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Original Issue

'Melo's Forward Progress

Think Carmelo Anthony is one of those guys who will never quite get there? First take a look at how far he's come

In the recent documentary Tyson, a critically acclaimed success at Cannes and Sundance, some of the most poignant scenes come when the subject takes inventory of his life. Cataloging the crests and craters, Mike Tyson is alternately gloating and remorseful and delusional before turning philosophical: "I wish I'd been smarter, but old too soon, smart too late.... What I've done in the past is history, what I'm gonna do in the future is a mystery."

The movie's executive producer and major financial backer can relate. Carmelo Anthony, better known for his day work as the Denver Nuggets' small forward, hasn't experienced Tyson's poles. (Who has?) But Anthony, too, knows about the highs brought on by athletic achievement and sudden riches and the lows brought on by regrettable choices, dubious associations and the pressures of celebrity. "We all have triumphs and tribulations, so there was a message in that movie for everyone," says Anthony. "But I think it's especially so for athletes. You don't want to grow up too late."

Anthony is 25 now. He is leading the NBA in scoring with 30.9 points a game through Saturday. Few players can match his versatile ability to shoot three-pointers, stroke midrange jumpers, attack the basket and use his strength to post up. He's also an early MVP candidate as the driving force—quite literally—behind the success of the Nuggets, a team playing even better now than it did last season, when Denver came within two victories of reaching the NBA Finals before falling to the Lakers.

But his social development, once arrested, is now at least out on bail. He has winnowed his entourage; moved in with his fiancée, Alani (LaLa) Vazquez; and graduated to hobbies more meaningful than PlayStation marathons. And damn if this evolved state, 'Melo 2.0, doesn't become him. "You know how I feel right now," he says, stroking his chin with one hand and slapping an overstuffed couch in the Nuggets' players lounge with the other. "Can't nothing bring me down."

Anthony's progressions followed transgressions that were well documented: alleged egocentrism at the 2004 Olympics, an unwitting appearance on an infamous "stop snitching" DVD in his hometown of Baltimore in 2004, and a 2008 DUI arrest in Denver. (He pleaded guilty to driving while impaired and was sentenced to community service and a year's probation.) Out came the labels; Anthony was "a knucklehead," "a gangsta," "a thug," the frontcourt version of Allen Iverson.

The toxic reputation was doubly vexing to those closest to Anthony. It wasn't just that the charges were hurtful; to their thinking, they were inaccurate too. "It was like, Who is this person they're describing? Because it's not the person I know behind closed doors," says Vazquez, an MTV personality who is Anthony's girlfriend of six years and mother of their two-year-old son, Kiyan.

Jim Boeheim, Anthony's coach at Syracuse, seconds the notion. "Look, it's well documented that he made mistakes, but it bothered me because Carmelo is a great guy. You'd think I'd say that no matter what, but I'm not like that," says Boeheim, who won his lone NCAA title with Anthony in 2003. "When he was here, he went to class, he went to practice, he worked. He did everything we asked. We've stayed in close contact since, and he hasn't changed. I'm telling you, he's a great guy." Boeheim offered this assessment from his new office in the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center, a $13 million facility that opened last month. The major gift—$3 million—was provided by a former student who spent only nine months on campus. "That place was so good to me," says Anthony, "I was happy to do it."

The Syracuse complex is not to be confused with the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center in Baltimore. Anthony grew up in a section of town familiar to anyone who watched the HBO series The Wire. "When I was in high school, I'd go to the bus stop and they were filming the show two blocks away from me," he says. "Guns, drugs, violence, even the characters—that was for real." In hopes of "bringing some light" (his words) to the neighborhood, he's contributed more than $1.5 million to build the center. "You don't think about growing up [in that environment], because you don't know anything different," he says. "But then you get out and you're like, Did I really come from that?"

Anthony has also devoted considerable resources to his L.A-based production company, Krossover. The concept of athletes underwriting movies tends to elicit eye-rolling; it's a sure way for an overreaching, naive jock to be separated from his wages, joining nightclubs and recording studios as the latest in vanity traps. But Anthony is no dilettante. A friend showed him hours of uncut footage of Tyson reflecting on his life—"It was raw in every sense," says Anthony—and proposed using it in a documentary. Anthony not only recouped his investment and got an executive producer credit, but with the critical success of Tyson, he's also become a credible player in the film industry who counts director Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour movies) and producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood) among his contacts.

Anthony's next likely project will be a feature-length biopic on Roberto Clemente. He's obtained rights from the family and has been meeting regularly with Clemente's sons, Roberto Jr. and Luis, to discuss the shape and scope of the project. Anthony sees Clemente as a rich subject, but the film is also a way of honoring his own roots. Like Clemente, Anthony's father, Carmelo Iriate—who died of liver cancer when Carmelo was two—was Puerto Rican. "Knowing a lot of my family worshipped the ground Clemente walked on, that makes this mean even more to me," Anthony says, holding up the Puerto Rican flag tattoo inked on his right wrist. "I don't think a lot of people see me as half Puerto Rican, but that's my blood. I definitely have the pride."

