On the West Side of Manhattan, less than a mile away from "The World's Most Famous Arena," Carmelo Anthony found his summer escape.
It was a basketball court at a gym on 42nd Street, a few hundred feet from the Hudson River. The court is tucked away from the prying eyes of the public, on a lower floor of Lifetime Athletic next to the Sky Building, one of the premier high-rises in the neighborhood.
There was room for maybe a few dozen spectators -- not the thousands that Melo played in front of at Madison Square Garden for six-plus seasons.
There were no New York Knicks fans screaming at Anthony during his daily workouts the way they did during loss after loss late in his Knicks tenure. This was a place where Anthony could get away.
No drama, just hoops.
Knicks forward Lance Thomas worked out at the same gym as Anthony during the offseason. He begins his summer workouts a few weeks after the Knicks' final game -- earlier than many of his NBA contemporaries -- so he was surprised to see Anthony already in the gym in early May.
"When I saw Carmelo, I said to him, 'What are you doing here?' " Thomas recalls.
"This is where I need to be," Anthony said, a few weeks removed from one of the more challenging seasons of his NBA career. "This is my happy place."
Anthony, who returns to MSG on Saturday night for the first time since being traded from the Knicks to the Oklahoma City Thunder, would spend five hours a day at the gym doing individual workouts, lifting weights and playing pickup.
While Anthony was there, his representatives and Knicks management were trying to find a way to trade him out of New York. There was a buyout agreement in place that was vetoed by Knicks owner James Dolan. There were trades with the Houston Rockets that were close to fruition. There were talks between the Knicks and several other teams, including the Portland Trail Blazers.
But nothing was finalized over the summer, so there was Anthony, hoodie and all, blocking out the noise as his Knicks career neared the finish line.
"Just locking into what I have to do and locking myself into the gym and locking myself into focusing in on my body," Anthony said during training camp this fall. "Because I didn't know what was going to happen. It was just so much going on that was surrounding me that I just wanted to find a way that I could just focus in."
Of course he had to invite some friends over for some pickup.
"There was a lot of firepower in the gym," says Dahntay Jones, who was a regular at Lifetime over the summer. "It was like playing pickup with your friends, but your friends just happen to play in the NBA."
On any given day, there could be nearly $200 million in 2016-17 salary on the court. And as you'd expect, the atmosphere was a bit more intense than your average 5-on-5.
"Everybody's still bringing their ego to the court and talking s---," Cleveland Cavaliers and former Knicks guard JR Smith said. "Talking about who's got rings and who don't, who's an All-Star and stuff like that, so it's fun."
Clips from the games went viral and became fodder for those wondering about Anthony's next destination. McCollum used the opportunity a couple of times to sell Anthony on playing in Portland.
"It was basically an All-Star game," said Enes Kanter, who was dealt to the Knicks as part of the Anthony trade.
Chris Brickley, Anthony's trainer, organized the games, which were to 11 points with 1 and 2s. The NBA's best dominated.
"Bron, KD were amazing," Smith said. "Russ came in and destroyed -- he was ridiculous. ... D'Angelo played well. Devin Booker played well."
And the host?
"Melo is Melo, especially in pickup. You can't guard him. Post up, 3-pointers, he's got it all." said Donovan Mitchell, a rookie with the Utah Jazz who called the games his "Welcome to the NBA" moment.
"I was smiling the whole time. I'm like, 'Wow, I'm really doing this.' "
During the games, there was no mention of offseason drama, but plenty of jokes surrounding the "Hoodie Melo" phenomenon and Anthony's viral videos. The group generally kept things light.
"He was making jokes, cursing when he got rebounds, smiling -- just having fun," Mitchell said.
Said Durant: "Melo did a great job of tuning out the bulls--- by just playing ball all summer."
Anthony had plenty to tune out. He was dealing with personal issues off the court and uncertainty on it after then-team president Phil Jackson told the world that he'd prefer to trade Anthony. Those close to Anthony say that the pickup games and workouts over the summer were a source of normalcy for Anthony during a challenging time.
"It was cool to see how he was doing it and see how he blocked the whole world out because it's not easy," Mitchell said. "A lot of guys can either go one or two ways with that, when you have the world saying certain things about you."
But the pending trade was, to some degree, an elephant in the room.
"He knew he was going to end up in a better situation," Harden said. Added Paul: "I actually hoped that he would [be traded] for his piece of mind. So he could be happy."
"There was a lot of firepower in the gym. It was like playing pickup with your friends, but your friends just happen to play in the NBA."
Former Cavalier Dahntay Jones
Anthony told friends he wasn't planning on returning to New York. One free agent this past summer who played in the games told friends he talked to Anthony about where to sign and Anthony recommended that he not sign with the Knicks -- the implication being that Anthony knew he'd be gone.
"He was certain that something was going to happen the entire summer," one of Anthony's friends said. Anthony, of course, wasn't actually traded until shortly before training camp in a surprising deal that sent him to OKC.
He, Westbrook, Paul George and the Thunder will enter the Garden on Saturday with a disappointing 13-14 record. Anthony seems to be struggling to find his role, averaging career lows in points (17.7) and minutes (32.9) per game. He'll be facing a Knicks team that has adjusted well to the post-Carmelo era.
New York is 14-13 led by third-year big man Kristaps Porzingis. On most nights, the Knicks share the ball well on offense and give an honest effort on defense. That style of play -- and the early-season results -- have led some to conclude that Anthony was holding Porzingis and the Knicks back from playing this way.
Porzingis strongly disagrees with that theory.
"Not at all," the 22-year-old says. "He was trying to do the right things to win, but it was just not clicking. It was not the right pieces around him to make that happen.
"I'm grateful that I had a player like that on my team that I could learn from. Not only on-the-court stuff, but also off the court, a lot. So I can't say a bad thing about Melo."
Added Thomas: "If anything, we all held ourselves back because we didn't achieve as much as we should have internally. ... He plays great basketball, and teams play through him. Just because we relied on him a lot more to do that for us, that was a team thing. When in doubt we gave Melo the ball."
Anthony's Knicks teams never reached the heights expected of him when he arrived in 2011. Just how much he is to blame for those failures depends on perspective. Did Knicks management fail to surround him with enough talent or did Anthony fail to elevate his teammates?
Those debates will probably surface again when Anthony steps on the Garden floor Saturday. But he has bigger issues to address at the moment: He and the Thunder are woefully underperforming, struggling to develop cohesion after nearly 30 games. So even though he's out of New York, Anthony is still, to some degree, surrounded by plenty of drama.
But if he wants to escape for a few minutes this weekend, Anthony knows just where to find his "happy place."