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It was an exit like any other. Carmelo Anthony, the last to leave his seat on the Nuggets' bench last Saturday, approached the locker room tunnel as fans on either side cheered. He twirled his signature white headband into the Pepsi Center crowd, leaned to high-five a trio of excited children, stopped to sign a photograph and then without further ado, all 6'8" of him was gone—goodbye for now, see you next week?
Since his arrival in 2003, Anthony has provided Denver with countless thrills, but the enervating saga of his future has drained the expectations from the Nuggets' season. Last Saturday's 127--99 clobbering of the visiting Cavaliers concluded the most lopsided stretch in Nuggets history—they won three straight games by at least 28 points for the first time—yet there was little hope of a long playoff run to come for the 23--17 team. As SI went to press, Denver's new management team of president Josh Kroenke and executive vice president Masai Ujiri was continuing five exasperating months of negotiations on a multiple-team trade that would send Anthony and point guard Chauncey Billups to the Nets. The deal would yield draft picks, prospects and a leaner payroll: small consolation for that long-anticipated and dreaded night when its small forward won't reappear from the locker room tunnel.
The Nuggets won 17 games in 2002--03, which gave them the third pick in the draft. They used it on the 19-year-old Anthony, a Syracuse freshman who would lead Denver to the playoffs every season and make four All-NBA teams. With those happier days in mind Anthony has been trying to engineer his departure without the burning of bridges (and jerseys) that marked LeBron James's exit from Cleveland. "I would never go about it the way LeBron did it," said Anthony as he sat in the Nuggets' players lounge last Wednesday. "If he could do it all over again, he wouldn't do it that way—he would do it a totally different way, I can guarantee you that."
Anthony knows because he has been leaning on James as part of an elite NBA superstar support group who text almost daily. "We talk a lot more often than we have in the past, especially now," said Anthony of James. "I talk to him, I talk to Chris Paul, I talk to D-Wade, I talk to Kobe [Bryant] just to let me know if I'm doing anything wrong. Because I look at them guys as friends, so if I'm doing anything wrong, I'm pretty sure they'll tell me. And vice versa."
Whether Denver trades Anthony to the Nets (his most devoted pursuer), the Knicks (his preferred destination) or any number of mystery teams that have been actively negotiating to acquire him on a rental basis (knowing full well that he plans to opt out of the final year of his contract), Anthony and agent Leon Rose have maintained open communication with the Nuggets in hope of concluding this highly public divorce with civility. That's why the occasional boos he's heard at the Pepsi Center have cut Anthony deeply. "People throw away that whole seven-and-a-half years, and that's what makes me laugh," he says. "Because I'm like, me? Out of all the people, you're booing me? Out of all the people."
Anthony's request for a transfer caught the Nuggets by surprise. As recently as last spring he appeared likely to sign a three-year, $65 million extension. When Kroenke left to celebrate his 30th birthday in South Africa during the World Cup, he and Anthony continued to exchange texts. Kroenke flew back to meet his father, Stan (who last summer passed control of the Nuggets to Josh), at Anthony's wedding to LaLa Vasquez on July 10 in New York City.
Much has been made of Chris Paul's toast that night predicting that he and Anthony would join with Amar'e Stoudemire—who had signed with the Knicks earlier in the week—to "form our own Big Three." What has gone unreported is that the scene was set by James, who on his way into the wedding was jeered by New Yorkers for shunning the Knicks two nights earlier during the live telecast of The Decision. "If you want any chance against us in Miami," he joked to Anthony, "you'd better team up with Stoud in New York."
Laughter rose up from Anthony's family, most of whom live in New York. Then Paul, who was sharing the microphone with James, made his prediction, setting the tone for other jokes to be made about bringing Anthony home. Finally, a message was relayed to Stan Kroenke that Anthony wanted him to make a toast, apparently to let the comedians know that the groom's boss was hearing all of their conspiratorial talk. Kroenke cracked a joke of his own about liking New York as much as anybody, at which time he invited everyone to visit Denver.
Joking aside, it is now clear that James's maneuvering to Miami opened Anthony's mind to the possibility of choosing his own employer. In August he invited Josh Kroenke to Baltimore for a meeting in which he formally asked the Nuggets to trade him to the Knicks or the Bulls at the risk of otherwise losing him as an unrestricted free agent the following summer.
Anthony wanted to be dealt before training camp, but each of his preferred franchises made an underwhelming offer: The Bulls would not part with center Joakim Noah, while the Knicks lacked the picks and young talent to satisfy Denver. The Nuggets can't be accused of being cheap—they're a heavy luxury-tax payer—but if they were going to surrender an elite scorer (Anthony's career average is 24.7 points per game) approaching his peak years, then, at the very least, they wanted to avoid another tax penalty while creating flexibility for their rebuilding efforts ahead of the next collective bargaining agreement. (The current deal expires after this season, and the next CBA is expected to drive down salaries and the length of contracts.)