Carmelo Anthony and his New York Knicks arrived in London ahead of their game against the Detroit Pistons looking to press the reset button following a drama-filled ten days that has threatened to cast a shadow on one of the best seasons of the All-Star forward's career.
A flurry of focus on the Knicks' franchise cornerstone began with an on-court skirmish with the Celtics Kevin Garnett, one which spilled onto the front pages of New York's tabloids and into the twittersphere.
Anthony lost his cool and the slumping Knicks lost the game after the notorious trashing talking Garnett unraveled the all-star forward with comments that allegedly involved his wife La La Vazquez. After time expired, Anthony stormed off the court looking for the Boston forward, first in the visitors locker, then at the team bus. It was ugly enough for the NBA to suspend him for a game, one the Knicks would lose, on the road in Indiana.
On Sunday we learned that Carmelo had been fasting in order to gain "clarity" in his life, saying: "I haven't had a good meal in about two-and-a-half weeks. No meats, no carbs, anything like that. So I don't know how I was out there competing at high level. It's been some games this past week where your body just feels depleted out there and you're trying to find a way to get some energy. But I surrender, I'm done. I'm going to get some food right now."
Hours after heading out to get "the biggest steak I can possibly get", reports surfaced that Knicks owner James Dolan had positioned sensitive microphones near the court during recent home games in order to record conversations between Anthony and his opponents. Speaking on Wednesday, Melo took the high road: "I got an owner that looks out (for me)," said Anthony at London's O2 Arena. "You can't beat that."
That's quite a stretch for Anthony and the Knicks, and the timing could not have been worse considering the team is battling a 6-8 slump, one that came on the heels of the team's best start in 14 years. Despite their recent woes and injuries, it's still possible to give the Knicks the benefit of the doubt, and that's because Anthony, despite his hiccup against Boston, has been nothing short of all-world over his first 30 games, an MVP candidate without question.
Predicted to be old and slow, featuring a roster of questionable makeup, the Knicks raced out to an early 18-5 record, surprising their fans with a style of play that featured a viable defense and a penchant for finding the open man, not unlike the storied 1969-70 Knicks that won their first title. Some 40 years after winning their last championship, New York raced to the head of the Eastern Conference, with lofty aspirations inspired by Anthony's leadership and all-around play - a transformation in Melo's on-floor makeup that delighted their title starved fans.
The Knicks early season ascension led by Melo seemed unlikely after the chaotic 2011-2012 campaign, a unique 66 game set that varied from week to week, that felt like seasons within seasons. There were the lowly Knicks that featured the inability of Anthony and all-star forward Amar'e Stoudemire to play together successfully. Anthony got hurt, leading to Jeremy Lin's "Linsanity" Knicks, a team that streaked to seven straight wins out of nowhere. Then Anthony returned to the lineup and the Knicks floundered once more, resulting in the firing of head coach Mike D'Antoni, paving the way for Mike Woodson's Knicks, a revitalized group that put together an 18-6 record down the stretch and made the playoffs. It was hard to keep up.
It certainly wasn't dull around Madison Square Garden (it rarely is), not with the Linsanity which brought the sport to a fever pitch, nor with the consistent controversy swirling around Carmelo Anthony, the Brooklyn-born superstar who grew up idolizing Bernard King, who the Knicks bet the house on, branded selfish, a coach killer, too limited to help his team win.
It was turmoil for the forward who watched his city turn against him, keeping quiet as the tabloids had their way with the player who was supposed to bring the Knicks franchise back to its previous glory days of the 1990's.
"Not too many people can sit and go through that and still maintain their focus," Anthony told the Guardian in an exclusive interview.
"I went through it, you know, and me personally, I know what's the reasons why the season was what it was, me I would never make excuses for that. You know, this season, I can come back, we can come back and redeem ourselves. It made me that much more stronger, it made me realize, made me really circle in and zoom in on what I really need to focus on."
That laundry list includes a renewed commitment to fitness, leadership and all-around play that was born over the summer in London.
