'Melo looks past hoops to streets

Originally Published: January 18, 2006
By Tom Farrey | ESPN the Magazine
Editor's Note: This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine earlier this year.

• ESPN The Magazine reporter Tom Farrey chat transcript

The Super VIP room at Beyond is the place to be in downtown Denver on a late-fall Friday night. There's a private DJ, plenty of couch space, an open bar and an elite crowd celebrating Carmelo Anthony and the launch of his Jordan Melo 5.5. The shoe is displayed like a museum piece in an elevated glass case at the center of the darkened lounge. A-listers like Jadakiss and Kiki Vandeweghe mill around it, shooting glances at the wide-screen panels on the wall that show a commercial for 'Melo's shoe on a continuous loop.

The human star of the night, though, is nowhere to be seen. He is tucked in an adjoining room, a sliver of Super VIP space beyond the dance floor. A glass wall separates Anthony and entourage from the sea of bobbing heads. As the hip-hop pounds, he props himself against the partition, brandishing a half-smoked Macanudo in his left hand. But he can't keep from leaning over the transom again and again to slap palms with the have-nots and have-somes to let them know they're not forgotten.

"Yoooo, what's up!" he says, with such gusto it's as if he's trying to pull one portly soul over the wall.

This is his young life: reaching over the divide. Sometimes, his golden hand finds a disenfranchised party who anyone would agree is in need. Other times, the recipient could be a rogue, even a criminal, and the unwitting gesture gets memorialized on a DVD that shuts down trials, marks Anthony as an enemy of the police and nearly gets him hauled before Congress.

Carmelo Anthony isn't particularly interested in sorting the cowboys from the angels, even if, as he is told, that may stand in the way of his off-court dreams. Anthony wants to be a power broker, a tastemaker, a corporate icon. To do that, the thinking goes, he has to connect to the broadest swath of the American marketplace. He has the nickname, the smile and the game. But is that enough to make Main Street feel comfortable with a kid from the hood who is intent on maintaining street cred?

Carmelo Anthony
Touching lives is what really makes Carmelo Anthony smile.

ANTHONY IS courtside in a chair in a nearly empty Pepsi Center. He's just shot a cheerful guest spot for "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide," a Nickelodeon kids' show, but his boyish, gently lined face is lit with frustration and purpose. "Do you know how many people I've touched?" he asks. His marketing team is quick to answer. There's the Katrina pledge of up to $100,000. Fundraising for family services in Denver. Donations of Thanksgiving and Christmas meals in his hometown, Baltimore. A van for a wheelchair-bound teen. The children's book. "I've touched a lot of people," Anthony repeats. "But all anyone sees is headlines: 'Melo is a gangster, 'Melo is a thug. No, 'Melo is a good person." He draws a breath. "I got a mission."

It's all about the tombstone. When he's done, Anthony claims, "I want people to say, 'He did a lot for everybody.'" That includes strangers doing life plus 25. His latest project is "Prison Ball," a documentary he bankrolled (with a six-figure check) and narrates. The haunting film, which he hopes to premiere during All-Star weekend, profiles some imprisoned ballers and explores the forces that drive dysfunction in urban neighborhoods. But it also questions the wisdom of giving hard time to two-bit dealers. "America has spent over $900,000,000,000 on the war on drugs," one full-screen shot declares. "Drugs are just as available today as they have ever been."

Anthony surely will be yelled at for this. The national drug policy is a messy topic -- and he's an easy target. In October 2004, he was charged with marijuana possession when team security at Denver International Airport found a small bag of pot in his backpack as he was getting set to board a team charter. (The charge disappeared after a friend swore it was his own stash, stowed without Anthony's knowledge.) The incident occurred two months after 'Melo first made the wrong kind of news, by complaining about his lack of playing time on the Olympic team. He made some more when he defended his now-fiancée, MTV veejay LaLa Vasquez, in a bar fight in Manhattan. Making matters worse, three men tried to extort $3 million from him with a videotape of the altercation.

All of it quickly became backstory in December 2004 with the emergence of "Stop Snitching." The now-infamous underground DVD discourages cooperation with the police, specifically by drug dealers who might try to avoid mandatory prison sentences by fingering other dealers. Anthony appears in a few scenes, mostly in the background. He doesn't say much, and never advocates drug dealing or use, much less violence. In fact, Anthony now argues, "stop snitching" is the ghetto way of saying "stop the violence."

But in mainstream circles, that he appeared at all in such a film was damning enough.

There are two dominant archetypes of NBA stars: the corporate guy, personified by Michael Jordan, who steers clear of social issues, dresses for the boardroom and sells more sneakers than anyone; and the street guy, embodied by Allen Iverson, whose wall-to-wall ink and gangsta swagger limit his appeal beyond inner cities and devotees of urban style. After "Stop Snitching" dropped, Anthony, who looked to be morphing into archetype No. 2, received an urgent call from archetype No. 1.

MJ had handpicked the Nuggets star to drive the Brand Jordan line of shoes and apparel. But now his pitchman was on news shows, in a clip that showed him standing on a sidewalk, red baseball cap pulled low, laughing nervously as a man near him appeared to suggest that informants "get a hole in their head." Gotta get on track, Jordan lectured.

LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo is headed back in the same direction as LeBron -- superstardom.

In fact, Anthony wasn't at all prepared for the ensuing fallout. For weeks, no one could get him on the line. Not friends. Not family. Not his agent, who left messages pleading with his client for help in controlling the damage. Potential endorsement deals were yanked, and the sports gawkers described him and LeBron as two phenoms headed in opposite directions, on the court and off. Anthony's play suffered, and he was left off the West's 2005 All-Star roster, a doubly humiliating snub because the game was in Denver.

He inked a new tat on his left forearm: When the Grass Is Cut the Snakes Will Show. In time, so did his resolve to move on. "I could hide for only so long," he says. He immersed himself in community work. And rather than pout during All-Star Weekend, he played the gracious host, throwing bashes around the city and paying for 200 kids to attend Jam Session, an interactive event sponsored by the NBA. Energized by the local love he received in return, Anthony played well enough to be named MVP of the rookie/sophomore game, then pushed his game to new heights in the second half of the season. LeBron got all the attention, but it was Carmelo who ended up leading his team to the playoffs for a second straight year.

He seemed to brush aside any taint in the marketplace, too. Both his sneaker and jersey hit No. 1 in sales among active players. "I probably lost a couple endorsement deals with Fortune 500 companies," he admits. "But I actually gained fans."

How much his street rep benefited from "Stop Snitching" is up for debate. The video's producer, Baltimore barber Rodney Bethea, cut just 100 copies, but when the local ABC affiliate got hold of one, it exploded nationally. With bootlegs blanketing the streets, "Stop Snitching" T-shirts began to appear in Atlanta, L.A. and New York, and before long in cul-de-sacs in the burbs .

"The DVD gave 'Melo street cred on a national level," Bethea says. "People in other hoods saw it and said, 'He understands. He's like us.'" Anthony says that when he travels across the country now, people yell his name and tug on their tees, as if he were minister of the message. Whenever he sees this, he shakes his cornrowed noggin, marveling at the power of celebrity. No one ever pointed to his carton of 2% because the 2004 Rookie of the Year runner-up did a "Got Milk?" ad. So is it celebrity or notoriety that sells?

Anthony firmly believes some of his popularity comes because of the controversy, not despite it. Surely, his popularity has at least as much to do with his stylish play, blissful smile and heightened willingness to share himself. "If there are 60,000 people in a stadium, I'll try to shake 60,000 hands," he says. Still, not only surviving "Stop Snitching" but thriving in its wake has been a liberating experience, freeing 'Melo to be 'Melo.

And by all accounts, 'Melo sells.

MJ ISN'T fretting anymore. He signed off on the gritty spots that promote the new sneaker as well as its evocative design. One of Anthony's tattoos, "CA," is carved into the sole of the $125 shoe, as is "Myrtle Ave," the West Baltimore street he grew up on. The commercial, "B More," follows him as he walks late at night along a stretch of abandoned rowhouses, slapping at his basketball in slo-mo and nodding respectfully at hard-faced street characters -- and Jim Boeheim! -- hanging on the sidewalk. All the while he's being harassed by a police helicopter that trails him with a spotlight.

Anthony says Nike originally proposed a concept that had him buying cars and playing video games. He rejected it, feeling it was too much bling, too little substance. Let's keep it real, he proposed. "I worked for two days on the script," Anthony says. "It was hard boiling my life down to 30 seconds."

To him, keeping it real is the key to building his empire. Having affirmed his ability to sell shoes, Anthony now is looking to access Madison Avenue from Myrtle Avenue. His bet is that, like Jay-Z, he can be both street and corporate. He'll live in a 12,500-square-foot mansion in the suburbs even as he continues to be the voice of the projects. Be a brand and a man. When he addresses the ills of the inner city, it will be on his terms.

Carmelo Anthony
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesLife's more than hoops for Carmelo Anthony.

His mentor is Kevin Liles, a Baltimore native who's risen to the top rungs of Warner Music Group. Liles is an African-American pioneer in hip-hop, a 37-year-old exec who's succeeded without sacrificing his street cred. He believes 'Melo has what it takes to pull off the same feat. "The greatest gift of Carmelo Anthony is, he's going to give us a voice," Liles says. "He's truly one of the voices of young America, because he comes from the struggle." Anthony is ready for the role. "It's where I'm from," he says with a nod. "I can't turn my back on it."

There is a reason HBO's "The Wire" is filmed in Anthony's old neighborhood. West Baltimore was once the thriving heart of the city's black community, a place where Louis Armstrong blew his horn at the Royal and girls tossed jacks on the scrubbed marble steps of homes owned by two-parent families. Now it's an American disgrace, one of the sickest sections of a city that two years ago, estimates say, had 10,000 dealers servicing 65,000 heroin and cocaine addicts. Trying desperately to keep even, police and prosecutors often cut secret agreements with dealers to rat out other dealers. But while the prisons fill up, the drugs never leave; there's always a lieutenant -- or a rat -- to take over the block. In the swirl of paranoia and profit, guns are pulled. Baltimore is one of the nation's murder capitals. Beyond the stadiums where the Ravens and Orioles play, it's Baghdad on the harbor.

