Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony look young but play old. Their games are reminiscent of basketball in the 1980s, when the biggest stars not only preferred the simple pass to the flashy dunk but also aimed to lead their teams to championships rather than lead the league in scoring. That's why it was so misleading that their initial meeting, on Nov. 5, was hyped as LeBron versus Carmelo, as if they were suddenly going to forget about making the NBA a better place and launch into a one-on-one smackdown, like guests on Jerry Springer. "I want to know who came up with this 'rivalry' between us," Anthony said last Friday, two days after his Denver Nuggets had beaten James's Cleveland Cavaliers, 93-89, on national TV. "It's a basketball game, not a rivalry. Maybe I could see it if we were in the same conference, but we're only going to be playing each other two times a year."
Fortunately the teenagers maintained more perspective than the grownups who were marketing them. While the 18-year-old James put up the better line--seven points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and three blocked shots--the 19-year-old Anthony (with 14 points and six rebounds) set the early tone by converting a steal into a three-point layup that forced the Cavs' All-Star center, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, to the bench with his second foul and freed Denver to run up a 27-16 lead in the first quarter.
James is the more complete player, as shown by that line, but he lacks the big-game experience that Anthony earned while leading Syracuse to the 2003 NCAA title as a freshman. Although Anthony and James were averaging a rookies-best 16.9 and 16.8 points, respectively, through Sunday, James has yet to develop the perimeter range and variety of post-up and dribble-drive moves that Denver is counting on from Anthony in its quest to double last year's miserable 17 wins. At week's end the 6'8" Anthony was leading his team in scoring even though he draws the best defender every night (which no doubt had contributed to his disappointing 36.2% shooting from the floor). "Carmelo is more than a scorer," says Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe, a former All-Star small forward. "He's going to be a very good rebounder and a great passer."
Denver believes it can build a contender around Anthony. As a rookie G.M. two years ago Vandeweghe unloaded Nick Van Exel, Raef LaFrentz, Antonio McDyess and other veterans and acquired a pair of first-round draft choices, and cleared cap space to make long-term commitments to point guards Andre Miller and Earl Boykins, with $16 million left to spend on free agents over the next two summers. Vandeweghe has also hired three full-time developmental coaches, among them former All-Star Adrian Dantley, who helps Anthony and fellow young forwards Nene and Nikoloz Tskitishvili with their low-post footwork.
Denver also employs a full-time masseuse who travels with the team, and the Nuggets offer players access to a running coach and instruction in martial arts and yoga. To encourage players to spend time at the gym, Vandeweghe had the practice facility outfitted with a lounge and a movie theater. "The general guideline in everything we do is, What would I have wanted as a player?" says Vandeweghe, who averaged 19.7 points over 13 years in the NBA. "If I'd had all of this support, it would have made a big difference in my career."
It's unlikely that the perks--or pressure--will turn Anthony's head. His coaches say that his most surprising trait is his humility. Syracuse's Jim Boeheim calls Anthony "the best player I've ever coached," both on and off the court. "There was never a problem with him. In the admissions office they're always looking for that kid who acts like he's from the suburbs, nice and well-mannered, but when it comes to basketball [we] want him to be tough as hell and banging people. Carmelo is all of those things."
Carmelo is the youngest of four children raised by his mother, Mary Anthony, near the drug-ruined area of Baltimore known as the Pharmacy--the neighborhood where the HBO police drama The Wire is filmed. He was two when his father, Carmelo Iriarte, died of liver failure. Mary supported the family by working full time as a housekeeper, and she stayed on top of her son, constantly threatening to revoke his basketball privileges if he failed to behave or perform at school. Anthony didn't begin working seriously on his game until he was cut from the Towson Catholic High varsity as a freshman point guard. Over the next year he grew five inches, to 6'5", and quickly became a local star--which led to problems. "As a good player in the inner city, you're always hearing people saying that you're better than you really are and that you don't have to do things like everybody else," Anthony says. "When I was in Baltimore I took all that talk and ran with it. It distracted me from my schoolwork. I started getting suspended."
During his junior year he committed to play for Jim Boeheim. At the end of that year he realized that he needed to improve his test scores in order to qualify academically for Syracuse, so he transferred to Oak Hill Academy, a Baptist boarding school in rural Virginia, from which Jerry Stackhouse, Ron Mercer and other NBA players have graduated. Coach Steve Smith says the transition was difficult for Anthony--he had to spend five weeks at summer school to qualify academically for Oak Hill. Anthony admits that he wanted to quit, but he was talked out of it by his mother and his former AAU coach. "He had to give up a lot of the summer basketball camps and events that players love to attend," Smith says. "He would go to classes from 7 a.m. to noon, six days a week, and then at 2 p.m. each day he had to meet me in the gym. It would be 100 degrees, with no air-conditioning, and we would work him out for two hours, all by himself. Then he would have study hall."
There are no TVs in the dorm rooms at Oak Hill. School uniforms and Sunday church attendance are mandatory, and it's lights out at 10:30. Students are allowed to leave campus only with permission, and school dances and other social functions are heavily chaperoned. The discipline helped Anthony become the highest-rated high school senior in the country; he led Oak Hill to a No. 3 national ranking and a 32-1 record that included a victory over St. Vincent-St. Mary and LeBron James.
Unlike James, Anthony says he never considered going straight to the NBA. "LeBron knew probably in his sophomore year that he wasn't going to college, and he had all that time to prepare himself for the NBA," Anthony says. "But I was new to the scene. To be able to do what I did in college last year surprised me."
This humility, like his easy smile, is a sign of strength, not weakness. Anthony is not going to relax, no matter how many times he is congratulated for his national championship. His primary goal now is to bring the Nuggets an NBA title. Just as James has Cleveland fans dreaming big for the first time in a decade, Anthony has lit a fire in Denver. Anthony instantly became the team's most popular player, and among rookies his $30 million in endorsements is second only to James's $118 million.
Now it's up to Anthony to get Denver some wins. Last Friday he found himself in a duel with Clippers small forward Corey Maggette, who was convinced that the Nuggets pulled out of free-agent negotiations with him last summer because they preferred to focus on Anthony. "That's my spot you got!" Anthony heard Maggette grunt over and over again on his way to scoring 29 points while Anthony, who suffered a right-elbow contusion during the game, was unable to fully extend his shooting arm. But Anthony overcame the injury to score a season-high 30 points while draining three straight jumpers in overtime, including a pair of dramatic treys, before Denver succumbed 104-102.
"It's good to know I can knock down shots like that," Anthony said afterward, rubbing his elbow. Two weeks into his NBA career the teenager was already showing the Nuggets the toughness that got him through the streets of the Pharmacy and the clutch play that brought Syracuse a title. He was too busy to worry about rookie rivalries.
SI.com Jack McCallum's Inside the NBA, every Tuesday, at si.com/basketball.