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"Oh, jeez," says Boeheim as Anthony misses J.R. Smith on a cut. The turnover raises a question: If Anthony is going to be considered an elite player, doesn't he have to do more than just score? Doesn't he have to do what LeBron and Tim Duncan and Chris Paul have done and make his teammates better?
"I think he does make other guys better, because he forces double teams," Boeheim says. To judge Anthony purely on passing is unfair, he argues. "Sure, LeBron can make passes that Carmelo can't make, but [Kevin] Durant just scores, and nobody criticizes him." Boeheim pauses. "Carmelo is a scorer. If you have him on your team, you want him to score, that's what he does."
It's clear, as the evening wears on, that Boeheim adores his former pupil, and he admits to feeling protective of Anthony. Still, Boeheim understands the reality. "I think he's now at a place where he can lead a team to a championship," Boeheim says, "but he still has to have the right people around him, just like anybody else. Ultimately it comes down to championships—that's what this country comes down to. You either win championships or you don't, and Carmelo knows that."
There are plenty of people in the greater New York City area who love Carmelo. Hundreds of thousands, I imagine. But that's to be expected: He's the best player on a first-place team and a lock to start the All-Star Game. He was born in Brooklyn, attended college upstate and is the type of athlete—tough and "überconfident," as his longtime trainer, Idan Ravin, puts it—who can survive in the city. I wanted to talk to the people who don't love Melo. To those who remain skeptical. And, in New York, no one is more skeptical than the press.
I meet up with Frank Isola in midtown Manhattan on the afternoon of a home game against the Bulls. During his 17-plus years as the Knicks beat writer for the Daily News, the 48-year-old Isola has seen a lot: the Ewing era, the Latrell Sprewell days, the Isiah Thomas mess. Isola still has the Knicks garment bag, inscribed with his name, that former team president Dave Checketts gave him. ("It was different then," the writer says.) Like many in the New York media, Isola has a complicated relationship with the team. Once welcomed, he has become an outsider during the Jim Dolan era. The team hasn't won a playoff series since 2000. Says Isola, "What am I supposed to write?"
This city is hard on its own. Earlier in the day I spoke with Brian Koppelman, a filmmaker (he wrote Rounders), essayist (he has contributed to SI), season-ticket holder and longtime Knicks fan. He remains wary of Anthony. "Other than his season with Boeheim, he's never won or made anyone around him better," Koppelman said. "People don't change. They modulate their behavior but their nature stays the same. Remember the scorpion and the lion?" The parable goes as follows: A scorpion asks a lion (or, as in many versions, a frog) to carry him across a river on his back and the lion declines, concerned he'll be stung. The scorpion assures the beast this won't happen, for then they'd both die. When the lion begins to cross, the scorpion stings him anyway, sealing both their fates. When the lion asks why, the scorpion says it's simply his nature. "So here's the problem," Koppelman continued. "Does Carmelo play for his interests or the interests of the team? Right now, those two things dovetail. But what happens when the team runs into adversity?"
This was a recurring theme in my reporting. "I have no idea which Carmelo to expect," one Western Conference G.M. told me. "Last year he wasn't a franchise player. This year he is. Who knows what he'll be next year?"
For his part, Isola has warmed to Anthony. "He's much more mature than I expected," the writer says as he makes his pregame rounds on the Garden floor, stopping to joke with players and assistant coaches. "Carmelo is like Patrick Ewing. Patrick got N.Y.C. He knew he'd get a lot of s--- if the Knicks lost and not enough credit if they won. He understood it. [Stephon] Marbury was the opposite. He didn't get it. He was always pissed. Carmelo gets it."
On this night the Knicks fall behind early, triggering boos, and Anthony becomes frustrated at what he perceives as overly physical play by the Bulls. As the game wears on, his body language becomes increasingly negative. By the third quarter Chicago is up 70--49, and a fan in the upper deck is screaming, "Stop letting them get offensive rebounds!" Anthony has long since evacuated his clarity space. With 6:45 left in the fourth Anthony, who has 29 points on 25 shots and one assist, protests a call and is ejected.