Carmelo Anthony was having a terrific week. On Thursday, he opened his new youth center in his hometown of Baltimore. The next night, he took over the NBA scoring lead with a 42-point game against the Boston Celtics. And now, he was finishing an easy win over the New York Knicks, one in which he'd been the key man with a burst of 23 points in 23 minutes.
But in a matter of seconds, Saturday night transformed from a pleasant climax to an ugly plot twist, as Anthony threw a punch in the worst brawl the NBA has seen in two years.Now, Anthony awaits a multi-game suspension that could be announced as soon as today. And his actions are at the center of another debate around the sociology of the NBA.
In a statement released yesterday, Anthony said, "[Saturday] night's altercation with the Knicks escalated further than it should have. I take full responsibility for my actions in the matter. In the heat of the moment I let my emotions get the best of me. ... My actions were inexcusable."
The incident against the Knicks began when J.R. Smith - a player Anthony has taken under his wing this season - took a hard foul around the neck from Knicks reserve Mardy Collins. Denver had already secured a blowout victory - the Nuggets were leading 119-100 with less than two minutes left - and the Knicks felt the Nuggets were embarrassing them by keeping stars such as Anthony on the floor. Moments earlier, Smith had thrown down a flashy dunk.
After the foul, Smith immediately popped up and moved toward Collins.
Anthony did not start the fight, but he appeared to escalate it, hurling his body into the pack that formed around Smith and Collins. After several other players tumbled to the ground, Anthony began yelling at Collins. An assistant coach held Anthony back, but as he was being shoved away, Anthony unleashed a roundhouse right that landed on the side of Collins' head. He then backpedaled upcourt as several Knicks tried to pursue him. Anthony was one of 10 players ejected after the fight.
Anthony has little history of violence. He scrapped with a rapper in a New York nightclub after the man insulted his fiancee, LaLa Vazquez. That was part of a difficult 2004. First, authorities found marijuana in Anthony's bag as he tried to board the Nuggets' plane. Charges were dropped after a friend claimed responsibility for the drugs. Later, Anthony faced criticism for appearing in a "Stop Snitching" video along with alleged drug dealers who threatened would-be police informants.
But his image has softened. He proposed to Vazquez, and the couple is expecting a child in the spring. He has expanded his charitable efforts in Baltimore and Denver. With his round cheeks, brilliant smile and flourishing game, he has become a popular endorser for companies such as Nike and EA Sports. He was the breakout star of the U.S. national team this summer. Even Denver coach George Karl has gone from picking at his star's defense and shot selection to praising Anthony's leadership.
Those who've known Anthony since his days as a Baltimore high school star say the incident did not reflect his nature on or off the court.
"I just figured he was helping a teammate," said Vince Breckenridge, a longtime friend and mentor to Anthony. "He's always calm."
Anthony has an ode to loyalty tattooed on his arm and has always emphasized his unwillingness to abandon friends or teammates.
"Somebody must have done something to tick Carmelo off, because I've never seen him do anything like that," said Anthony's former coach at Towson Catholic, Mike Daniel. "Never. Never. He's a guy that smiles all the time."
Daniel said he hopes doubters don't pass judgment on his former star.
"The NBA game is very physical, and you just never know what's going on during the game," he said. "He's got a bull's-eye on his back because he's Carmelo Anthony, just like Kareem and Shaq and Jordan before him."
But the fracas will haunt Anthony, Chicago-based sports marketing consultant Marc Ganis said.
"Absolutely, it detracts from the wonderful reputation he was really developing, that started with USA Basketball where his teammates and coaches loved him," Ganis said. "For the people who want to see him as a thug and remember that `Stop Snitching' video, it just gives them ammunition to believe the worst. And it's a real shame because he's apparently a class act and he's playing great basketball."
Ganis said Anthony should apologize and get right back to his pattern of excellent play and community service.
"He needs to make sure that people understand he was coming to the aid of a teammate, but that that's not an excuse," Ganis said.
The brawl was more reminiscent of the slugfests that have interrupted NBA games throughout the league's history than of the infamous November 2004 melee between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons.
In that case, Pacers players Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal threw punches at Detroit fans. Artest received the longest suspension in NBA history at 73 games. Jackson and O'Neal drew initial penalties of 30 and 25 games, respectively.
The league has never been as harsh on fights between players. The Los Angeles Lakers' Kermit Washington drew the longest suspension for an on-court fight - 26 games - after he shattered Houston Rockets forward Rudy Tomjanovich's face with a punch in 1977.
That famous punch forever changed Tomjanovich, who was never the same as a player, and Washington, whose gentle off-court nature and remarkable work ethic were obscured.
Nobody had experienced that side of Washington more than legendary coach Pete Newell. The coach later explained how a good man could make such a bad mistake.
"When I saw that tape, I knew what had happened," Newell told author John Feinstein. "Rudy came from behind. He wasn't going to hit him or try to hurt him, I know that. Kermit knew it, too - later. But not then. At that moment, he was back in the schoolyard, and he was going to be sure that no one was going to pin his arms again. He reacted."
Former Rockets guard Calvin Murphy, all 5 feet 9 of him, was among the league's most renowned pugilists. He once downed 6-8 Sidney Wicks with a flurry of unanswered punches. The Rockets included that fight in highlight reels, Feinstein noted. At least until the franchise's favorite son, Tomjanovich, fell victim to the most chilling blow in NBA history.
Virtually every major star in league history seems to have thrown a punch at one time or another. The best players tend to be subject to the most physical defense and eventually many snap.
Knicks center Willis Reed once took on the Lakers' whole bench. In the first game of the 1977 season, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand on Kent Benson's head after taking an elbow. At the height of the Celtics- Philadelphia 76ers rivalry of the early 1980s, Larry Bird and Julius Erving came to blows. Four years ago, Shaquille O'Neal, then with the Lakers, threw a punch that, mercifully, missed the noggin of the Chicago Bulls' Brad Miller.
Abdul-Jabbar explained the perspective of battered stars in his autobiography, Giant Steps: "This was life and death for me, and I was fully prepared to carry it through to its conclusion. Benson was a big man, six eleven, two hundred and forty-five pounds; he could have damaged me. I had organs inside that didn't need to be getting hit by him. It was early in the season, and I wasn't going to let this be established as a precedent. I wasn't going to stand for it."
Anthony wasn't reacting directly to a physical provocation. He was more obeying a law that has been hammered into athletes from time immemorial - you always stand by your teammates. In that respect, the incident was more like a 1990 tussle in which Charles Barkley decked Bill Laimbeer after Laimbeer shoved the ball in Rick Mahorn's face.
"After tip-off, the only people I trust are my teammates, because it's us against the enemy," Barkley said in his autobiography, Outrageous! "And I'll defend them in any situation. If anybody - anybody - bothers any one of them, I'm gonna make them pay for it."
Ganis said Anthony will not receive any slack because he's one of many NBA fighters. "That just lumps you in with guys you don't want to be lumped in with," he said.
NBA commissioner David Stern has taken great pains to polish the league's image since the brawl in Detroit. The league has raised the minimum age to enter its draft, imposed a dress code for players and encouraged referees to crack down on in-game displays of outrage.