In the winter of 2002, hours before a high school tournament game, Carmelo Anthony of Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and LeBron James of St. Vincent-St. Mary in Ohio were making like the best of friends. They were hanging out in a hotel lobby, hanging out in each other's rooms, before Anthony's coach, Steve Smith, decided he needed to have a word with his star.
"You do realize we've got to play this guy tonight," Smith told Anthony. "It's the biggest game of the year in high school basketball, and with you and LeBron all buddy-buddy, I mean, are you going to be able to play tonight?"
Anthony shot his coach a dismissive look. "Don't worry about it," he said. "I promise you when the ball goes up and the lights go on, we're winning this game."
The record shows that Oak Hill did indeed defeat St. Vincent-St. Mary in Trenton, N.J. by a 72-66 count, and that Anthony (34 points) didn't let his desire to outscore James (36 points) interfere with the pursuit of victory. In fact, on the phone Thursday, Smith painted a portrait of the teenage Melo as a team-centric figure who averaged 21.7 points as a senior transfer when he had the scoring talent to average 30, at least.
Understanding that the Oak Hill roster included seven Division I players, Anthony never once compelled his coach to rebuke him about dominating the ball at the expense of others. He was in relentless pursuit of a mythical national championship that was lost on a late night in a California gym, around 2 a.m. on Anthony's body clock, to a Mater Dei High team that would account for the only defeat on Oak Hill's 32-1 record.
"Carmelo was distraught, and I hated it for him for that we didn't do it," Smith said. "It was poor scheduling, and I was the AD who scheduled the game. All Carmelo wanted to do when he got to Oak Hill was win the national title."
Like the not-so-mythical one he would win for Syracuse the following year, when he shared the ball enough under Jim Boeheim for three teammates to average in double figures.
Now all these years later, as a franchise player weighing whether to divorce or re-marry a losing franchise, Carmelo Anthony has a simple choice to make: Return to his championship-or-bust roots at Syracuse and Oak Hill by fleeing the New York Knicks, or take the extra $30 million the Knicks can offer under league rules and go down as the ultimate money player.
A report by ESPN.com's Chris Broussard says Joakim Noah used the All-Star Game as a forum to recruit Anthony to Chicago, and potential tampering case or no potential tampering case (You really think Dwyane Wade wasn't talking to LeBron James in 2010 before the rules allowed?), the news only turned a brighter spotlight on Melo's major decision in July.
A decision that one NBA executive summarized like this: "If Melo cares mostly about winning a ring, he leaves. If he cares mostly about making money, he stays."
It's OK for Anthony to care mostly about making money, by the way. All of us, in every profession, try to cut the best possible deals for ourselves and our families.
But if Anthony chooses to sign a max-out deal with Jim Dolan, he should be honest about it in ways most superstar athletes are not. Just admit that money was a driving factor, that most people wouldn't leave tens of millions of guaranteed dollars on the table, and fans everywhere would agree and appreciate the candor to boot.
Those fans -- even the ones not planning to protest Knicks dysfunction on March 19 -- realize there's no good non-financial reason for Anthony to waste more of his prime on the Knicks' lousy roster, and on bosses who devote far too much time and energy to things having nothing to do with winning.
His college coach, Boeheim, has all but begged Melo to make the kind of decisive break from the Knicks that Syracuse made from the Big East. His high school coach?
"If Carmelo could lead New York to a title, I know that would be his preference," said Smith, who has stayed in touch with Anthony over the years. "But he's not getting any younger, the [Knicks'] guard play isn't good, and I can tell from his recent comments that he looks more receptive to leaving than he was earlier. Right now, he'll score 40 and the Knicks will lose and people will still blame him for it, and it's tough to be in that situation. I don't think those comments affect how he plays, but I'm sure it bothers him. He's human.
"If you put Derrick Rose and other good players around him in Chicago, he has a chance. He'll sacrifice, too. Look at Carmelo at the Olympics and in the world championships. One year I watched him with LeBron and Kobe and the rest, and Carmelo looked like the best player on the team."
In 29 years as head coach at Oak Hill, Smith has had more than 180 players earn Division I scholarships, including 28 who made it to the NBA. He ranks Anthony and Kevin Durant as the two best players he has ever coached.
Smith recalled Anthony as a willing passer who would feed Justin Gray, a guard bound for Wake Forest, when Gray had it going from the outside. And yet today's Melo is often cast as the face of the selfish NBA player, as a conscience-free gunner less interested in elevating his teammates than he is in turning Madison Square Garden into just another gym hosting just another AAU game.
"He was never that kind of player for me, or for the school he transferred from, Towson Catholic," Smith said. "I've had players with nowhere near Carmelo's ability who were way more selfish than he was. I don't even remember one game where he took too many shots. I don't think he's a selfish person at all, and I don't think he'll make this decision based on money. At this stage of his career he just wants to win."
We'll all find out soon enough. At the same All-Star Game where Noah reportedly recruited him, Anthony said he would eagerly accept a pay cut from Jim Dolan if it meant clearing cap room to assemble a worthy supporting cast. Only as hard as it might be to picture any superstar taking a home-team discount, it's harder to picture Dolan and his men building Melo a roster that will win him his ring.
So yes, he should leave for Chicago or wherever, just like LeBron left Cleveland for Miami. If he does decide to stay, and does decide to take the max deal after all, Melo should at least tell the public the truth about why the Knicks made the most sense.
And while Anthony deliberates all this next month, Steve Smith's team will be trying to advance to the final of the Dick's Sporting Goods High School National Tournament at the Garden, with the winner likely to end up claiming that mythical national championship.
At least someone from Oak Hill will have a shot at a title in that building.