RIO DE JANEIRO – When it comes to the always-divided discussion about Carmelo Anthony, Jerry Colangelo is quite the weather vane.
Every few years, as his Team USA men’s basketball program ramps up and starts building a roster worthy of Olympic gold, he reconnects with the New York Knicks star who has been analyzed from every angle for so many years. Anthony has put on the USA jersey an unprecedented for times for the Games, and he helped the Americans win gold three times.
But this one, which culminated with a 96-66 win over Serbia in the Rio finale and tears afterward for the 32-year-old who made this go-round bigger than basketball, was unlike any that came before.
“I think this was a coming-out party in terms of leadership for him,” Colangelo, Team USA's managing director, said. “I think that’s going to bode well for the Knicks, and for Carmelo going forward, and I want to just thank him for his great service to USA Basketball.”
So what was different?
“More mature,” Colangelo said. “I mean he was just – ‘Melo was a different kind of a guy. He had been around the track a few times. He wasn’t sure he was going to do it, and I think in retrospect he’s happy he did.”
No matter what happens with Anthony next, no one can take away what he did these past few months. He spoke up when there were sensitive racial issues to be discussed. It started with a passionate post on Instagram in the wake of the Dallas shootings in early July and continued with a townhall meeting in Los Angeles where he made it clear that action – not just words – were needed to try and spark change. He saw the ripple effect from there, with other NBA stars following suit in a productive, meaningful way.
But the basketball part of it all mattered, too. As Anthony explained in his NBC interview afterward, that’s why this gold medal meant so much. Silly as it might sound in the grand scheme of things, this was no time for some of the Americans’ most high-profile athletes to stumble on the worldwide stage. And with his contemporaries such as LeBron James, Chris Paul, and so many others having bowed out of these Games, it fell on Anthony to help see that part through, too.
“Despite everything that’s going on right now in our country, we’ve got to be united,” Anthony said on the telecast. “I’m glad I did what I did. I stepped up to the challenge. But this is what it’s about, representing our country on the biggest stage that you can be on.
“America will be great again. I believe that. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s one step at a time, and I’m glad we represented in the fashion that we did.”
It didn’t hurt that the old man in the group played pretty well, too.
Anthony, whose gold medals mean as much to him as the NBA title he will keep chasing, saved the day in a 98-88 win over Australia in group play. The Aussies were the first of many teams to push this 2016 version of Team USA, but Anthony’s 31 points (including nine three-pointers) ensured their winning streak (now at 53 games in FIBA play) would continue. Considering he scored a combined 36 points in subsequent wins over Serbia, France, Argentina and Spain, the Australia performance was his one shining moment on the floor.
But his value went beyond the box score. He was the only one who had been there when the Americans took bronze in the 2004 Athens Games, a result that still haunts them . He was the only one there when they took bronze again at the 2006 FIBA World Championships in Japan, too, the final failure before it all turned around under Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski. On this team that was lacking continuity, with only him and Kevin Durant part of the 2012 Olympics among the roster of 12, Anthony was a crucial aberration. And, as Colangelo sees it, a changed man.
“He has given a lot of service to USA Basketball,” Colangelo said. “Think about it. Four times? And to be able to win three times? It just says a lot about his character, and the fact that he had the success that he had with our program makes it even that much better… He’s been terrific. I can’t say enough about what he’s done for USA Basketball.”