this time for the Jordan Melo 12s. At the ESPYs in July, he stood with his friends and fellow NBA titans Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and James and renounced police violence against black and brown people and made it a point to condemn the recent retaliatory violence in Dallas.
"The events of the past week have put a spotlight on the injustice, distrust, and anger that plague so many of us," Anthony said as he opened up the star-studded event. "The system is broken. The problems are not new. The violence is not new. And the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high."
James rounded out the speech as they challenged the athletes to use their influence and resources to be change agents in their communities all year round.
Paul, Wade, and James didn't play in this year's Olympics, which left it up to Anthony to make good on the ESPYs declaration in Rio. Just before the team was set to play pre-Olympic exhibition games, Anthony organized the "Leadership Together: A Conversation With Our Sons & Daughters" forum where police officers, athletes, and young people talked about police violence at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club in Los Angeles. At the Olympics, he used his downtime to hang out in the favelas and play basketball with children—a stark contrast to Ryan Lochte's partying and lies to police.
After USA Basketball's gold medal win over Serbia, Anthony huddled up with his teammates and spoke.
"It wasn't always pretty," he said of their path to victory. "But we came together and did it when it counted. I love y'all niggas."
Then, in a post-game interview he acknowledged the problems facing the country.
"Despite everything that's going on right now in our country, we got to be united. I'm glad I did what I did, I stepped up the challenge, but this is what it's about. Representing our country on the biggest stage you can be on," he said holding back tears. "America will be great again, I believe that. We got a lot of work to do but one step at a time."
He also announced his retirement from international play.
Thirteen years later, my lips aren't chapped anymore and The Roots' Black Thought dominates my iTunes library and YouTube playlist, instead of 50 Cent. Anthony's statement was a less radical response than some, including myself, may have anticipated, but it was a continuation of his ESPYs statement and an effective Trump troll. It was the right statement to make. And he did it while becoming the most decorated USA Basketball Olympian and most prolific scorer. He went from the problematic prodigy to the paragon of USA Basketball.
It wasn't always pretty, but Anthony played hard and he spoke up when it counted. Baltimore loves you, Melo.