He gets it at home, too. Vazquez is a full-blooded Puerto Rican who speaks Spanish around their sprawling home in suburban Denver, in hopes that Kiyan will become bilingual. Less than fluent in Spanish, Carmelo is tasked with teaching his son to dribble, and also with inflating the toys and overseeing the Elmo film festivals. "I think because Carmelo was raised without a father, he compensates so much," says Vazquez. "He's definitely the good cop."

Anthony fills a similar role on the Nuggets. He's a team leader, but he's the one who consoles players who have entered coach George Karl's doghouse or gotten crosswise with businesslike veteran Chauncey Billups. When, for instance, Denver guard J.R. Smith spent 24 days in jail last summer after a reckless-driving conviction, Anthony was the teammate he chose to call from the jail pay phone. "You get these labels in sports—and they can be hard to undo—and I'd obviously heard [the rap] on Carmelo," says Malik Allen, a veteran forward the Nuggets signed in the off-season. "But I've been pleasantly surprised, to be honest. The best player on the team is always going to have a presence, but he has a real positive influence. When he does things like refusing to come out of practice, everyone takes notice."

Karl also hails Anthony's increased "involvement and his responsibility," a change that can be traced to the last Olympics. In 2008, Anthony helped the U.S. win a gold medal in Beijing and came back from China with a new sense of purpose. "The same way he's gone from a scorer to a basketball player," says Karl, "he's gone from individualist to more a leader."

Anthony's relationship with Karl hasn't always been the picture of harmony. "It was like we were two dogs marking our territory," says Anthony. But the coach and the player have, as Karl puts it, gravitated to each other. They've come to realize that they're kindred spirits, each incomplete in the absence of a championship. Karl is, unquestionably, a top-shelf coach. But without a title, he won't crack the Phil Jackson--Gregg Popovich duopoly. Likewise, Anthony is unquestionably one of the brightest stars in the basketball cosmos, but he's still a level down from Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. "And those last two were in my [draft] class," he volunteers.

Bryant is the figure who most clearly stands in the way of a title for Anthony. Asked to assess Anthony, Bryant says without hesitating, "I've always felt his game was sharp. Now the guys around him know how to play off him. I enjoy the competition with him. He's a tough matchup for everyone." It's generous praise, especially from a player who can be parsimonious in that regard. But when Anthony hears Bryant's assessment, he shifts uneasily and winces. It's clear: Kobe is on Mount Olympus, looking down from on high and surveying the landscape. "I don't want to compare myself to Kobe," says Anthony. "This is his 14th season. I got time. Will I win four rings? I don't know. But that's the future. I do know that I'm not even close to where I'll be. There's so much I can improve. And that's scary."

His game was on vivid display when the Nuggets hosted the Lakers on Nov. 13, an encounter that had the aura of one of their games in the 2009 Western Conference finals. Hours before tip-off Nuggets fans walking up Speer Boulevard had started the familiar Beat L.A., L.A. sucks, Kobe sucks medley. Beset by foul trouble, Anthony scored only seven points in the first half. He didn't, however, force shots or complain to the refs. Showing off the subtlety that's crept into his game, he played the passing lanes on defense and fed open teammates at the other end of the floor, contributing in ways other than putting the ball in the basket. He was defended UFC--style by Ron Artest, and at one point they tangled and crashed to the floor. It was precisely the kind of play that might have caused Anthony to confront or taunt his opponent. Instead, Anthony extended a hand and helped Artest up.

At halftime Anthony jogged back on the court with his head high, commending Denver forward Kenyon Martin for his defense. Then, in the second half, the inevitable eruption came. Anthony scored 10 points in the first five minutes of the third quarter, pouring in all manner of jumpers, drives and free throws. It was the embodiment of the saying: Let the game come to you. Anthony finished with a game-high 25 points. The Nuggets did as directed and beat L.A. 105--79.

As he dressed in front of his locker, a spartan cubicle adorned only with a photo of Kiyan, Anthony fastened his cuff links and held forth. "There's No 'Melo stopper," he bragged. But then he turned serious, cautioning against assigning too much weight to one early-season contest.

Wiser now, he knew this game was history, the future still a mystery.

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Because of the success of Tyson, Anthony has become a credible player in the film industry.

"I'm not even close to where I'll be," says Anthony. "There's so much I can improve. And that's scary."


Photograph by JOHN BIEVER

COMPLETE WORKS Always an offensive threat from inside and out, Anthony has now become an off-the-court leader and an ally to his coach.



WHAT'S UP, DOC? With one sports bio already to his credit, Anthony (with fiancée Vazquez) is taking on the story of Clemente (top, right).



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LOCKED IN Anthony's focus was evident in a win over the Lakers as he resisted the provocations of Artest's physical play.