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Like the rest of his superstar buddies, Carmelo Anthony wants to dictate where he plays. Unlike one in particular, he'd like to do it without tarnishing his legacy

It was an exit like any other. Carmelo Anthony, the last to leave his seat on the Nuggets' bench last Saturday, approached the locker room tunnel as fans on either side cheered. He twirled his signature white headband into the Pepsi Center crowd, leaned to high-five a trio of excited children, stopped to sign a photograph and then without further ado, all 6'8" of him was gone—goodbye for now, see you next week?

Since his arrival in 2003, Anthony has provided Denver with countless thrills, but the enervating saga of his future has drained the expectations from the Nuggets' season. Last Saturday's 127--99 clobbering of the visiting Cavaliers concluded the most lopsided stretch in Nuggets history—they won three straight games by at least 28 points for the first time—yet there was little hope of a long playoff run to come for the 23--17 team. As SI went to press, Denver's new management team of president Josh Kroenke and executive vice president Masai Ujiri was continuing five exasperating months of negotiations on a multiple-team trade that would send Anthony and point guard Chauncey Billups to the Nets. The deal would yield draft picks, prospects and a leaner payroll: small consolation for that long-anticipated and dreaded night when its small forward won't reappear from the locker room tunnel.

The Nuggets won 17 games in 2002--03, which gave them the third pick in the draft. They used it on the 19-year-old Anthony, a Syracuse freshman who would lead Denver to the playoffs every season and make four All-NBA teams. With those happier days in mind Anthony has been trying to engineer his departure without the burning of bridges (and jerseys) that marked LeBron James's exit from Cleveland. "I would never go about it the way LeBron did it," said Anthony as he sat in the Nuggets' players lounge last Wednesday. "If he could do it all over again, he wouldn't do it that way—he would do it a totally different way, I can guarantee you that."

Anthony knows because he has been leaning on James as part of an elite NBA superstar support group who text almost daily. "We talk a lot more often than we have in the past, especially now," said Anthony of James. "I talk to him, I talk to Chris Paul, I talk to D-Wade, I talk to Kobe [Bryant] just to let me know if I'm doing anything wrong. Because I look at them guys as friends, so if I'm doing anything wrong, I'm pretty sure they'll tell me. And vice versa."

Whether Denver trades Anthony to the Nets (his most devoted pursuer), the Knicks (his preferred destination) or any number of mystery teams that have been actively negotiating to acquire him on a rental basis (knowing full well that he plans to opt out of the final year of his contract), Anthony and agent Leon Rose have maintained open communication with the Nuggets in hope of concluding this highly public divorce with civility. That's why the occasional boos he's heard at the Pepsi Center have cut Anthony deeply. "People throw away that whole seven-and-a-half years, and that's what makes me laugh," he says. "Because I'm like, me? Out of all the people, you're booing me? Out of all the people."

Anthony's request for a transfer caught the Nuggets by surprise. As recently as last spring he appeared likely to sign a three-year, $65 million extension. When Kroenke left to celebrate his 30th birthday in South Africa during the World Cup, he and Anthony continued to exchange texts. Kroenke flew back to meet his father, Stan (who last summer passed control of the Nuggets to Josh), at Anthony's wedding to LaLa Vasquez on July 10 in New York City.

Much has been made of Chris Paul's toast that night predicting that he and Anthony would join with Amar'e Stoudemire—who had signed with the Knicks earlier in the week—to "form our own Big Three." What has gone unreported is that the scene was set by James, who on his way into the wedding was jeered by New Yorkers for shunning the Knicks two nights earlier during the live telecast of The Decision. "If you want any chance against us in Miami," he joked to Anthony, "you'd better team up with Stoud in New York."

Laughter rose up from Anthony's family, most of whom live in New York. Then Paul, who was sharing the microphone with James, made his prediction, setting the tone for other jokes to be made about bringing Anthony home. Finally, a message was relayed to Stan Kroenke that Anthony wanted him to make a toast, apparently to let the comedians know that the groom's boss was hearing all of their conspiratorial talk. Kroenke cracked a joke of his own about liking New York as much as anybody, at which time he invited everyone to visit Denver.

Joking aside, it is now clear that James's maneuvering to Miami opened Anthony's mind to the possibility of choosing his own employer. In August he invited Josh Kroenke to Baltimore for a meeting in which he formally asked the Nuggets to trade him to the Knicks or the Bulls at the risk of otherwise losing him as an unrestricted free agent the following summer.

Anthony wanted to be dealt before training camp, but each of his preferred franchises made an underwhelming offer: The Bulls would not part with center Joakim Noah, while the Knicks lacked the picks and young talent to satisfy Denver. The Nuggets can't be accused of being cheap—they're a heavy luxury-tax payer—but if they were going to surrender an elite scorer (Anthony's career average is 24.7 points per game) approaching his peak years, then, at the very least, they wanted to avoid another tax penalty while creating flexibility for their rebuilding efforts ahead of the next collective bargaining agreement. (The current deal expires after this season, and the next CBA is expected to drive down salaries and the length of contracts.)

