NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony arrived at USA Basketball's mini camp last July expecting an earful. LeBron James, his friend, rival and peer, was just days removed from winning his first NBA title. From his couch Anthony watched James celebrate, watched the raw emotion wash over him, watched all the years of questions, of criticism, of frustration dissolve in one euphoric moment. And there, in Las Vegas, Anthony expected to hear all about it.
"I would have [talked about it]," Anthony told SI.com. "I would have been all crazy. But he [James] was cool and collected. When guys would bring it up, he would blow it off. He never talked about it."
Not that it mattered. Anthony could see the ease in James' smile.
"You could just tell it was like a weight was lifted off his shoulders," Anthony said.
Seeing the Heat win offered ample motivation, but, for Anthony, it doubled as educational. He observed Miami's five-game blitz of Oklahoma City with an analytical eye. He saw James make big plays, Dwyane Wade attack the rim and Chris Bosh fight for rebounds. But he also saw Mike Miller knock down threes, Shane Battier play out of position and Mario Chalmers hit key shots down the stretch. He saw a team win, not just a glittery, high-priced collection of stars.
"The great players always get the accolades and the attention and the pat on the back when you do win, but it takes 10 guys, 12 guys to win a championship," Anthony said. "That's the difference between winning one and not winning one. Look, I knew it would be hard. You just look at the history of it. Look at the great players who haven't won a championship. I used to always tell my teammates, 'It's hard as hell to win a championship.' There are a lot of great players who don't have a title. Some guys just don't get an opportunity to win one."
Anthony has come a long way from the defiant 19-year-old who blew into Denver, fresh off a national championship at Syracuse, determined to do things his own way. "At that age, I just wanted to go through it and have my own experiences rather than sit down and have someone walk me through what I needed to know," Anthony said. He succeeded in the Mile High City, becoming an elite scorer and leading the Nuggets to the playoffs in each of his first seven seasons, including one trip to the Western Conference finals. But he also picked up a rep as an implacable gunner, a tag he seemingly validated with the Knicks last season, when Mike D'Antoni quit because he couldn't take another day of coaching him.
Anthony is 28 now, the unquestioned leader of the Knicks, the team he demanded to play for and, perhaps, the last team for which he ever will. New York has the NBA's longest active winning streak of six games, defying age and injury to surge into a tight race with Indiana for the No. 2 spot in the East.
Standing in front of Madison Square Garden on Thursday, where Anthony was promoting his participation in Degree Men's DO:MORE campaign, he professed a greater understanding of what it takes to win a title. He needs to score, sure. But he also needs his teammates to back him up.
"I need Amar'e [Stoudemire] to be who he is, me to be who I am and Tyson [Chandler] to be who he is," Anthony said. "But it takes other pieces along with that. Yeah, we are the face of this team. But it takes everyone else to fit in and do what they do best in order for that to work."
Anthony's success will be inextricably linked to Stoudemire, the All-Star power forward with whom many believe Melo can't play. The Knicks aren't moving either player: Anthony by choice, Stoudemire because no one will touch the uninsured $45 million Stoudemire and his balky knees have coming over the next two seasons. Anthony says he knows how much he needs Stoudemire and, opinions and mountain of evidence to the contrary, they have found a way to make it work.
"We did this year," Anthony said. "That's something that we always laugh and joke about. You could have said we struggled when I first got here, right after the trade. You could have said that last year, after the lockout. But our focus this year was to come back and show everybody we could do it. And we started off rolling, doing our thing. But then he got hurt again. [Stoudemire underwent knee surgery in early March; he was expected to miss six weeks.] We didn't get a chance to showcase that.
"People can say what they want. Me and him, we don't pay any attention to that stuff."
The title took the bull's-eye off James' back, and now many columnists and bloggers, talk-show hosts and talking heads have shifted their gaze to Anthony and Dwight Howard, two title-less stars. He got his team, he got his money, and now Anthony is expected to deliver.
It will be difficult for him to get his ring this season, with the Heat playing at a frighteningly efficient level, injuries battering the Knicks' aging roster and a cluster of heavyweights lurking in the West. But with a talented core in place and a franchise willing to spend, Anthony's best chance could come soon. The lessons of the past still resonate with Anthony, lessons he hopes that, like with James, will someday be part of a successful narrative.