Still, Carmelo loomed. The Nets, desperate to justify those Jay-Z billboards and the construction zone on Atlantic Avenue, were willing to trade virtually their whole franchise for him, but Carmelo, who wielded his reluctance to sign a contract extension like a scepter, refused to go along. He, and his professional-celebrity wife LaLa Vazquez (who grew up in Brooklyn), wanted the Knicks. But did the Knicks want him anymore? Were they willing to give away all the young talent they had stockpiled for one man? Carmelo was the central story line of the first half of the NBA season, to the exhaustion of anyone who loved the game, including even him. At the NBA All-Star Game, Carmelo was the lone topic of conversation. “None of the other players got attention,” he says. “I don’t want that kind of attention no more. That was too much.”
Then the trade went through. The Knicks sent all those young guys, all but Fields, to Denver for Carmelo and veteran point guard Chauncey Billups. At first, many (including me) debated the wisdom of the trade, considering the Knicks had gutted their free-flowing, exuberant roster and sacrificed hard-earned salary-cap room in the midst of their first playoff season in a decade for a man whose offensive strengths (isolation, hop-step jumpers) seemed so ill-suited to D’Antoni’s system. The trade was also questionable because the Knicks could have called Carmelo’s bluff and hoped to try and sign him as a free agent, post-lockout, avoiding the need to give up so many players.
“Man, people just freak out here. It’s mostly funny. I just play basketball, you know?”
But the naysayers were almost immediately drowned out by an electrified crowd, one whose fervor bordered on religious mania, during Carmelo’s first game against the Milwaukee Bucks. The JumboTron showed quotes from Carmelo about “coming home,” and when he appeared in the team huddle, the Garden—in a year when it has been louder than it has been in so, so long—burst into flames. The arguments against the trade were rendered moot within seconds: Knicks fans had their savior. “That night was one of the best moments I’ve ever been a part of,” Carmelo says. “I’ve played in national championships, gold-medal games, conference-finals games. But that game is the one.” Carmelo did not play well, by his own admission, mostly because he had come straight off a flight from L.A. to a press conference and then to the game; he hadn’t even met most of his new teammates yet. “I didn’t have no legs, I can tell you that,” he says. “What got me through was the adrenaline, the energy that was in the building. There is nothing like Knicks fans.”
In the next months, Carmelo would learn this in every possible way. Since the trade, the Knicks have won seven in a row, lost six in a row, beat the vaunted Miami Heat, and lost to the wretched Cleveland Cavaliers (twice). This inconsistency, which was to be expected with a team with such dramatic roster turnover but was still disheartening to watch, along with the intense anticipation of Carmelo’s arrival, led to an accelerated timeline of judgment: Within a month of being the most beloved athlete in New York, he was being booed. “Knicks fans are intense,” he says. “They’re very loyal, very straightforward. They don’t hold no punches. That’s what makes them who they are. And at the end of the day, the stuff we get booed for, not playing hard, messing up on the sideline, we deserve it. And it’s stuff we can correct.”
In person, Carmelo is disarmingly casual about pretty much everything. He speaks in a slow, laconic drawl, and seems bemused by all the fuss he causes. Every big-name athlete who comes to New York has to devise a strategy to deal with The Media. Some attempt to ingratiate themselves (Nick Swisher), some are combative (Randy Johnson), some are both (Alex Rodriguez), and some magically dance between the raindrops (Derek Jeter). Carmelo sees the media circus the way a native New Yorker might: With wry humor and the perspective that, hey, this is just what happens here—it’s kinda fun. After a March loss to Detroit, one that started a six-game losing streak, Carmelo left the visiting team’s locker room without talking to reporters. This led to the “Carmelo Fails Yet Again” and “Carmelo Hides on the Bus!” headlines that inevitably appear when the maw is not fed. “Man, people just freak out here,” Carmelo says, chuckling in a way that makes it clear he’s hardly offended. “It’s just something you deal with. It’s mostly funny. I just play basketball, you know?”
But everybody wants something, and that is part of the job description when you are the savior of the Knicks, with a fan base so burned by the Isiah years that, even in its excitement, it’s always waiting for the hatchet to drop again. (If it’s any reassurance, Carmelo says he hasn’t talked to Isiah “in years” and met Jim Dolan for the first time during the All-Star break.) And what this fan base wants more than anything is, of course, a championship.