OKC Thunder’s Carmelo Anthony talks after his return to New York to face the Knicks. The Knicks beat OKC, 111-96, on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017.
NEW YORK – The first four names of the Oklahoma City Thunder starting lineup were announced by Madison Square Garden public address announcer Mike Walczewski and then the lights dimmed and the arena went silent for a moment.
The crowd was hushed as a video began to play on the scoreboard. Highlights of Carmelo Anthony’s six and a half seasons in New York rolled by – the 62-point game, his place among the Knicks all-time scorers, shots raining in from all angles interspersed with shots of him in the community, working charity events around the city that Anthony wanted to be his own.
The video ended with a simple, “Thank you Melo” and then Anthony was introduced by Walczewski to a huge ovation. The Garden crowd mixed in a few boos and maybe the organization would have, too, if his departure on the eve of training camp in a trade to the Thunder wasn’t preceded by a corporate bloodletting.
Anthony took the court to the cheers of the crowd without having to worry about cutaway reaction shots of Phil Jackson hovering above him. With hoody in place Anthony stepped from the bench as a visitor at Madison Square Garden, the warmup and hood hiding any sign of emotion from the crowd.
“(There) wasn’t a tear,” Anthony said. “I was actually surprised that it happened. I was just getting ready for my name to be called, looking down and everything just stopped and the video came on. It’s a bittersweet feeling for me. Coming back here, knowing the goals that I had, what I wanted to accomplish here and falling short in that category. Also being on the flip side now, being on another team. It was a bittersweet situation for me.”
But Anthony didn’t hide his feelings about heading back to New York. Weary after fighting his way through the Thunder’s triple-overtime win in Philadelphia Friday night, he spoke openly about his excitement of returning to the city that he had wanted so much to be a part of.
Unlike other players who departed as free agents or asked out, Anthony wanted to come to New York, he wanted to be in New York – signing back on with a five-year contract that demanded a no-trade clause. And when Phil Jackson spent 18 months trying to get him to waive the clause he finally gave in, bridges burned and both sides needing a fresh start.
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Even in the last days before the deal Anthony had considered the possibility of coming back this season with the Knicks. He worked out at his gym in Manhattan, players from the Knicks and other teams joining him on the court, and even Knicks’ coach Jeff Hornacek and members of the front office on hand.
Anthony made a point after the game to thank the team president who replaced Jackson, Steve Mills, and general manager Scott Perry, for the pregame tribute. With Jackson gone, the toxic atmosphere cleared and even the triangle offense scrapped, there was a thought that Anthony didn’t have to go.
“I believe that. I believe that,” Anthony said. “It’s something that we actually talked about in the summer. We talked about it when I was with those guys before everything went down. We were training together, we actually talked about what this season could be. I think the damage was done at that point. It was just right, better for both parties to split that way.”
“Carmelo’s a great player,” Hornacek said. “He can play in any system, whether it’s slowdown – and we did a little bit of that early in the season last year – so he’d have figured out how to fit in. But the team we have now, this is the way we’re playing and that’s our focus.”
For the Knicks the departure set the stage for a true rebuild – or at least what you would call a rebuild when the summer brought the signing of a $71 million player in Tim Hardaway Jr. The fans are content with the start of the season for the team even if it isn’t all that different than the Anthony years and the roster isn’t very young either.
But the Knicks can point to Kristaps Porzingis as the building block at 22 years old, although Porzingis was out of the lineup with a sore left knee, the fifth game he’s missed already this season with an assortment of bumps and bruises. It is Porzingis’s team now though, a step forward for the franchise toward a new future.
Even Anthony could agree with that, noting that the players who he had taken under his wing in recent years – Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. watching from the sidelines on this night, but Lance Thomas, Ron Baker and Courtney Lee – seemed to also have a cloud lifted.
“I like what I see. I like what they have going on over there,” Anthony said. “For me just to see those guys having fun again, knowing that it wasn’t fun, the fun was lost over the past couple of seasons, to see those guys having fun again, bringing that energy, bringing that love back to the game, back to the Garden is something that I’m happy for those guys when it comes to that.”
After playing 47 minutes Friday Anthony looked like a different player on this night. He hit 11-of-17 shots, scoring 24 points Friday, but after hitting three of his first four shots this time he went cold and was 5-for-16 through three quarters. He was on the bench until 8:17 remained with the Thunder down by nine. He was scoreless in the second half, missing his final eight shots of the game and finishing 5-for-18 for just 12 points.
In the end Anthony stood under the basket, hands on his hips. Thunder coach Billy Donovan sent Alex Abrines into the game for him with 1.4 seconds left to give Anthony a chance for an ovation, but the crowd instead responded with boos now.
If Anthony got a pleasant reception for his introduction, the crowd at the Garden cheered louder for the likes of Ron Baker, Michael Beasley, Doug McDermott and Kyle O’Quinn. There were no do-overs. The trade was done. Anthony was in a Thunder uniform Saturday. The Knicks were 16-13 and moving on and the fans, if happy to see an old friend, were happy to move on without him.
Anthony came into the interview room late at night, adorned in the familiar fashion show garb – hat in place, huge chain and long coat ready to head out into the cold. But first he was asked how he would want to be remembered in New York.
“I think somebody who wanted to be here, came here, did what he had to do night in and night out whether people liked it or not,” Anthony said. “Remained positive through all the negative situations and all the negative times. Stuck with it through good times, through bad times, never wavered.
“Somebody who stayed professional throughout my seven years here and somebody who had hopes and dreams of winning the championship here in New York and fell short at that. So that’s something that I will always hold over my head as far as it comes to that. But I will always be kind of part of this culture here. For me it’s different than any other basketball player that comes through here, that played with the Knicks. It’s deeper than basketball when it comes to me and this city.”
Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek on his team’s 111-96 win over the Thunder on Saturday night, Dec. 16, 2017.