Carmelo Anthony walked past a line of buffet trays and shook his head. "No meat, no bread, no sweets," he said last Wednesday when we met in the Nuggets' player lounge for a 40-minute interview. "I'm in day four for 21 days. It's a personal fast, that's all."
Larger issues than his next meal are facing Anthony. As detailed in my story in Sports Illustrated this week, the Nuggets' star small forward has spent the last six months attempting to leverage his way out of Denver in time to sign a three-year, $65 million extension with a team of his choosing.
Anthony understands the risks of declining that extension with the Nuggets. "People just see the fact that I haven't signed that contract right now and [they think] I don't care about this city, I don't care about the team, I just want to leave, I just want to be selfish, it's about money," he said. "If it was just about money, I would have been signed for $65-mill. Who in their right mind would leave $65 million if it was about money?"
He wasn't denying the importance of money; he was insisting the location of his next team is also important. "That's the best of both worlds," he said. Later he added, "All my family is East -- back home."
When I pressed him about moving to New York -- it is known that he wants to play for the Knicks, while the Nets (who are moving to Brooklyn in 2012) are most likely to complete a trade for him -- he hinted at other issues as well.
"Right now it's hard for me to explain my reasoning behind the madness," he said with a smile. "But it's a lot of things that come into play. Whether it's the future of the organization or where they're headed or where they're trying to go, or whether it's contractual stuff with players and guys that are up [to be free agents] at the same time. People don't really know that type of stuff. They just think that I'm being stubborn and I just want to get up and leave -- just throw away eight years of my life."
Anthony said the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations between the league and its players have created a sense of urgency for him.
"I've been sitting in meetings with the owners and seeing what is their problem with everything," he said. "I've been in several of the meetings to know what the problem is and what's going on. It's going to take some time to get the owners and the players on the same page."
Is there going to be a lockout?
"Oh, without a doubt," he said. "Without a doubt."
So that's another reason to sign the extension now, I said.
You could wait until the summer, I went on, but there is no telling which teams may have cap space or what the rules of the next CBA will allow you to do as a free agent.
"Everything you say right now, I lie on the table and try to break down every situation, every scenario," he said. "Everything you're saying, I've already [put] thought into it. You don't know what the future's going to bring. That's how I have to look at it, because I don't really know what's going to happen in the future."
Anthony is essentially trying to leverage his rights as a free agent months before he can opt out of his contract this summer. He is in this predicament because he chose in 2006 to sign a full five-year contract (with an opt-out for this summer), while LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- who all entered the NBA with Anthony in the 2003 draft -- negotiated shorter deals that enabled them to become free agents in 2010, the last summer of the current financial rules.
"I just wanted some security," Anthony said of his 2006 choice. "I felt like I was secure in my situation at the time. I had no worries, I was happy being here, happy being around the guys who were on the team, so I never really paid attention to the CBA coming up. I shouldn't say I wasn't paying attention, but I wasn't knowledgeable of what it can be."
While his desire to leave has put the Nuggets in the difficult position of breaking up a 23-17 playoff contender, it has also given them an opportunity to exchange Anthony for more assets than were received by the Cavaliers or Raptors, who last summer lost James and Bosh, respectively, while receiving little value in return. That's why Anthony has been able to tell reporters whether he was close to being traded -- because he has maintained a constructive relationship with Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri and president Josh Kroenke.
"If there's anything he needed to talk to me about, the lines of communication are open," Anthony said of Ujiri. "Same thing with Josh -- we had some great conversations. We sit and talk often."
Would Anthony sign an extension with the Nets if they were able to complete a trade for him? He wouldn't tell me, but he indicated Ujiri knows the answer.
"If he wanted to know, he could come and ask me," said Anthony. "There's nothing that's been said in the paper that we haven't talked about already, and there's things that I know and he know that has not gotten out there and that people don't even know about right now."
After spending last week in Denver, my understanding -- and no one has told me this explicitly -- is that Anthony would be likely to accept a meeting with the Nets if they could negotiate the terms of a trade. The only reason to stiff New Jersey would be in hopes of forcing a trade to the Knicks. But if the Nuggets can't move to Anthony to the Nets, then they may choose to deal him to the Rockets or any number of other teams who have shown interest in acquiring him on a for-rental basis with the risk that he'll depart as a free agent after the season.
If he were to rule out the Nets as a long-term destination, then he may be sent to who knows where for the remainder of the season -- and then come to realize after the lockout that he has no options to leave if, for example, the owners enact a "franchise player" rule in the next CBA that allows each team to designate one star to be re-signed automatically.
The Knicks are surely a more alluring franchise than the Nets. But the Knicks also happen to be Amar'e Stoudemire's team now, while the Nets would be built around Anthony's finishing skills. Anthony was born in Brooklyn, so the Nets' move to their new arena in 2012-13 would be billed as his homecoming -- the House 'Melo Built.
Anthony is not the first star of his era to deal with these issues. Chris Paul -- who is rumored to want to follow Anthony to New Jersey or New York as a free agent in 2012 -- asked the Hornets last summer to improve the talent around him. When James, Wade and Bosh moved to Miami, all three were insistent about wanting to share the responsibilities offensively. Anthony told me he texts often with Paul, James, Wade and Kobe Bryant, who has won two championships since he was paired with All-Star big man Pau Gasol.
"Everybody growing up says, 'I wish I could play with this guy, I wish I could play with that guy,' " he said. "I've always been an individual -- I always did things on my own, I always wanted to lead my own way, and I think I've done a great job here. By making this city fun, making this organization fun and people wanting to watch Denver Nuggets basketball, I think I've done a great job with that.
"But there comes a time where maybe that burden gets too heavy. But that's not going to stop me from going out and doing what I'm doing. I'm pretty sure everybody goes through it. LeBron went through it in Cleveland, D-Wade went through it in Miami. But then they got people. Kobe went through it at L.A. -- he definitely was going through it until they got Gasol and they got Lamar [Odom] and all them guys. Everybody goes through it, especially the offensive players, the great players."
Anthony noted that James was criticized last summer after he took less money to move to a team where he was likely to score fewer points.
"It's a sacrificial story for a guy of that caliber to say, OK, I'm going to leave the place where I am The Guy on the team, and to sacrifice his game to go partner up with two players down there," Anthony said. "And to say, I'm going to do what I've got to do to buy into the program, to buy into the team and do what I've got to do to try to win the championship -- I don't see anything wrong with that.
"Maybe the way he went about it and the whole situation, I could see why people were mad at that. But as far as him sacrificing and doing the things for that team to be successful, I don't see nothing wrong with that."
Anthony has remained upbeat in spite of the criticism he has earned this season.
"I got to," he said. "It would be hard for me to frown knowing that I still have to go out there and compete at the highest level. So for me to go out there and be moping around and frowning, and every time somebody says something I may not like and turn back quick and say something back, or put my head down -- that wouldn't be me.
"It's much better to be in a happy place within yourself."