By Vicki Michaelis, USA TODAY
DENVER Carmelo Anthony wanted to explain.
He began telling Mike Krzyzewski what happened at the 2004 Summer Olympics, where Anthony sat on the bench and U.S. men's basketball coach Larry Brown publicly accused him of being selfish and sulky.
Krzyzewski told Anthony no explanation was needed. What the coach of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team did was turn the conversation toward Anthony's future: "I remember telling him I think he could be one of the great players and he should think of himself in that manner."
The conversation took place just before Krzyzewski coached the U.S. team in this summer's world championships in Japan. What Anthony did during those championships has the basketball world rethinking its perception of "Melo."
By leading the U.S. team in points and passion, the 22-year-old Denver Nuggets forward took a major step in revamping the bad-boy veneer he acquired during his first three years in the NBA. He rejoined U.S. team co-captains and NBA draft-class brethren LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as the young faces of the NBA.
"I had a lot of stuff built up inside," Anthony says. "I just wanted to prove everybody wrong."
As the Nuggets prepare to open their season Thursday at the Los Angeles Clippers, Anthony has regained the elite status that accompanied him to the NBA after his magical freshman season at Syracuse. Now the question is: Can he transfer his leadership skills to the NBA court and guide the Nuggets past their postseason shortcomings?
"When he first came (into the NBA), it was always Melo and LeBron, LeBron and Melo," Nuggets teammate Marcus Camby says. "Last year, it was LeBron and Dwyane Wade, and rightly so. Those guys are elite athletes in this league. But I always felt Melo was up there with them.
"This summer (at the world championships) just proved and just reassured people that he should be mentioned along with that class."
Anthony smoothed out some of the rough patches in his reputation with surefire outside shooting and dedication on defense. It was similar to his efforts as a freshman at Syracuse in 2002-03, when he led the Orange to a national championship with a potent combination of skills and resolve.
"He's put himself in a good place to take a bigger role and a bigger responsibility," Nuggets coach George Karl says.
Stepping up to take charge
In July, Anthony signed a five-year, $80 million contract extension with the Nuggets. Before the deal was signed, Karl and Nuggets management told him they "want him to be a spokesperson, a foundation of our organization, representing us on and off the court," Karl says.
On the court, Anthony has posted laudable numbers, averaging more than 20 points each season. He ranked eighth in the NBA in scoring last season (career-high 26.5 points).
The Nuggets broke an eight-year playoff drought in Anthony's first season and have advanced to the postseason every year since. Once there, though, they have stalled, winning one first-round game each time.
Off the court, his NBA tenure has been tainted by the clash with Brown and a string of missteps by Anthony and his circle of friends from a minor marijuana charge that was later dropped to his appearance in a bootleg DVD in which alleged drug dealers celebrate informant intimidation.
Taken alone, none was serious enough to be Anthony's undoing. Together, they produced an image just cloudy enough to keep All-Star berths out of reach.
After Tyler Smith, a Colorado State basketball player and close friend of Anthony's, was cited in July for marijuana possession when he was pulled over in a car registered to Anthony's company, Melo Enterprises, Anthony gave his friends an enough-is-enough talk.
"Basically I just told them, 'Look, my profile is your profile. Whatever you do, no matter where you're at, it's going to reflect back on me,' " Anthony says. They remain friends.
Soon after that, he joined the U.S. team to prepare for the world championships.
Anthony reported to U.S. training camp in prime physical shape. He encouraged his teammates to practice hard and play harder.
"I just got everybody together and said, 'Look, what else are we going to be doing? We know what we're here for,' " Anthony says.
He almost single-handedly turned around a preliminary-round game against Italy, scoring 29 of his 35 points the most by a U.S. player in a world championships game in the second half.
In the quarterfinals against Germany, the USA broke open a one-point game with a 16-2 run in the third quarter fueled by two three-pointers and a steal from Anthony.
"I'm not in the NBA world," Krzyzewski says, "so I don't know what motivated him or what motivates him, but he was ready, let's put it that way. He hit the ground running not running, sprinting.
"He was the leader in effort, enthusiasm and performance right from the start."
Great support from Coach K
Anthony says he focused this offseason on his defense. At the world championships, he averaged 1.89 steals, tying him with Chris Paul for the U.S. lead.
Anthony's 19.9 points a game were the second most by a U.S. player at the world championships, behind Luther Burden's 20.2 points a game in 1974.
"Some people said, 'He doesn't play defense, he doesn't do this, he doesn't do that.' It wasn't about what he didn't do. It's about what he does do. He did everything," Krzyzewski says.
Anthony credits Krzyzewski who had his own skeptics to overcome as a college coach trying to meld NBA stars into a national team for igniting the breakout performance.
Krzyzewski tapped into everyone's strengths, Anthony says, and kept his game plan pliable enough to accommodate them.
"He just really put some extra motivation into my game," Anthony says.
"For a coach like that to have so much high praise about a player when he doesn't even know them, that meant a lot to me."
Good guy under 'the wrapping'
The Nuggets have seen Anthony test-driving his newfound role in the preseason.
"He's more vocal, trying to get his teammates more involved," Camby says, "and he's humble about it. We all understand that this is his team, this is his franchise, but he doesn't gloat about the situation. He wants to get better as an individual, and he wants this team to grow, also.
"I see him clapping and cheering his teammates on. It's a far cry from what he was like when he first came here."
Anthony is unassuming up to the moment he's driving the lane for a dunk. He entered the NBA quietly, out of deference to the Nuggets veterans. Then the weight of criticism over his wayward incidents pushed him even further into reserve.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim saw unaltered character behind the bad headlines, the same uber-talented player under the wrapping.
Anthony's actions at the world championships didn't signal so much an evolution in his career as a return to the way he was at Syracuse, says Boeheim, an assistant coach for the U.S. team.
"In my mind, he didn't change. I think he's been good from the beginning," Boeheim says. "I've never had any questions about him as a person or as a player."
Older and wiser and about to become a father with fianc้e LaLa Vazquez, an MTV personality, due in March, Anthony is a cover boy again. He is flanked by James and Wade for Sports Illustrated's NBA preview edition.
"That," Anthony says of the cover, "is a great picture."
It's an image of a player made good, perhaps on the cusp of greatness.