"My self motivation for the Olympics, my mindset, my focus, really carried over to the Olympics and the season now."
Anthony took gold with Team USA in what turned out to be a springboard for his game, leading to what is becoming the season of his career - he's second in points per game, but more importantly, he's the straw stirring the drink on a team with a turned over roster, making it work on a team stacked with role playing veterans such as Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas and J.R. Smith, creating the space on the floor to maximise their contributions.
"I think he's been extremely consistent," said three-point threat Steve Novak. "I think he's the MVP of the league right now and that's a special thing to see."
Pablo Prigioni is a 35-year-old NBA "rookie" relishing his opportunity to play with the Knicks lynchpin. "He do everything, defense, score, he's the leader of the team," said the Argentinian-born point guard. "It's a pleasure for me to play with him and to see him every night doing everything like he do, until now and I hope he keep doing all of this."
There is still work to do, and yes, he needs to prove that the breakdown against Boston was an isolated incident. Melo also knows, New York being New York, that he will ultimately be judged on whether or not he can help the Knicks end their title drought. For now however, the Knicks need to get players such as guard Raymond Felton healthy, and return to the formula that made them so successful early in the season.
Not to be forgotten is the challenge of blending Amar'e Stoudemire, the one-time offensive force and team leader who is slowly getting up to speed following knee surgery, into the team. Should the Knicks ever figure out how to successfully pair him with Melo, the duo could raise New York's game to another level.
"For him to be back with the guys, with the team, to incorporate him into everything that's going on, we couldn't wait for him to get back" said Anthony.
Stoudemire and Anthony are in the lineup as the Knicks trying to get on track against lowly Detroit, in London, where Melo and fellow Knicks and Team USA teammate Tyson Chandler beat Spain in the final.
"All the memories from over there this summer," said Anthony, who seems to have a special place for London. "Just to be back, playing in O2 once again, it's a great feeling."
"I went to the Palace. I went to see the Eye. Just walking around it was a great experience...It kind of reminds me of New York City."
Playing in London:
"We set a precedent over there you know, now from here on out, we're going to have British fans now. The New York Knicks will have British fans over there - not saying they don't already have it, you know they actually see us in person rather then just seeing us on TV and that's a big difference."
Playing for the USA:
"I've been part of USA Basketball since I was in the 11th grade, playing on the Junior Olympics, being able to play in the '04 Olympics, and '08, so I've been around with the USA Team, since I was like a teenager."
Visiting his old neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, following Hurricane Sandy:
"It was a blessing, I could go back and still have a chance to help people that helped me when I was a little kid. Growing up back there, under different circumstances, but for me to be one of the only people that's really from Red Hook, to go back there, and be the face of Red Hook, it was a blessing for me, it's an honor. You know, Red Hook can easily be pushed away, you know, get overlooked. Red Hook is like a little island within an island, a borough within a borough, for me to be the face of that is big.
The Brooklyn Nets:
"For me, taking it away from the whole basketball thing, it's like it feels good to see that Brooklyn, my birthplace has something they can look forward to on a consistent basis, something they can root for. Kids growing up can actually be Brooklyn Nets fans, you know, some people going to convert, some people going to stay back, but I think the energy that New York has as a whole is crazy."
"He's super strong, he's 6'9" 260 pounds, you know, run a 40 [yard dash] in 4.3 seconds, something like that, so I think that's the most important thing when he is out there on the court, him getting up and down so quickly, changing the pace of the game, how he sees the game makes it difficult."
"He hadn't played a game since last season, so the whole summer he worked so hard, get back, and then he got hurt in training camp so, for him to be back with the guys, with the team, to incorporate him into everything that's going on, we couldn't wait for him to get back."
"Tyson, he's our motor, especially on the defensive end, he's our motor. Very vocal out there on the basketball court, in practice, he brings that aspect every day."
His favourite music:
"NAS, Jay-Z, and any oldschool, 80's, 70's, 60's. Any of that."
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