LAS VEGAS — The noticeable ease that Carmelo Anthony operates with when he has those three letters (U-S-A) across his chest is unmistakable.
In this environment, when he can blend in with an array of other stars, when the pressure to be the alpha male is absent from the equation, when he’s not obligated to carry the heaviest load — as he has in both of his NBA stops in Denver and New York — there is clearly a different air about Anthony.
And it’s not that he minds carrying the burden for his franchise, its fans and an entire city. He’s been doing that seemingly forever, since his time at Syracuse.
But USA Basketball has been a haven for Anthony the past nine years. His connection to the current program predates the reign of both USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski as stewards of the program.
Anthony has played on 10 USA Basketball teams (some 59 games). Only LeBron James has been with the program as long, as they are both playing on their third straight Olympic team.
And while James is clearly this team’s best player, Kobe Bryant its unquestioned leader and Kevin Durant perhaps its most intriguing talent, you could make the argument that Anthony will be the this team’s most important player in London. This may be especially true given a lack of experienced frontcourt depth and Anthony’s ability to play power forward in international competition.
“On this team he does what he does best, just finish plays,” Bryant said. “We don’t ask him to be something he’s not. He goes out there and finishes plays and shoots when he’s open and if he’s not he passes it. That’s why he always kicks serious butt when he’s here.”
Anthony has always been one of the NBA’s elite scorers. He’s also been one of the most nit-picked superstars of his generation, as well. His top five Draft classmates — James, Darko Milicic, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — all own or will own NBA Championship rings. The Heat won’t officially get theirs until opening night of the 2012-13 season.
Even with all of the accolades he’s piled up throughout his NBA career, he’s a five-time All-Star and All-NBA performer, Anthony gets more headlines for his deficiencies than he does for anything else.
“I don’t know why he takes a beating about his game at any time,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s one of the top players in the world. Carmelo, in international play, can play three different positions. On our team he’s not married to one position. So any time down the floor he can be in different spots. And I think a really good player likes that. Defensively, the physicality of the game is something Carmelo likes, he’s a guy who enjoys contact and he doesn’t back down from it. He’s able to play through it and use it. Carmelo is one of the better international players, he’s one the best [NBA] players, but it doesn’t always translate internationally … as good a player as he in the NBA, internationally he’s just a sensational player.”
Anthony said it’s just a perfect fit of style and personality for him. Being able to blend into an ensemble cast and then to play his game and adapt what he does best into the tapestry of stars that makes up any given Olympic team has allowed him the freedoms he might not see normally. There are no labels here, no defined roles that limit anyone’s game, abilities or contributions.
“I don’t have to score 20 or 30 points for us to win a basketball game,” Anthony said. “I can go out there and say, ‘tonight I’m going to try to get 10 or 12 rebounds’ and we still win the game and I can have an impact on the game. As far as scoring goes, I really don’t have to do that here. And while it’s definitely not a burden to score like that, everybody has their opportunities on this team. But it’s the little things you bring to the team, the little things that everybody brings, that make us successful.”
Anthony and James understand that better than anyone on this team. They suffered through the bronze medal campaign on the 2004 Olympic team before moving into leadership positions on the “Redeem Team” that won gold in Beijing in 2008.
The good friends have adopted a similar approach to the international game that served them well through the years.
“I don’t have a position. Just put me on the floor,” James said when asked what position he’ll play on this team. “My role is the same as it is in Miami: Do whatever it takes to win. If we need to play big, then play big. If in the course of the game we need to play small, then do that. Play point guard. Guard the point guard. That mindset doesn’t change.”
Anthony said he had to do a double take during a weekend practice when the team took the floor and he, James and Durant lined up in the three frontcourt positions.
“I know it sounds funny,” Anthony said smiling, “it sounds weird, but in the international game you just have to be ready to go out there and none of us have a position, you just go out there and play basketball the way we always have.”
Durant, playing on his first Olympic team, saw the same things.
“Carmelo can bring the ball up and play (center). LeBron can play 1 through 5. Me? I don’t know if I can play the 1, but I can go 2 through 5,” Durant said. “It’s going to make up for a lot. People say we’re not tall enough, don’t have a big front line, but quickness makes up for that. We get out on the break, and who’s going to stop us?”
Krzyzewski is convinced that Anthony’s basic love of the game is what has made the marriage with the superstar and USA basketball last as long and grow as strong as it has over the years.
“He’s knows that we’re going to let him do his thing with us, and he loves that,” said Krzyzewski, who also admitted that he wasn’t sure what to expect from Anthony when they first met. “We’ve got a great relationship. I love Carmelo. And I guess when you don’t know somebody, you never know how the relationship will turn out. I didn’t know he would be as cooperative, as friendly, as smart. I felt he would be good, but he’s been better. He has been as committed as anyone in our country to USA basketball. He’s been doing this for almost 10 years. That’s a pretty good commitment.”