BALTIMORE -- Carmelo Anthony stood in the center of the court at Morgan State's Talmadge L. Hill Field House, but for all intent and purpose, he stood in the center of his home.
Anthony, who grew up in Baltimore, helped his Melo League team beat the Washington, D.C.-based Goodman League team, 149-141, Tuesday in a showcase for two of the top pro-am leagues in the country. But long after his teammates, including LeBron James and Chris Paul, ducked into the locker room following the win, Melo stayed with his fans and soaked in the scene.
One woman wiped the sweat off his bicep and shrieked. Another handed him a CD. (He thanked her.) Others posed for pictures and asked for autographs.
Hours earlier, many of those same fans were locked out of the 4,500-capacity arena for a short time as a single doorway was used for entrance. If anyone needed a reminder, the crowded bottleneck outside reminded everyone:
Lockouts stink, regardless of where they happen.
Both the players and owners will face drastic long-term consequences if discussions over a new collective bargaining agreement eat into the upcoming season. But with the league's financial issues put aside for a night, thousands of basketball-starved fans consumed an astonishing individual matchup between LeBron and Durant.
Durant saved the game when he showed up wearing his trademark backpack moments before the national anthem. "Oh, man. There was a lot of traffic coming from my side of town," he said. Without him, the star-studded Melo League would've rolled over the Goodman League.
Instead, Durant and LeBron treated fans to a one-on-one battle that had had everyone on the edge of their seats from the first moment Durant began dribbling with LeBron guarding him. Durant missed that first jumper, but the rest of their nights didn't disappoint.
They traded step-back jumpers and crossover dribbles, spin moves and stutter steps. They even pushed each other. By the end of the night, Durant had scored 59 points to LeBron's 32.
Melo League guard Josh Selby threw a sky-high pass that a leaping Durant couldn't intercept and appeared headed out bounds when LeBron somehow jumped even higher to complete the alley-oop. On the next possession, Durant drove to the basket and dunked hard while drawing a Melo foul.
Later, after a Durant basket, the in-house announcer said, "KD is giving LeBron the business!" James answered by passing the ball off the backboard to himself for a dunk.
Most of the ovation-inducing baskets by LeBron and Durant came in the first half, though. The crowd was much more reserved in the third quarter, with the Melo League sporting a lead of about 15 points. By the time the fourth quarter hit, LeBron dunks and Durant 3-pointers had become routine.
As fun as their matchup was, it's difficult to assess either player's ability when neither team showed much interest in defending.
LeBron and Durant have both worked hard to improve their defense, and that deserves celebration. It's a huge reason their teams reached the NBA Finals and conference finals, respectively. And fans want those higher stakes.
Tuesday, none of that mattered. Mostly, the game was about what NBA players could do against less-than-NBA defenses.
But it was also about what NBA players can do in general -- dazzle and delight. They did both on this night.
Dunks and crossovers were cheered. Misses and turnovers were forgiven.
Fans forgave the slow entrance to the arena, too. The show was worth it.
While stuck in line, one man joked (I think) that he had delayed his mortgage payment to buy a ticket for the game.
Without question, the NBA still has a product fans want to pay for.
Dan Feldman writes and edits the TrueHoop Network blog PistonPowered.