He Took a Road More Traveled

Times Staff Writer

There is a single blemish on the face of Carmelo Anthony, a battle scar from his otherwise graceful ascent to the pinnacle of college basketball.

One day when he was 4, his mother told him to stay in his room. That meant he couldn't watch his brother play basketball on the street below in the Baltimore projects where the family lived.

So he stacked speakers and climbed to where he could peer out the window on his tiptoes. The game was visible for a moment, then he slipped, slicing his eyelid on a speaker.

Anthony hasn't lost his footing since.

The game hasn't left his sight again.

And he has grown to realize the greatest dangers are outside his room.

Every day in his Syracuse dorm he erases a dozen or so phone messages from agents, wannabe agents and agents-in-training.

"I don't even answer," he said. "The only people I talk to know my cell number."

As it becomes apparent that LeBron James is the only American player more coveted as the NBA draft approaches, the unspoiled Orangeman freshman is discovering life will become infinitely more complicated once he leaves his snow-covered upstate New York oasis.

It wasn't enough to survive growing up in a Baltimore neighborhood so drug-infested it was called "the Pharmacy" by keeping his eye on the ball -- whether it be a basketball, football or baseball.

It wasn't enough to add 30 pounds onto his 6-foot-8 frame and hone his game as a high school senior at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, developing into an NBA prospect at 17.

It wasn't enough to pass the ACT on his last try, spurn certain riches and allow Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim to apply the finishing touches to his already well-rounded game.

It wasn't enough to gain All-American honors and bring averages of 22.5 points and 10 rebounds into today's second-round East Regional game against Oklahoma State.

He has to watch his step, just as his mother told him when he was 4.

"They tell me to be careful about who I talk to and the things I take from people," Anthony said. "I just want to go out and play the games, but everywhere I go, everybody is asking me what I'll do. Go to the NBA or stay in school. It gets on my nerves."

Yet instead of a snarl, he says this with the same smile he displays when he misses a free throw or commits a foul. It's a smile that suggests he is in control amid the chaos.

He isn't called Melo only because it's an abbreviation of his name. It's who he is.

"He hasn't let anything bother him," Boeheim said. "He's just enjoying himself."

The coach acknowledges the chances of Anthony returning are equal to a heat wave hitting Syracuse in January. He's just thankful this corn-rowed, tattooed sunbeam graced his program for one season.

"A lot of one-year guys have just killed programs," he said. "Carmelo is just the opposite. Take him off the team and we're not talking in Boston right now. He is tough on the court, but otherwise there is no hard edge to him. He had a great upbringing."

Anthony's influences are both major and Minor.

His mother, Mary, was chief, keeping him off the streets, emphasizing education and providing a stable home while holding down a janitorial job at the University of Baltimore.

His best friend, Kenny Minor, was loyal, grounded and as sports crazy as Anthony. They met playing youth football at age 9. Anthony spent the night before their first game at Minor's home, and they were inseparable thereafter.

Melo and Minor met again Friday on the FleetCenter court. Minor is the 5-foot-7 freshman point guard at Manhattan, which Syracuse defeated, 76-65.

"He's helped me so much, he's a great friend," Minor said. "Melo got me into summer basketball camps because he didn't want me to feel left out."

Minor knew his friend had special ability when Anthony scored 54 points in a game at age 9, but a growth spurt between ninth and 10th grade really sent Anthony into the stratosphere.

He left Baltimore for Oak Hill Academy as a senior last year and scored 35 points on James and St. Vincent-St. Mary High. Anthony and James, extraordinary talents with bright futures, developed a friendship.

"I take calls from LeBron," Anthony said. "I know he's going through a lot of things and I'm going through a lot of things. We try not to talk about basketball too much."

Maybe they discuss the $3 million or so each stands to earn next season in the NBA. Maybe they discuss insurance policies -- Anthony bought one after watching Miami running back Willis McGahee tear ligaments in his knee in the Fiesta Bowl.

Maybe they share stories of how crazy the adulation gets. When Anthony's name was called during his first class at Syracuse, heads turned and the room buzzed. After class, the other students lined up for his autograph.

In his last home game, an NCAA on-campus record crowd of 33,071 crowded the Carrier Dome to watch Anthony get 30 points, 14 rebounds and six assists against Rutgers.

As the clock ticked away, the crowd thundered, "One more year, one more year."

Anthony responded with a wave and that disarming, slightly sheepish grin. No promises. The NCAA tournament probably will end his abbreviated yet mutually beneficial Syracuse career.

Those who know him don't mind. It's Melo.

"I think he's having fun, but I wouldn't expect him to stay," Boeheim said. "With him, the kind of person he is and what he brought to our program, I can appreciate one season and leave it at that."

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