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THERE IS nothing quite like a Knicks home game. This is not a compliment, just a fact. No other arena in the NBA exudes such a potent mix of tradition, self-regard, paranoia, loathing, loyalty and expectation as the Garden. Its denizens are a vehement bunch, full of bankers and doctors and guys from Long Island named Sal, many of them permanently disillusioned. This is a place where a grown man who spent $130 on the jersey of a 25-year-old player will, if that player has one bad half, stand up and berate him at full throat. It is a place where hero worship goes to die.
Yet on this particular Friday night, four days before Christmas, the Garden is downright festive, and not just due to the holiday season, though the Knicks City Dancers, clad as they are in fur-topped Santa bikinis, do lend a certain jolly air to the occasion. For the first time in forever, the Knicks are winners, perched atop the Atlantic Division standings. What's more, they are winning in a very un-Knicks-like manner. There is no Anthony Mason hip-, ass- and shoulder-thumping, no Patrick Ewing 18-foot-baseline tedium, no Jeff Van Gundy grind-it-out masochism. These Knicks hoist up three-pointers and pass with abandon. Their roster includes a goofy white guy who holsters imaginary six-shooters (Steve Novak), a hyperathletic head case who specializes in the no-no-no-yessss! shot (J.R. Smith), a center who finishes alley-oops as if he's just slain a Bengal tiger (Tyson Chandler) and an ancient-but-still-prescient point guard (Jason Kidd). And then there is the player at the center of it all, a man as divisive as he is talented: Carmelo Anthony.
For most of his career Anthony has been alternately thrilling and annoying to watch. He is capable of stunning displays of offense, as technically proficient a scorer as exists on the planet. "There is nothing Carmelo can't do on a basketball court," says Phil Weber, an assistant with the Knicks last season and now an offensive consultant with the Heat. "His shooting form is perfect. His body control is amazing. He's as gifted as he wants to be."
Then again, Anthony is also capable of equally unimpressive displays of defense. Or bad shot taking. Or not caring. As a coach who spent time around the Knicks last season says of Anthony's play during the Mike D'Antoni era, "Melo wasn't malicious. He wasn't confrontational. He just wouldn't play or put out any effort. It was sabotage through disinterest."
This season is different, though—or so the narrative goes. This year we are seeing Anthony's best self. At 28, in his 10th year in the NBA, he was averaging a career-high 29.3 points per game through Sunday and is one of the favorites in the MVP race. His teammates speak glowingly of him. The talking heads are effusive.
To hear Anthony tell it, his transformation is not only real but also premeditated. The impetus was simple. As he says, "I went through so much hell last year." (Quick recap: Anthony suffered a variety of injuries, after which Jeremy Lin ascended, after which Anthony moped, after which he either did or didn't run D'Antoni out of town and the Knicks lost to the Heat in the first round of the playoffs.) So last summer Anthony did some soul scouring and came to a series of decisions, which he enumerated on a recent Saturday morning at the Knicks' training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y.
1) He would institute an NBA information blackout. No ESPN, no Inside the NBA, no New York Post. "To keep my mind sane, I wanted to try it," he says. "To see what it's like to not listen to that, see what it's like to not read that, to see what it's like to be in a space I've never been in before. A clarity space."
2) He would "dig deep in [himself]" and become "an unselfish leader." Anthony saw the new team arrayed around him, full of veteran role players such as Kidd and Chandler, and realized the offense would be what he calls "a sacrifice system for me." In other words, he'd have to swing the ball and make the smart play instead of always shooting. Says Anthony, "Credit to Coach Woodson and Jason, but at the end of the day, it was something I had to decide I really want to do."
3) He would protect himself from himself. There is a part of Anthony—the part that breathed in all the negativity last year and couldn't exhale it—that he says he's pissed at. "Maybe I know it's there, and I don't want to accept it," he says. "So it's like, let's just push that to the side and not even pay that any attention." He pauses. "My mind-set this year is all about positivity."
From some athletes this might sound like spin, but that's never been Anthony's style. The first time I interviewed him at length, during his rookie year, 2003, he spent the entire time typing on his phone and mumbling clichés, often simultaneously. He did not, I recall, lack for self-regard. The second time, at the World Basketball Championships in Japan in '06, he was guarded and defiant. So I was surprised to hear about this sudden introspection, this almost New Age enlightenment (clarity space? positivity?) from a guy who'd spent his life weaving an ever-thicker protective cocoon of confidence. Not that I blamed him: You try emerging from the circumstances—single mother, a house across from the Baltimore projects known as the Murder Homes—that Anthony escaped.