There isn’t a player on this year’s dynamic U.S. men’s basketball team at the Olympics that wasn’t influenced by Jordan. Kobe Bryant has made a career out of being Jordan’s avatar. LeBron James, though his game is molded more in Magic Johnson’s likeness, carried the self-imposed weight of being the Next One since 2003 A.J. (After Jordan).
Kobe was the one who brought the media-inspired debate comparing the Dream Team (1992) to this year’s team to the upper stratosphere, where most of the trash talk only takes place in private lounges and without the presence of microphones. Bryant intimated before the Olympics that this group could beat Jordan, Magic, Bird, Ewing and Co., which, of course, drew a range of responses from The Originals.
“I absolutely laughed,” Jordan said.
[It would be the ultimate Fathers and Sons game, wouldn’t it? If there is a basketball heaven, God, please leave me a ticket to see that game when my time comes.]
Older generations often bemoan the neo-NBA mentality that the sport began in 1984, with Jordan’s arrival in the prime years of the Bird-Magic Era. But the ’92 Dream Team unquestionably had a paternal impact on the game both in the U.S. and, unquestionably, across the globe.
And there was Melo, after draining one of his U.S. Olympic record 10 three-pointers in the record-shattering win over Nigeria on Thursday, in the moment — which is something he’ll later describe as indescribable to anyone who has never experienced it — turning with his trademark Cheshire cat grin. And right then and there it was as if Nike rewound that classic commercial from 2004 and morphed Melo into Michael as he shrugged.
“Just to feel it every time, that touch,” Carmelo said afterward, “it’s kind of hard to explain it.”
He finished with a U.S. Olympic record 37 points, with a record 10 three-pointers. Perhaps the most stunning achievement of all was that he did this in 14 minutes of playing time. His point-per-minute pace would have shattered Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point record in a 48-minute NBA game.
Mike Krzyzewski fought off sanctimonious accusations that the U.S. purposely ran up the score (record 156 points and 83-point deficit) and embarrassed the overmatched Nigerians by pointing out that both Kobe and LeBron — arguably the two best players in the world — sat the entire second half and “Even with Carmelo shooting like that, we benched him.”
Melo took a team-high 16 shots in those 14 minutes and made 13 of them. Only four attempts came from within the comfortably-close three-point arc. And this wasn’t the Iso-Melo game so many love to criticize. This wasn’t a player dominating the ball and gunning for personal gain. This was just a prolific scorer on a ridiculous catch-and-shoot roll who had no other explanation for it.
Nothing, other than a shrug.
“If you’ve never done it,” he said, “you really wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about.”
Michael understands. It was Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals against the Trail Blazers when he drilled six three-pointers in the first half and famously summed up the unexpected long-range assault with a shrug.
In his brief time with the Knicks, Carmelo Anthony has had a handful of prolific games and clutch moments, but fans are still left wanting more. He is that player who is so tantalizingly close with elite-level individual talent but has yet to turn it into elite-level team success.
In that torrid month of April, he had 43 points in 46 minutes in a win over the Bulls and 42 a week later in a loss to the Heat. He had 39 against the Pacers after some motivation from Danny Granger and 37 in the season opener against the Celtics.
He had 41 points in Game 4 against the Heat, which helped avoid the indignity of a sweep.
So, yes, we’ve seen what happens when Melo gets hot.
“And there’s nothing anybody can do about it,” Tyson Chandler said. “He’s one of the best shooters in the world.”
This past season, however, he was just so maddeningly streaky. Injuries riddled him during the bulk of the season and he shot 43 percent, the lowest since his rookie season. He’s never been a great three-point shooter, but with the international distance more than three feet closer to the basket, Melo looks like Steve Novak. He is shooting a sizzling 12 for 16 from downtown in three pool-play games so far in London. Let’s face it; the international three is more like a mid-range jumper in the NBA. And Melo is one of the best mid-range shooters in the game.
What’s more notable than his three-point touch is how engaged he is as a role player. Krzyzewski has used him exclusively as a Sixth Man in these Olympics and Anthony has taken to referring to himself as “a glue guy.” When he’s not scoring, he’s rebounding. When he’s not playing, he’s cheering. And that smile? Ubiquitous.
Now for the inevitable question: can this carry over into the season? History has proven for many of these players, including Melo in 2008, that the international experience in the summer has led to exceptional performances during the NBA season. Melo, one of the most experienced international players in USA Basketball history, came out of the Beijing Games not only with a gold medal but a new perspective on what it is, what it takes, to be a star. His personality matured, his preparation matured and he was more amenable to a team concept run by Chauncey Billups as the Nuggets pushed through to the Western Conference Finals.
This fall, Melo will enter camp with the most talented roster he has ever been surrounded by in the NBA. Yes, the demand to be the primary scorer will be on him, but so will the demand to maintain the all-around game he has shown with USA Basketball. To be the glue guy, the one who brings it all together, which was his ambition from the start when the idea of playing in New York first came to be.
When he signed with the Jordan Brand, Melo’s intent was to emphasize that he wasn’t trying to be the next Michael Jordan. He wasn’t trying to Be Like Mike. And after experiencing the moment in London, perhaps he’s realized that there is a form of emulation that is more genuine than imitation.