Carmelo Anthony laid in bed wide awake in the early hours of Friday morning on July 8. There was too much on his mind for sleep. Anthony had spent the last week consumed by the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of local law enforcement. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing now as he gazed helplessly at the television.
Anthony felt paralyzed as he watched a real-life crisis unfold in Dallas, when a rogue sniper shot and killed five police officers at a protest rally. He knew something had to be done, but he didn’t know what. As his mind raced, his fingers typed.
The result was a long and passionate plea for peace that showed up on his Instagram account the next morning. The photo that accompanied his words was carefully selected. It showed a young Lew Alcindor, Jim Brown and other athletes at a 1967 press conference supporting Muhammad Ali’s opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War.
First off let me start off by saying " All Praise Due To The Most High." Secondly, I'm all about rallying, protesting, fighting for OUR people. Look I'll even lead the charge, By Any Means Necessary. We have to be smart about what we are doing though. We need to steer our anger in the right direction. The system is Broken. Point blank period. It has been this way forever. Martin Luther King marched. Malcolm X rebelled. Muhammad Ali literally fought for US. Our anger should be towards the system. If the system doesn't change we will continue to turn on the TVs and see the same thing. We have to put the pressure on the people in charge in order to get this thing we call JUSTICE right. A march doesn't work. We tried that. I've tried that. A couple social media post/tweet doesn't work. We've all tried that. That didn't work. Shooting 11 cops and killing 5 WILL NOT work. While I don't have a solution, and I'm pretty sure a lot of people don't have a solution, we need to come together more than anything at this time. We need each other. These politicians have to step up and fight for change. I'm calling for all my fellow ATHLETES to step up and take charge. Go to your local officials, leaders, congressman, assemblymen/assemblywoman and demand change. There's NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore. Those days are long gone. We have to step up and take charge. We can't worry about what endorsements we gonna lose or whose going to look at us crazy. I need your voices to be heard. We can demand change. We just have to be willing to. THE TIME IS NOW. IM all in. Take Charge. Take Action. DEMAND CHANGE. Peace7 #StayMe7o
Five days later, Anthony donned a black tuxedo alongside friends LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul and opened the ESPYS by urging fellow athletes to be more socially conscious.
“The system is broken,” Anthony said as the first of the four men to speak. “The problem is not new, the violence is not new, the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.”
It wasn’t long ago that the days of the athlete as an activist seemed to be dormant, if not completely dead. “Republicans buy shoes, too” became an omnipresent adage about alienating customers with politics, even if Michael Jordan reportedly only said it in private over 20 years ago. There was simply too much corporate money at stake at a time when many athletes think about their branding as frequently as their teams.
Today’s athletes are speaking out more and more, and Anthony is one of the loudest voices within that group. He’s made himself into one of the most socially aware superstars in all of sports when the country desperately needs it.
“I wouldn't be speaking out if I wasn't comfortable with it,” Anthony said at USA Basketball practice in Chicago on Friday. “I'm going to continue speaking out and stepping up, and hopefully bringing everyone else along with me.”
His timing is no accident. Anthony is about to become the first male American basketball player to compete in four Olympics. He’s going for a third gold medal and an opportunity to experience success after some lean years in the NBA with the New York Knicks. Anthony is using this platform to again push his activism to the forefront. He’s hoping the young players who make up the rest of an inexperienced USA roster do so, as well.
“I had him when he was young, and obviously when you're young, you make some mistakes,” said Jim Boeheim, Anthony’s college coach at Syracuse and now an assistant with USA Basketball. “He's definitely matured. He understands how a lot of things work now. He's very aware of helping people and giving back. It's been good for him.”
Jerry Colangelo took over USA Basketball in 2005 at a time when the program badly needed direction. At that point, playing for your country felt more like an obligation than a privilege for many of the NBA’s best players.
The roster in Athens was a reflection of that. Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Ben Wallace pulled out of the Olympics after their teams had extended runs in the 2004 playoffs. Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter and Ray Allen wanted to keep their summer free to plan weddings. Tracy McGrady was done with international play after fans threw debris at him during a fight with Puerto Rico’s Eddie Casiano at the 2003 FIBA Americas Championship. With so many players dropping out at the last second, USA Basketball hastily put together a roster that featured three rookies in Anthony, James and Wade, as well as college player Emeka Okafor.
“That was a disservice to them because they hadn’t earned it yet,” Colangelo said last week in Chicago. “That was a negative experience. [Anthony] wanted to redeem that and it worked in our favor.”
Colangelo’s hire brought accountability back to USA Basketball after an embarrassing bronze medal in 2004. He demanded a three-year commitment from any player who hoped to compete in the Olympics. His first call was to Anthony.
In the 11 years since, Colangelo has seen Anthony mature firsthand under the glare of the international spotlight. Colangelo watched Melo hang 21 points on Argentina to put Team USA in the gold medal game in 2008. He saw Anthony break USA Basketball’s scoring record with 37 points in 14 minutes against Nigeria in 2012.
Now Anthony is looking for his third straight gold medal as the elder statesman on a young team. Kevin Durant is the only other player on the roster who has played in the Olympics. Kyle Lowry is the only other player in his 30s. Anthony is this team’s leader, in more ways than one.
Anthony is giving his younger teammates on USA Basketball a tangible example of how to be socially consciousness as a superstar. In the process, he’s setting a precedent for what activism in today’s NBA can look like.
“The fact that he stepped out and was willing to say what he did certainly had an impact on all the players,” Colangelo said. “It's a positive. Very positive.”
If recent tragedies are awakening a new era of activism from athletes, Anthony is uniquely qualified to be the face of the movement. He said he felt compelled to speak up because he can relate to what he sees on the news a little too closely. He was born in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects and raised amid a crime-ridden and racially contentious landscape in Baltimore. Basketball saved him, but not everyone is born with such prodigious gifts.
“I know what those situations are like,” Anthony said in Chicago on Friday. “And I have a lot of experience to speak on.”
When Anthony pledged his future to the Knicks two years ago, he made it known he wanted a legacy that went beyond basketball. Early on, that manifested itself in wanting to be known as a “tech pioneer” and “business tycoon.” Recently, he’s found something more meaningful.
In the last year, Anthony has marched with Freddie Gray protesters in Baltimore, met with inmates at Rikers Island prison and built basketball courts in Puerto Rico, where his father’s family came from. He also organized a town hall in Los Angeles earlier this month that brought together black and Latino teenagers with local police officers. Anthony led the event, but he made sure his USA Basketball teammates joined him.
“It was a step in the right direction just to start the conversation from someone who felt true passion about the topic,” said Durant, who was in attendance. “All of us feel so passionate about using our platforms and our voices to be heard and stand up for what we believe in. It's on us to do our part and I think guys are doing it.”
In Anthony, USA Basketball has a leader not just on the court, but off it. It’s taken Anthony time to grow more comfortable speaking out, but now his words and actions have a real impact.
“I think it's evolved over the years,” Boeheim said. “He was immediately helping in our community and I know he helped in Denver. He's always been involved. But he's more mature now, and that's a big thing.”
Age has given Anthony perspective, and that perspective has sharpened his purpose. Now it’s up to his younger teammates to follow his lead.