CARMELO ANTHONY is wide open, nobody within 20 feet of him, lonely as a Pinto salesman. Yet he can't get the ball. He throws his arms up, stomps his feet, yelps, but his teammates don't even notice.
That's because Anthony is pacing his family room, miles from his Denver Nuggets teammates, slowly going out of his mind.
Ever since he landed a roundhouse right in the Nuggets' brawl with the New York Knicks on Dec. 16, the 22-year-old forward says he's been in "jail, man, solitary." His suspension cost him 15 games, $782,340 and, worst of all, maybe his team.
The day after the sentencing the Nuggets traded for hoops icon Allen Iverson, and Denver suddenly turned into Allentown. Fans followed snowplows through blizzards just to see the Answer in blue. And on this night, as Anthony chewed through table legs wishing he were on the court, Iverson scored 44 points and dropped 10 assists to clobber the Seattle SuperSonics.
"AI is like this big Christmas present I got," Anthony groans, "but I don't get to open."
What kills him is that he was having one Dreamboy of a year. He was leading the league in scoring. The team was winning. He was shedding his street-thug image. He'd donated $1.5 million to the Carmelo Anthony Youth Center in Baltimore, his hometown. He'd given Syracuse, his alma mater, $3 million. His girlfriend, LaLa Vazquez, is due in March. "He's growing up," the world beamed.
Then came the Punch.
"One incident, and you're a gangster and a thug again," he says, slumped in an empty Denver locker room, his teammates on the road. "It's a fight in a basketball game. I felt like they were beating up my little brother. I'm not going to just stand there. I'm going to go help him." He shakes his head dolefully. "It's one bad moment, and all of a sudden people don't see any of the good things you do."
He regrets it, but—"Fifteen games? That's too much," he says. So why not appeal and try to get it reduced? "Because then it'd be my name across the ticker tape at the bottom of the TV again... CARMELO ANTHONY APPEALS. I just wanted to do my time."
Of course, it didn't help when Anthony announced how he was going to stay in shape during his time off: boxing lessons.
Alex, I'll take Clueless for $1,000, please.
He's allowed to practice with the team, but he has to be out of the arena two hours before game time, when it's back to the family room with his two dogs and a big screen that mocks him. "I try not to watch," he says. "It hurts too much. But then the game starts, and I know I've got to watch." During the Sonics game, TNT talked so much about whether Anthony and Iverson, the league's top two scorers, could exist on one team, he turned off the sound.
So whose team is it, yours or AI's?
"It's still my team," Anthony insists. "Look, man, this is his 11th season. He's tired of always being the Man. He wants to sit back and let somebody else be the Man. He just wants to win a championship. And he knows he can't do it by himself.... I mean, I know how he feels. I've been the Man on this team for 3 1/2 years. It gets overwhelming."
Somebody put out an APB for Melo's smile. He's about as cheery as a meter maid with bunions. "I just feel like, Damn, where do I fit in? I don't even know how to fit in. I've never had to before."
And into this tangle of uncertainty comes the stabilizing and fatherly influence of... Allen Iverson?
"I know what he's going through," says the 31-year-old Iverson, who has made nearly every mistake Anthony has made—brawls, feuds with coaches, drug-toting friends—and more. "Every day you wake up with a bull's-eye on your chest. You're like, Why's everybody coming at me all the time? But, with time, you start to realize you are that special talent, you are that franchise player, and you have to accept it. He's got to realize that more people want him to succeed than he thinks."
And one of them is Iverson, who's made it a point after home games to have dinner with Melo and scheme for the day he returns, Jan. 22. "Man, I don't care about 40-point nights—I've done that, I don't know how many times," says Iverson, who's done it 77 times. "He's 22. He needs to get his 40s and 50s. As long as we're winning, I don't care who shoots it."
What Iverson wants now is assists. "I want to be there for [Anthony]," he says. "I want to have a positive impact on his career and on his life."
Allen Iverson: Voice of Reason?
Hey, kid, maybe you're not as alone as you think.
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Somebody put out an APB for Carmelo's smile. He's as cheery as a meter maid with bunions. "I just feel like, Damn, where do I fit in?" he says of serving his suspension.
RIFFS of REILLY
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PETER READ MILLER