The calls come every couple of days. Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony will feel his cellphone vibrating, snatch it from his baggy jeans, flip it open and hear LeBron James already in mid-sentence. "You made a mistake," James will say. "You should have come on out, should be in the NBA right now." Anthony will toss back his head in laughter until his cornrows brush the nape of his neck and his broad shoulders begin to shake, and then the two players will talk about what a strange view it is from the top of the world when you're 18 years old.
One year ago they checked each other in an epic high school basketball showdown. Anthony, a senior, scored 34 points to lead Oak Hill Academy of Mouth of Wilson, Va., to a 72-66 victory over St. Vincent-St. Mary High of Akron. James, only a junior and with a weaker supporting cast, had 36 in the loss. Few who saw that game expected either player to wear a college uniform. Last Thursday night the two high schools played again, this time before a national television audience, with James scoring 31 and helping the country understand why he will, indeed, bypass college and probably be selected as the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Anthony viewed the game from the Skytop Apartments in Syracuse, just off the school's south campus. "I was watching the game and thinking about last year," he said the day after James's tour de force. "Seems like yesterday."
Time flies. Anthony has chosen to slow it down. Instead of playing in the NBA, he is part of a precocious freshman class that is continuing the greening of college basketball. At North Carolina guard-forward Rashad McCants invokes Michael Jordan's name when talking about himself. Down the road at Duke, guard J.J. Redick dropped 20 points, most from long range, on both UCLA and Ohio State, and says, "To be honest, I haven't had one of my hot stretches yet." At a low point last winter Indiana coach Mike Davis told Hoosier Nation that help was on the way; this season, at week's end, freshman guard Bracey Wright led the team in scoring (18.4 points a game). Among tire other freshmen who have been dominant at times this season are Florida forward Matt Walsh and guard Anthony Roberson; Georgia Tech forward Chris Bosh; Texas A&M forward-guard Antoine Wright; Illinois guard Dee Brown; McCants's fellow Tar Heels, guard Raymond Felton and forward-center Sean May; and Arizona State forward-center Ike Diogu.
Players these days have been competing in big games since they were scarcely teenagers, lining up in high-powered AAU tournaments and all-stars-only summer camps. The jump to college becomes smaller every year. "These kids have played so much basketball, they're fearless," says Arizona State coach Rob Evans.
Anthony, the head of the class, might have been gone if not for a narrow escape on a standardized test, a strong, insistent mother and the player's own instinct that the NBA and its money will wait a year or two for a teenager to grow up just a little. At week's end the 6'8", 225-pound forward was averaging a double double (24.8 points, 10 rebounds) for 5-1 Syracuse. Already he is the primary option on a young team that will have to fight for every win it gets when Big East conference play commences in January. Anthony's first college basket was a dunk in Madison Square Garden. It came early in a 27-point, 11-rebound performance during a 70-63 loss to Memphis. Tigers coach John Calipari began double-teaming Anthony before the game was 15 minutes old. "I loved the kid against us," Calipari says. "High skill level with the ball, shooting ability, passing with vision."
In May 2001, Anthony was a skinny, 6'7" junior forward at Towson Catholic High in suburban Baltimore when he orally committed to Syracuse on his 17th birthday. "He was basically a regional recruit," says Syracuse assistant coach Troy Weaver. "But then in the summer he just blew up nationally." Anthony dominated camps and tournaments, culminating in a spectacular performance at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas. By September, when he enrolled at Oak Hill, a small private school that annually fields one of the best high school teams in the country and regularly plays other top powers, Anthony was on the cusp of becoming a top five national recruit. He was brilliant at Oak Hill and put on 20 pounds of muscle.
A buzz started and grew into a roar. "I was reading my name on the Internet," says Anthony. "People were writing about me going to the NBA. I wasn't even thinking about it at first. Then I did. It's hard not to think about it."
Anthony went through his senior year at Oak Hill lacking a high enough standardized test score to qualify for freshman eligibility at an NCAA school. "Without the score, I'd have no choice," he says. "There was always junior college, but that wasn't really a possibility. I would have gone to the NBA." In late April he took the ACT, needing a score of 18. He got a 19, and all his options were available.
Back in Baltimore, Anthony's mother, Mary, pressed hard for her youngest child to attend college. A 50-year-old housekeeper at the University of Baltimore, Mary says the prospect of NBA riches did not move her. Maternal instincts did. She was a mother of three children (11 to 13 years older than Carmelo) when Carmelo was born in Brooklyn in 1984. His father, Carmelo Iriarte, died when Carmelo was two years old, and six years later Mary moved with Carmelo to Baltimore. They lived in a town house on the west edge of downtown Baltimore, in a tough neighborhood—"Drugs, guns, all that," says Carmelo. Mary supported Carmelo's decision to attend Towson Catholic (a 45-minute commute by rail and bus), but when he began missing classes and was suspended a few times in his junior year, she encouraged the move to Oak Hill. "I didn't want him to go to the NBA," says Mary. "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."
Carmelo's life is dramatically different from the one he would have had in the NBA. He shares a modest apartment with freshman guard (and fellow Oak Hill product) Billy Edelin, and a tight circle of teammates keeps him grounded and protected. Anthony didn't bring his '98 Chrysler Concorde up from Baltimore, so he has no wheels. He does have new boots and a heavy jacket. "Lot of snow up here," he says. "Nothing like this in Baltimore." He says he did well in his five courses during the fall semester, and socially it's not bad being the most famous freshman at Syracuse. His smile is nearly as much of a trademark as his 'rows and his white headband.