There were many moments that evoked roars inside Madison Square Garden when the Knicks faced the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals this month: when Jalen Brunson hit a 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter, prompting a Heat timeout, or any of the five times RJ Barrett sank a 3, sending the Garden’s white-knuckled Knicks fans into a frenzy.
But the loudest roar that night came during a stoppage in play when a large video screen showed Carmelo Anthony sitting courtside. Anthony stood with one hand raised as most of the fans gave him a standing ovation, showering him with applause and cheers as if he had just made a game-winning shot.
Anthony never won a title for the Knicks or even made a conference finals in his six and a half seasons with the team, but the moment was a reminder of how much he still means to New York. The city had yearned for a star after years of mediocrity and got one in Anthony, a Brooklyn native ready to make Knicks games exciting again.
When Anthony announced his retirement Monday, many fans began to wonder when the Knicks would retire the No. 7 he wore while he played for the team.
“New York is the type of place that will melt you if you ain’t ready for it,” said the rapper Chuck D, who grew up on Long Island and co-founded the rap group Public Enemy. “But Melo came in and danced with the pressure of New York.”
He added: “Most ball players in New York, they don’t come from New York. So he brought a New York state of mind to a place that didn’t really have the ballplayers that knew how to adapt to it. So we’ll always love Melo for that.”
The Denver Nuggets drafted Anthony third overall out of Syracuse in 2003 after he led the school to an N.C.A.A. Division I national championship. In Denver, Anthony quickly established himself as one of the best players in the league.
At 6-foot-7 and about 240 pounds, Anthony was known for his 3-point prowess and his nifty footwork. On offense, he made moves on the high and low posts, outmuscling smaller guards and forwards while having the speed to blow by defenders.
But all of Anthony’s offensive success didn’t translate into much in the postseason for the Nuggets. In seven and a half seasons, Anthony’s teams made the conference finals just once, and he pressured the Nuggets to trade him to New York in 2011 in a deal that gutted the Knicks’ roster. Nuggets fans never forgot about Anthony’s exit, and they booed him each time he visited Denver.
“I gave my all here,” Anthony said at a news conference after he was booed in 2021. “I’ve never said anything bad about Denver — about the fans, the organization, players — never complained.” He added: “So it will always be a special place for me regardless of the boos.”
It also seemed like the front office had not forgotten about Anthony’s departure. Anthony was one of the best players in Nuggets history, and the No. 15 that he wore seemed destined for retirement. But in 2014, the Nuggets gave Anthony’s number to a little-known second-round pick whose selection was revealed while a Taco Bell commercial played during ESPN’s broadcast of the draft.
That player, Nikola Jokic, has become one of the best players in the N.B.A. and already has done more in a Nuggets uniform than Anthony had, winning two Most Valuable Player Awards. On Monday, Jokic led the Nuggets to their first N.B.A. finals.
“I hope they are able to retire both of their jerseys,” Nuggets forward Jeff Green told ESPN. “Nikola and Carmelo, I know it can be done, and it’s deserving for what he has done for the franchise.”
Anthony’s best chance for a jersey retirement is most likely in New York.
For many fans in the city, especially those who are Black or Latino, Anthony felt like a reflection of them on the court. Fans gravitated to Anthony, who is African American and Puerto Rican, because of his style: his signature cornrow braids — though he didn’t have them in New York — the tattoos that covered his arms, his love of hip-hop music.
Anthony was also omnipresent in the city outside of basketball. He attended everything from high school basketball games to hip-hop events, and still does. A year ago, he was in the audience at the Garden during a music battle between the rap groups The Lox and Dipset, rapping lyrics word for word.
In November 2005, Anthony called into Angie Martinez’s radio show on Hot 97, where The Lox were ranting about a contract dispute they had with Diddy, in what seemed to be an attempt to help make peace.
“What can he do to help?” Martinez asked about Anthony.
“You see his contract?” the rapper Jadakiss replied.
“I’m all the way in Oklahoma City,” Anthony said. “We’re about to go to the game. They told me you all were on the radio, so I had to call up.”
Anthony’s call went down in New York City radio folklore, but it was also a moment that was a reflection of who he had always been.
“Culturally, he means everything,” said Charlamagne Tha God, the host of the radio show “The Breakfast Club,” who remembers Anthony calling into Martinez’s show, and being one of the most accessible stars.
“Certain moments like that stand out to me when we talk about culture,” he said, “because those are moments when you saw the intersectionality between hip-hop and in basketball, and I think there are not too many people who represented that intersectionality better than Carmelo Anthony.”
One of the peculiar parts about the romance between New York fans and Anthony was that his approach to basketball was vastly different from what the greatest Knicks teams had been known for.
During some of their best years, the Knicks were a physical team with defenders who would wear opposing players down with aggressive guarding and hard fouls when they attacked the basket. Players like Charles Oakley and John Starks became fan favorites because of how they embraced the bully and villain style of play.
But Anthony was not of that mold. He was notorious for seeming uninterested in guarding players most of the time. While on offense, he scored frequently but was something of a black hole: When the ball went to him, he wasn’t going to pass it.
Anthony has the Knicks’ record for most points in a single game, with 62 against the Charlotte Bobcats in 2014; it’s also the third-most any player has scored in N.B.A. history without an assist.
“Yes, he was selfish at times. And you know, he was a ball stopper,” said Casey Powell, who is known as CP The Fanchise as the founder of Knicks Fan TV. “But he was a bucket, man.”
He said that Anthony didn’t have many options for players to pass to on those Knicks teams and that players like Starks and Oakley were beloved because they played hard, “but Carmelo, it was his actual talent that drew fans to him.” Knicks fans had not had a player of Anthony’s caliber since Patrick Ewing led the team to the finals in the 1994, he said.
“Even though they didn’t win much when he was here, he inspired a lot of kids, a lot of African American kids, a lot of Latino kids, and he just gave us hope,” Powell said. “So sometimes the conversation around Melo is how he didn’t win, and he’s a selfish player, but there’s more to him than on the court. Off the court, he delivered.”