For months after last winter's PR storm, Anthony's handlers wouldn't grant interviews with him unless a reporter agreed not to ask about "Stop Snitching." No more. Anthony never felt he'd done anything wrong, nothing big at least. Now, he wants to talk about where he comes from, the hand he was dealt.

In the Pepsi Center, he sets down a PDA he has been tapping away at and leans back in his chair. "Drug dealers funded our programs," he says. "Drug dealers bought our uniforms." They were just about the only guys in the hood with the cash to outfit a team. They did it for three years beginning in late elementary school, he says, and never asked Anthony for anything in return, like carrying product. "They just wanted to see you do good."

When the cops took over the nearby rec center and nailed a Police Athletic League sign on the front, Anthony and his friends boycotted. The goal may have been to clear out the dealers, but to him it felt like one more act of harassment, another form of bullying by some Charm City cop who doesn't especially trust loitering young black males. More than once, Anthony says, men in blue left him black-and-blue. "Nothing major," he says. "They'd just choke me, drag me around." It was enough to seal the kind of resentment that could one day lead to five minutes of face time on a fire-starter DVD. Think of the cameo as support for old friends in a hood to which he no longer belongs.

A few months after "Stop Snitching" hit the streets, Baltimore police asked Anthony to appear in a production of their own, "Keep Talking." He committed only to lending his name to an antiviolence campaign led by a local surgeon who stitches up gunshot wounds nightly. Anthony is a child of the War on Drugs. So he thinks in war terms, us versus them.

"I would never snitch," he says. "I would never testify on anything. That's just the street code." As the declarations tumble from his mouth, his marketing people sit 25 feet away. They have spent the past year trying to salvage his corporate appeal. And they have done it gladly, because they know his heart. In spite of everything, they lined up an endorsement deal with PowerBar -- not exactly IBM, but not a bad get. They kept the "Got Milk?" folks from bailing early, and made the Nickelodeon cameo happen. But their client doesn't make their job easy. "If you snitch," Anthony says, oblivious to them, "you're talking about someone's life."

THIS NOTION doesn't always travel well. Like to the Denver bedroom community of Aurora, the kind of classic American suburb where it's assumed that police protect and serve.

Aurora is where Rhonda Fields can be found, holding back tears. She's the mother of Javad Marshall-Fields, a recent Colorado State graduate who was slated to testify last June about a murder at a hip-hop event in a local park. But he and his fiancée were gunned down a week before the trial, and now their mothers hand out leaflets that beg people to stop wearing the "Stop Snitching" tees. "The shirts are a way of silencing a community," Fields says. "They give the thugs an opportunity to rule. We cannot tolerate any approval of a no-snitching message. You can't have a society that way."

After her son was killed, Fields contacted the Nuggets to ask if Anthony would help raise Crime Stopper funds that could encourage tips in the case. A team official met with her and passed on Anthony's condolences and a signed jersey to be auctioned at a local event. The jersey received one bid from the crowd of 160 attendees: $350, just above the minimum.

Given that tepid reception, it's easy to wonder whether Anthony, ambassador of the street, can ever be a first-tier pitchman. Maybe the experience of growing up in urban decay is so removed from that of the rest of America, his audience will never extend far beyond the people he knows best, the marginalized desperados of Myrtle Avenue and "Prison Ball." Then again, the man is only 21. And his public image is much younger that that. If he stayed at Syracuse, he'd be a senior, taking classes about, not immersing himself in, complex social problems.

In the Nike commercial, Liles plays a stocky dude who tosses away a newspaper with the headline "Carmelo Loses in the First Round -- Again." He wishes he could have trash-canned any thought of Anthony's ever appearing in "Stop Snitching." Liles counseled Anthony only after the fact, telling him there are better ways to make his point. In the end, Liles suspects, 'Melo will grow from the experience. "This is a test to see if 'Melo is ready for the bigger things in life," Liles says.

The Nuggets, for now, are happy to let him work it out. "He's a young kid who is going to be asked great questions, and he's not always going to have knowledge to answer them," George Karl says. "But he wants to be a leader. I really like that." Karl predicts Anthony will be captain within a year.

The turbulence did motivate Anthony. He worked out all summer. And this season his shot selection is better. And he's playing defense, even if he's sometimes caught reaching. It's an admirable flaw.

Anthony recently signed a letter of intent to participate in a joint venture that includes Stan Lee, the famed creator of Spider-Man, to develop an animated DVD comic in which 'Melo plays basketball by night and fights crime by day. Lee is the right man for the job. His characters -- unlike, say, Superman -- exhibit a flawed humanity. Spider-Man tries to do right but is viewed with suspicion by police and the press. He pushes on, convinced that "with great power comes great responsibility."

It should be interesting, watching 'Melo-Man try to sort the good guys from the bad.

Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn3.com

Tom Farrey | email

Writer, Reporter

ALSO SEE