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The Knicks, Carmelo, and the Haters

The other night, my nine-year-old brother started rattling off idioms he learned in school. “A fish out of water” and “it takes two to tango” were among his favorites. I was listening for “it ain’t easy bein’ cheesy,” but apparently his elementary school does yet not recognize the legendary Cheetos catchphrase. After reciting at least fifteen more idioms—you’d think he was a Rosetta Stone graduate—my mom interjected with her personal mantra “every cloud has a silver lining.”

As a New York Knicks fan, I can relate to this slogan far too well. Something bad seems to always be happening. Yet in the midst of all the bad, there are also tiny slivers of hope.

Although the Isiah Thomas years are a distant memory and a basketball Messiah (a.k.a. Phil Jackson) has taken the reigns, the Knicks find themselves in the same place as they were in the mid-2000s—one of the worst teams in the NBA and a laughing stock.

Though the 2014-2015 season wasn’t filled with any serious promise for the Knicks, few predicted they’d fail to reach the twenty-win mark. The $124 million man Carmelo Anthony missed much of the year due to injury, and Jackson dealt two of the team’s “centerpieces” (J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert) to the Cavs. The Knicks were comically bad with those guys playing. Without them the team became, well, a true 21st Century New York Knicks squad.

Nevertheless, the Knicks’ horrific season brought with it one of those slivers of hope—a high lottery pick. College stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor stood on the horizon, and fans envisioned a modern-day Patrick Ewing taking the MSG court in the near future. There was truly a silver lining… until the Draft Lottery.

The Knicks, who had the second worst record in the NBA, received the fourth pick of the draft. My heart sank. It felt like the scene in Toy Story where Buzz tries to flee from Sid’s house by flying through the window, but falls helplessly to the ground. A top-two pick represented that escape from Sid’s house, the abyss. Sitting at fourth, the all-too-familiar feeling of disappointment permeated New York. A championship, or perhaps Andy’s house in this analogy, again fell out of sight.

At the draft, the Knicks selected uncertainty. Kristops Porzingis, a little known, unproven Latvian player (a “big project” according to many, a sure-fire bust to others) now holds the keys to our future.

Hours of sulking and days of reflecting (a.k.a. a typical week for a Knicks fan) led me to consider what the Knicks still have left. They’ve got an inexperienced coach, the thirteen-ring and possibly out-of-touch president, an inept owner (He Who Must Not Be Named), a 7’1” European question mark, and Carmelo Anthony.

Anthony, who essentially forced his way to New York during the 2010-2011 season, is one of the best players in the league. However, he has always been scrutinized and criticized by basketball fans. He’s selfish, he’s a ball-hog, he shoots too much, he doesn’t play defense, he only cares about money, he hasn’t won any championships, etc. Even the great George Karl, his coach in Denver, stated “[Melo’s] an individual that produces individual success, but doesn’t produce championships.” Yikes. People love to hate Carmelo, and that hatred has been exacerbated with the Knicks’ recent struggles.

But why does Melo receive such an enormous amount of hatred? The harsh New York media and failing to meet extremely high fan expectations are certainly contributing factors. Regardless, it’s surprising the criticism he attracts far exceeds that which is directed at Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul (who are also title-less and have played on more talented teams than Melo).

Admittedly, I complain about Carmelo as much as the next person. For me, and I think for many other basketball fans, it is difficult to like Melo because he has established a reputation as someone who doesn’t focus solely on the basketball. In other words, people think he “doesn’t care” about getting better and winning. He is only concerned with building his brand—the “individual success”, as George Karl puts it.

In an interview with ESPN The Magazine, Carmelo claims he “hates” being known only as a superstar athlete. If it were up to Melo, his Wikipedia page wouldn’t identify him as a “basketball player,” but rather an entrepreneur.

Fans, myself included, become frustrated at comments like these since we expect athletes to only concentrate on honing their craft. By signing huge deals worth tens of millions of dollars, that expectation becomes even stronger. High-paid players are supposed to live and breathe the sport they play. The time to engage in extracurricular activities simply cannot not exist.

Outside of the sports realm, we applaud people for having multiple interests. A storeowner who decides to write a novel in his spare time is celebrated for following his passion. An interior designer who relocates to Martha’s Vineyard to fish for the summer is respected. Athletes in high school are commended for succeeding in the classroom. However, a basketball player who purchases a professional soccer team (like Carmelo) or serves as the creative director of the newest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle product line (also like Carmelo) is ridiculed for not focusing enough on improving his game.

Guys like Carmelo Anthony are vilified for having aspirations off the court. Not everyone is a hyper-determined gym rat like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. That being said, their apparent single-mindedness (i.e. caring about basketball and nothing else) is a fallacy. Jordan invested in and continues to run one of the most successful shoe companies in the world. Not to mention, he tried his hand at acting, starring in the most awesome sports movie ever. Meanwhile, Kobe recently formed Kobe Inc. and has poured a lot of green into his drink company.

MJ, Kobe, and even LeBron James—widely regarded as a businessman—do not face the same scrutiny for engaging in their business ventures as Carmelo for one reason. The three greats have won and Melo has not. Winning serves as a right of passage to be a businessman off the court. Melo cannot as easily get away with focusing on “side projects” since he has not brought a title to New York.

Is it fair to criticize Carmelo Anthony, or any athlete, for wanting to accomplish things off the court? Can we as fans really justify deriding athletes for pursuing other interests, especially when those interests are explored during the off-season (an NBA player’s vacation time)?

We don’t complain when players choose to play over the summer. Suiting up for a national team or the upcoming annual NBA Africa game jeopardizes players’ health far more than sitting in a conference room. The logic has become that players like Carmelo should work during the off-season just as long as it’s on the court (even though that makes them more prone to injury). Doing things unrelated to basketball is somehow irresponsible. This line of thinking seems unreasonable and unfair.

Perhaps our own vision of professional athletes has become too single-minded, even hypocritical. Athletes are not robots. They are not programmed just to play basketball. They have goals and aspirations like us. Who are we to say how they should live their lives?

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