The Games of the XXVIII Olympiad were less than a week away and the men’s national team was training in Istanbul, Turkey, limping toward Athens after a disastrous training camp in Jacksonville and an embarrassing pair of exhibitions in Serbia.
The date was Aug. 10, 2004 and Carmelo Anthony had just finished a game in which he played all of seven minutes and shot 0-for-4 from the field.
Although the U.S. defeated a strong Turkish team 80-68, the karma was not good. Two days earlier, Team USA managed a 79-67 win over the same team and Anthony played a limited 15 minutes and scored five points.
The bad news? Turkey hadn’t even qualified for the men’s tournament at Athens and the USA had a date to play Puerto Rico in the opening game of the 2004 Summer Olympics on Sunday, Aug. 15. The beginning of the end was upon them and Anthony sensed it big-time. Puerto Rico crushed the USA, 92-73, with NBA journeyman Carlos Arroyo dominating the inexperienced American squad.
Looking back, it was the hard times of Athens ‘04 that fueled Anthony’s desire to become a three-time Olympian, an honor that hit home when he marched in the Olympic ceremonies this past week. With a nod to Pete Townshend and the Who, it marked a journey that has been nothing short of amazing.
And it was one that continued in stunning fashion Thursday, when Anthony set the U.S. single-game scoring record with 37 points (in only 14 minutes of playing time), hit a record 10 of 12 three-pointers and led a 156-73 rout of Nigeria.
Yet his Olympic heights of the present – his development as a pro and an outstanding international basketball player – actually came about in the summer of 2006.
USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo and his new national team coach, Mike Krzyzewski, were holding their first team meetings to craft a “Redeem Team” to play in the 2006 World Championship in Japan and the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
The new USA Basketball brain trust had selected three players who had tasted defeat in Athens and had dull bronze medals to prove it. The three players were LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Anthony.
Anthony, James, Amare Stoudemire and Emeka Okafor were the odd men out in Larry Brown’s main rotations in Athens. After many an NBA star had passed on participation with the U.S. team – either because of security fears or injuries, real or conjured up for convenience – late add-ons Anthony and Okafor were cast aside, mainly because Coach Brown was seeking to bolster up a weak backcourt.
At the first team meeting and the very first practice, Anthony, was without a doubt, the best player in the gym. He was in the best condition and his outside shooting was uncanny. While some of the other All-NBA- level stars might have been more talented or more athletic, Anthony was primed for his second chance and his game was tailor-made for international play and on revved-up offense.
In a period of two full years, Anthony and his side-kick, James, had grown up. They matured under the spotlight of an unforgiving NBA. King James and the Cleveland Cavaliers fell to the Detroit Pistons in the 2006 Eastern Conference semi-finals. Anthony and his Denver Nuggets were not as fortunate, as they’d been drilled by the NBA punch-line of a team, the LA Clippers, losing in five games in the first round. Anthony took the brunt of the criticism.
Still, in the summer of 2006, Coach K liked what he saw in Anthony and the Duke head coach’s instincts, as always, were right on the money.
Anthony led the USA in scoring (19.9 ppg) and 3-point FG shooting (22/2.44 per game) and he had a game-high 27 points in the USA’s disappointing loss to Greece in the semifinals. The USA took one giant step backwards with the repeat of a bronze medal but, in reality, the team had just taken a “course” in International Basketball 2.0. Anthony, James, Wade, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh and center Dwight Howard gained valuable experience.
When it came time for 2008 and the Olympic Games of Beijing, it was show time. The result, of course, was golden with Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd, and the returning veterans of the USA national team proudly leading the way. They had fully learned and earned their victory in the vastly different international game.
“FIBA basketball allows me to play multiple positions and do a lot of different things out there on the basketball court than in the NBA,” said Anthony during USA training in Washington D.C., not far from the Baltimore neighborhood he grew up.
“It was a great experience in 2008, how we all came together and played for that gold medal, played for our country, had fun and showed some class at the same time,” Anthony said.
“I think we have some guys on this (2012) team that are definitely hungry, especially the younger guys,” he continued. “What we put together in 2008, we’ll never duplicate. It’s a new team and new situation and we have to form our own identity (in London).”
Anthony enjoys the experience in London with knowledge that it will help his overall game, and his effort to make the New York Knicks contenders in the 2012-13 NBA season.
“In 2008, coming off the gold medal and going into the 2009 season, that was one of my best years in the league,” he said. “That year, we (Denver) went to the Conference Finals and my body felt great and my mind felt great. That is something I keep in mind, coming off USA Basketball.”
This week, Anthony and his teammates have improved gradually as they begin to gel. The gold medalists from ’08 and the younger crew, from the world champion 2010 squad, will be reaching for Olympic excellence once again. The elimination round will come fast, the stakes are high and the competition is strong.
And Anthony is ready for all of it.