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He gets it at home, too. Vazquez is a full-blooded Puerto Rican who speaks Spanish around their sprawling home in suburban Denver, in hopes that Kiyan will become bilingual. Less than fluent in Spanish, Carmelo is tasked with teaching his son to dribble, and also with inflating the toys and overseeing the Elmo film festivals. "I think because Carmelo was raised without a father, he compensates so much," says Vazquez. "He's definitely the good cop."
Anthony fills a similar role on the Nuggets. He's a team leader, but he's the one who consoles players who have entered coach George Karl's doghouse or gotten crosswise with businesslike veteran Chauncey Billups. When, for instance, Denver guard J.R. Smith spent 24 days in jail last summer after a reckless-driving conviction, Anthony was the teammate he chose to call from the jail pay phone. "You get these labels in sports—and they can be hard to undo—and I'd obviously heard [the rap] on Carmelo," says Malik Allen, a veteran forward the Nuggets signed in the off-season. "But I've been pleasantly surprised, to be honest. The best player on the team is always going to have a presence, but he has a real positive influence. When he does things like refusing to come out of practice, everyone takes notice."
Karl also hails Anthony's increased "involvement and his responsibility," a change that can be traced to the last Olympics. In 2008, Anthony helped the U.S. win a gold medal in Beijing and came back from China with a new sense of purpose. "The same way he's gone from a scorer to a basketball player," says Karl, "he's gone from individualist to more a leader."
Anthony's relationship with Karl hasn't always been the picture of harmony. "It was like we were two dogs marking our territory," says Anthony. But the coach and the player have, as Karl puts it, gravitated to each other. They've come to realize that they're kindred spirits, each incomplete in the absence of a championship. Karl is, unquestionably, a top-shelf coach. But without a title, he won't crack the Phil Jackson--Gregg Popovich duopoly. Likewise, Anthony is unquestionably one of the brightest stars in the basketball cosmos, but he's still a level down from Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. "And those last two were in my [draft] class," he volunteers.
Bryant is the figure who most clearly stands in the way of a title for Anthony. Asked to assess Anthony, Bryant says without hesitating, "I've always felt his game was sharp. Now the guys around him know how to play off him. I enjoy the competition with him. He's a tough matchup for everyone." It's generous praise, especially from a player who can be parsimonious in that regard. But when Anthony hears Bryant's assessment, he shifts uneasily and winces. It's clear: Kobe is on Mount Olympus, looking down from on high and surveying the landscape. "I don't want to compare myself to Kobe," says Anthony. "This is his 14th season. I got time. Will I win four rings? I don't know. But that's the future. I do know that I'm not even close to where I'll be. There's so much I can improve. And that's scary."
His game was on vivid display when the Nuggets hosted the Lakers on Nov. 13, an encounter that had the aura of one of their games in the 2009 Western Conference finals. Hours before tip-off Nuggets fans walking up Speer Boulevard had started the familiar Beat L.A., L.A. sucks, Kobe sucks medley. Beset by foul trouble, Anthony scored only seven points in the first half. He didn't, however, force shots or complain to the refs. Showing off the subtlety that's crept into his game, he played the passing lanes on defense and fed open teammates at the other end of the floor, contributing in ways other than putting the ball in the basket. He was defended UFC--style by Ron Artest, and at one point they tangled and crashed to the floor. It was precisely the kind of play that might have caused Anthony to confront or taunt his opponent. Instead, Anthony extended a hand and helped Artest up.
At halftime Anthony jogged back on the court with his head high, commending Denver forward Kenyon Martin for his defense. Then, in the second half, the inevitable eruption came. Anthony scored 10 points in the first five minutes of the third quarter, pouring in all manner of jumpers, drives and free throws. It was the embodiment of the saying: Let the game come to you. Anthony finished with a game-high 25 points. The Nuggets did as directed and beat L.A. 105--79.
As he dressed in front of his locker, a spartan cubicle adorned only with a photo of Kiyan, Anthony fastened his cuff links and held forth. "There's No 'Melo stopper," he bragged. But then he turned serious, cautioning against assigning too much weight to one early-season contest.
Wiser now, he knew this game was history, the future still a mystery.
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