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CARMELO ANTHONY is wide open, nobody within 20 feet of him, lonely as a Pinto salesman. Yet he can't get the ball. He throws his arms up, stomps his feet, yelps, but his teammates don't even notice.
Ever since he landed a roundhouse right in the Nuggets' brawl with the New York Knicks on Dec. 16, the 22-year-old forward says he's been in "jail, man, solitary." His suspension cost him 15 games, $782,340 and, worst of all, maybe his team.
The day after the sentencing the Nuggets traded for hoops icon Allen Iverson, and Denver suddenly turned into Allentown. Fans followed snowplows through blizzards just to see the Answer in blue. And on this night, as Anthony chewed through table legs wishing he were on the court, Iverson scored 44 points and dropped 10 assists to clobber the Seattle SuperSonics.
"AI is like this big Christmas present I got," Anthony groans, "but I don't get to open."
What kills him is that he was having one Dreamboy of a year. He was leading the league in scoring. The team was winning. He was shedding his street-thug image. He'd donated $1.5 million to the Carmelo Anthony Youth Center in Baltimore, his hometown. He'd given Syracuse, his alma mater, $3 million. His girlfriend, LaLa Vazquez, is due in March. "He's growing up," the world beamed.
Then came the Punch.
"One incident, and you're a gangster and a thug again," he says, slumped in an empty Denver locker room, his teammates on the road. "It's a fight in a basketball game. I felt like they were beating up my little brother. I'm not going to just stand there. I'm going to go help him." He shakes his head dolefully. "It's one bad moment, and all of a sudden people don't see any of the good things you do."
He regrets it, but—"Fifteen games? That's too much," he says. So why not appeal and try to get it reduced? "Because then it'd be my name across the ticker tape at the bottom of the TV again... CARMELO ANTHONY APPEALS. I just wanted to do my time."
Of course, it didn't help when Anthony announced how he was going to stay in shape during his time off: boxing lessons.