No suitor had more young assets to offer than the Nets, who dream of challenging the Knicks' hold on New York with Anthony as the face of the franchise when they move to Brooklyn in 2012. The last five months have generated several reports that Anthony's move to New Jersey was imminent, even though the Nuggets insist nothing has ever been close enough for Josh Kroenke to notify his father, which he plans to do as a courtesy before moving Anthony. In September, Ujiri and Josh Kroenke were waiting outside NBA vice president Stu Jackson's New York office when they read a report on a TV ticker declaring that Anthony was on the verge of being dealt to New Jersey in a four-team swap that would give the Nuggets a draft pick, Nets rookie Derrick Favors and the expiring contract of Andrei Kirilenko. The deal was never close to happening, and the Nuggets view the leak as an attempt by the Nets to force Ujiri and Kroenke to succumb to public pressure.

Their stubbornness in holding out for the best offer is a sign that the franchise is in strong hands. Ujiri, a 40-year-old native of Nigeria, was a guard for Bismarck State and Montana State--Billings before spending six years playing professionally in Europe. His meteoric NBA rise began as an unpaid scout for the Magic in 2002, followed by shifts with the Nuggets as a scout from 2003 to '07 (during which he developed a friendly relationship with Anthony) and then with Toronto, where he rose to be assistant G.M. He was brought back to Denver in August to run its basketball operations by Kroenke, himself a former guard at Missouri from 1999 to 2004.

Kroenke was a top 50 recruit who grew up within the new AAU culture in which kids can pick their teams and coaches as teenagers. As a result, a generation of stars such as James, Wade and Anthony have felt empowered to seize unprecedented control of their careers—and also to occasionally flout the game's unwritten rules. Last Thursday, after the Nuggets handed the visiting Heat its worst loss of the season, 130--102, those three players met in the hallway outside the Nuggets' locker room in a brazenly fraternal display. When the scene was relayed to Cavaliers coach Byron Scott, who as a player won three championships while sharing the Lakers' backcourt with Magic Johnson, he said, "Back in the day you never saw Magic and Bird talking after the game in the hallway, because the guy that lost the game wasn't in the mood to be talking to the guy that just beat him. Most of it I understand, because things change. But some of it's hard for me to stomach."

Nuggets coach George Karl didn't know what to make of Anthony's anticipated departure as he sat in his office last Thursday. "If it happens, I will be sad," said Karl, choking up as he spoke. "I will be sad for longer than probably any other trade I've ever made. And I don't know why I'm sad." This is Karl's 23rd season as an NBA coach, and he spoke of the enduring relationships he has developed. "I mean, I don't have a Sam Perkins relationship with Melo, or a Nate McMillan or a Detlef Schrempf or a Gary Payton relationship," he said, referring to players on his Seattle teams of the 1990s. "But we have progressed, and I respect great players helping my career."

As recently as 2006 Karl's relationship with his young star was so strained that Anthony refused to be photographed alongside his coach for an SI story. "I think the sickness was the bridge," said Karl of his recent bout with throat and neck cancer, which caused him to miss the final 20 games of last season. "When I came in [to visit the team] maybe a half-dozen times, Melo went out of his way to make sure he connected with me, and that's the first time he's ever done that. Melo doesn't do that very much: He's more of a loner."

Last month Karl texted Anthony several times following the death of his sister, for which he left the team for five games. "I'm not very good with death, and I said that to him," said Karl. "I said, 'All I know is somewhere along the way, celebrate [her life].'"

Ironically, the coach-player relationship is at its strongest at a time when it appears it's about to end. But Karl has still been counseling Anthony, telling him that he needs to focus on winning—whether it be in Denver or another city—and not be distracted by his marketability. "When all of this [trade talk] hit this year, my challenge to Melo was to force him to understand the next step," said Karl. "That you can get there, and you've got to get there."

Anthony says they're on the same page, even if they won't be on the same team. "If I was to go back East, then the top team would be Miami over the next couple of years," he said. "So you've got to build something to knock that down." But within what he admits is his "complicated" agenda, Anthony has other ambitions—to win a title, presumably improve his Q rating, move closer to home and, of course, get paid. Asked if it's important to sign a three-year, $65 million extension before the anticipated July lockout, he replied, "That's my goal."

If Anthony isn't traded by the Feb. 24 deadline—he told SI he believes he will be—the Nuggets could end up losing him and getting nothing in return. Ujiri knows how that feels; he was still with the Raptors last summer when Chris Bosh departed for Miami. "Masai, he's been through that already with Chris, and I don't think he wants to go through that again. And for me having a personal relationship with him, I wouldn't want to see him going through that."

The one question Anthony declined to answer was whether he would commit long-term to the Nets or refuse to sign the extension with New Jersey in hope of forcing a trade to the Knicks. For their part, the Nuggets were continuing to explore several possibilities. The longest of long shots would be to keep Anthony for the remainder of the season, then deal him in a sign-and-trade.

Anthony grew up poor in Brooklyn and Baltimore, where he never imagined dealing with "problems" of the kind he's now facing. "I don't think this is a bad thing," he said. "This is just a decision that I've got to make. I've done been in worst places in my life." However it plays out, wherever he lands, he's certain that the pundits and bloggers and radio hosts will forget the last six months soon enough and move onto the next sports crisis. "Nobody's ever going to care about that decision I make," he said with a smile. "The average person only cares about now." Sounds like a conversation he might have shared with LeBron.

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Photograph by GREG NELSON

MELO DRAMA Anthony began pushing for a trade five months ago, launching a saga that continues to eclipse the Nuggets' performance.



UPON REFLECTION Spending time pondering his future hasn't hurt Anthony's game: He's 10th in the league in scoring (23.1 ppg), and he's averaging a career-high 8.1 boards.



[See caption above]