Last Saturday, on the eve of his first NBA playoff game, Denver Nuggets rookie forward Carmelo Anthony thought he'd hit the mall in Minneapolis—just slip in unnoticed, buy some sweats and slip out. To avoid drawing attention he wore glasses and, over his trademark braids, a 'do rag and a baseball cap. Considering that Anthony is 6'8" and a bona fide star, it might have been one of the worst disguises in history. Moments after he entered the mall he was recognized, and his name—It's Carmelo!—echoed from Blimpie to the Lady Foot Locker. Fans rushed toward him as if there were a fire and he were the emergency exit. "It was like a basketball game," he said that night at his hotel, shaking his head. "They just kept coming and coming."
The Timberwolves welcomed Anthony to the postseason in much the same way on Sunday, only instead of Sharpee-wielding teenagers Minnesota used a succession of agile defenders. Latrell Sprewell and Trenton Hassell shadowed him on the perimeter, and when Anthony got into the lane he was promptly greeted—call it the 'Melo Hello—by 6'11" Ervin Johnson or 7-foot Michael Olowokandi. And around every pick lurked Kevin Garnett, who, as Anthony puts it, "tracks me no matter where I go." Anthony mustered 19 points on 6-of-17 shooting as the Nuggets lost Game 1 of the best-of-seven series 106-92.
When he answered reporters' questions afterward, Anthony referred to the Nuggets as "my team" and deconstructed the game like a veteran. Barely a year after leading Syracuse to an NCAA championship, the 19-year-old Anthony has gone from freshman hero to NBA franchise player. In training camp last October he told anyone who'd listen that the Nuggets were going to double their wins and contend for a playoff spot. "I remember all the writers giving him sympathetic looks," says the team's media relations manager, Eric Sebastian. "They'd come away saying, 'He'll learn.' " And who could blame them? Denver hadn't reached the postseason since 1995, and to sell tickets, the franchise had even resorted to putting up a billboard that read, NENE HILARIO HAS SIZE 16 SNEAKERS. AND HE'S SINGLE.
But then the good ol' reliably bad Nuggets did something peculiar: They started winning. Anthony almost immediately established himself as their best player. "He's one of the toughest covers in the league," Hassell said after Game 1. "He's got great footwork, he's got body and he's tough." Perhaps most impressively, Anthony rolled over the rookie wall like a Hummer over a sandcastle. In the 33 games after Feb. 1 he shot better (44.4% to 41.1%) and averaged more points (24.7 to 18.6) than he had in the first 49 games of the season. He attributes this in part to a fried-food-free diet, which helped him drop 21 pounds from his Syracuse playing weight of 245, and to understanding the game better as the season progressed. "He grew a lot," says Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik. "He improved defensively, ran the court better and became more aware of how other teams play him."
The Nuggets went from 17-65 in 2002-03 to 43-39 and held off the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers for the final Western Conference spot. With an average of 21.0 points, Anthony became the first rookie since David Robinson in 1989-90 to lead a playoff team in scoring. Nevertheless, last week LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers (35-47) was named Rookie of the Year, a result that Bzdelik called a "travesty" and Nuggets guard Jon Barry labeled "a complete sham." Anthony heard the news on Sunday morning before the team shootaround and, although disappointed, praised James to the media. The statement he released, however, slyly underlined the best argument for the voters to have chosen him: Anthony helped his team to the playoffs, while James's season is over. "I'm really happy for LeBron," the statement read, "but I'm not real worried about the Rookie of the Year Award right now. My focus is on Minnesota."
James was the more hyped rookie, but Anthony wasn't that far behind. He has his own candy bar (Melo), the lead in a Warner Brothers movie that begins filming in August (Playground) and the second-best-selling jersey in the league (behind James's, of course). "I don't know how he handles [the celebrity]," says Nuggets forward Rodney White, Anthony's best friend on the team. "He doesn't let it get to him, and—this is what's crazy—he's the one who makes the rest of us feel comfortable."
Anthony wasn't so comfortable in Game 1. He was tentative in the first half, taking only six shots and hitting two, and then forced jumpers after the break. Unfazed by the loss, he joked with friends afterward and even posed for a photo with Minnesota guard Sam Cassell. He complimented the top-seeded T-Wolves on their team D and talked of how the Nuggets had to improve their defensive rebounding and pick-and-roll coverage. Asked how the playoffs compared with March Madness, he said, "This is way better. Last year was just one game. This is a seven-game series."
Indeed it is, but for the Nuggets to have a chance, Anthony must shoot early, often and with confidence; the last thing Denver wants to see is backup center Chris Andersen, the 12th of 12 offensive options, hoisting jumpers from the free throw line as he did on Sunday. Anthony also needs to keep attacking the basket, so he can get to the line. Denver has plenty of perimeter shooters ( Barry, Voshon Lenard, Earl Boykins), but Anthony is the only one who can create contact in the lane and still finish. Finally—and this may be asking too much—Anthony must convince his teammates that they can win this series, because that's what a star does. Even if he's not fully aware that he's a star.