March Madness is unequivocally my favorite time of year. For the next few weeks, we’ll examine some of the greatest performers who used the NCAA Tournament as their own personal playground.
Carmelo Kiyan Anthony, though most often associated with his hometown of West Baltimore, Maryland, was introduced to the game on the asphalt of New York City. His father, Carmelo Iriate, was a playground baller who, before moving to the Big Apple, grew up on the west coast of Puerto Rico. Melo was born in 1984 and, for the first eight years of his life, lived in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Projects.
His father was felled by liver cancer and transitioned into the spiritual form when Melo was still a toddler, but he passed on an enduring legacy that still shines today.
“My father was a ballplayer and I still have clips of articles about him and some leagues he played in,” Melo told me during our recent conversation for the story that appears in Bounce #19, the Puerto Rico Issue. “He was a 6′5″ scorer. It runs in our family.”
Before Mary Anthony moved her four children to Baltimore, Melo was an ardent St. John’s hoops fan. He also counted Brooklyn native Bernard King, the Knicks’ small forward extraordinaire and scoring machine, among his boyhood idols.
Young Melo hit the Red Hook asphalt, establishing the foundation that he would later build upon.
“I played in Red Hook, the I.S. 8 tournament, in Sunset Park and a lot of other tournaments around Brooklyn,” he said.
Upon moving to Baltimore, the young man frequented the outdoor courts in his new neighborhood. The area on the west side of town was known as “The Pharmacy” due to the thriving commerce of the heroin and cocaine trade.
The Myrtle Avenue that Carmelo settled into was far removed from West B’more’s glory days, where Jazz and entertainment giants like Satchmo, aka Louis Armstrong, packed the Royal Theater. The sparkling marble steps of once elegant homes, as well as the fabric of the family unit, were now in sad disrepair.
The drug culture, and its associated violence, had turned the once proud manufacturing and blue collar enclave into one of the nation’s murder capitals. In the shadows of Ravens Stadium and Camden Yards, parts of West Baltimore resemble war torn, third world disasters.
The neighborhood where Carmelo grew up was ground zero for H.B.O’s phenomenal series, The Wire. But even in the worst ghetto’s, bad guys do good things. “Drug dealers funded our programs,” Melo told ESPN The Magazine’s Tom Farrey. “Drug dealers bought our uniforms. They just wanted to see you do good.”
Mary Anthony would not allow the negative forces to swallow her son up without a fight. She insisted that his grades be maintained, especially when he showed glimpses of tantalizing athletic potential during adolescence. And the playgrounds of B-more nurtured his burgeoning genius.
“I credit a lot of who I am today as a player to my days playing on the streets in Baltimore,” Carmelo said in 2006 when he was chosen as the cover athlete for the NBA Street Homecourt video game. “My homecourt in Baltimore will always be a part of who I am, because that’s where I gained the skill and desire that has made me successful in basketball. NBA STREET Homecourt represents real street basketball and the place where it all started for me.”
Melo, though talented, did not make his high school varsity team as a freshmen at Towson Catholic. The slight motivated him to get serious and put in more work. By his sophomore year, he was 6′5″ and his name began percolating in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast corridors. But the accolades went to his head.
“As a good player in the inner city, you’re always hearing people saying that you’re better than you really are and that you don’t have to do things like everybody else,” Melo told Sports Illustrated. “When I was in Baltimore I took all that talk and ran with it. It distracted me from my schoolwork. I started getting suspended.”
He signed with Syracuse as a skinny, 6′7″ junior.
“He was basically a regional recruit,” Syracuse assistant coach Troy Weaver told SI in 2002. “But then in the summer he just blew up nationally.”
photo of melo at oak hill: media.collegepublisher.com
Melo started dominating at camps and tourneys and threw a national coming out party with a string of scintillating performances at an AAU tournament in Vegas. In the fall, he transferred to prep school hoops powerhouse Oak Hill Academy and, taking his profile oustide of Baltimore, became a top five national recruit. Sequestered in the rural Virginia mountains, he added 20 pounds of muscle and took his game to another level.
Melo led Oak Hill to a 32-1 record – including a victory over the Akron, Ohio, St. Vincent-St. Mary squad led by Lebron James – with 22 points and 7 boards per game. Melo thought about going pro, but his mom wanted him to get a taste of college life. The housekeeper at the University of Baltimore was unfazed about the potential millions her son was poised to earn.
“I didn’t want him to go to the NBA,” Mary Anthony told SI in 2002. “When you get all that fame and fortune, honey, you become a man, right then and there. I wanted my son to have a chance to be 18 years old.”
His first basket as an Orangeman was a dunk against Memphis and Melo scored 27 points or better in his first three college games. He led the ‘Cuse with 22 points and 10 rebounds per game during the regular season. Then came Melo’s March Madness, where he put on one of the most dominating freshman performances ever in the rich history of the NCAA Tournament.
In the East Regional Final against Oklahoma, Melo had a double-double with 20 points and 10 boards in the 63-47 victory. Against TJ Ford and the University of Texas in the ‘03 Final Four (which was the first time casual fans ever heard the name of Marquette’s super duper star, Dwayne Wade), Melo set a record for the most points ever scored by a freshman in a national semi-final. He exploded on the grand stage with 33 points, making 12 of 19 shots, and 14 rebounds in the 95-84 victory.
In the 2003 National Championship, Melo – with some assistance from Gerry McNamara, Hakim Warrick, Billy Edelin and Kueth Duany – delivered coach Jim Boeheim’s first NCAA title with an astounding 20 point, 10 rebound, 6 assist performance in Syracuse’s 81-78 victory over Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison’s Kansas Jayhawks crew.
The Sporting News gushed that “…Anthony played the college game better than any freshman in NCAA basketball. Ever.” Boeheim told SI that Melo was “the best player I’ve ever coached.”
He garnered First Team All-American honors, was the Big East Rookie of the Year and the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
For those few weeks in March of 2003, Carmelo Anthony solidified himself as the greatest one year player in college history. For those who watched him as a college freshman, especially during the NCAA Tournament, we’ll never forget how he put the legacy of his coach and an entire program on his young shoulders, delivering a title and stretch of performances that will live on forever.
And without the asphalt of New York and Baltimore supplying the proving ground, none of it ever would have happened. So as we anticipate the goodies to come in the NCAA’s in the upcoming weeks, as well as wondering what players will shine above all others this year, let’s take a minute to ponder and recognize the brilliance of Melo in 2003.
THE PLAYGROUND IS NOT THE PROBLEM. IT IS THE SOLUTION!”