They arrived in the NBA steeped in similar hype, albeit to differing degrees: one a freakish prep-to-pro phenom, the other fresh off a jaw-dropping collegiate run culminating in a national championship.
Over the next decade-plus, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony—whose two teams meet Thursday night for the first time this season—would be inextricably linked, if not exactly by dint of accomplishment.
Between them, they boast 15 All-Star appearances, two scoring titles, four Olympic gold medals and enough NBA Player of the Week plaques to fill the Smithsonian.
Both will go down as two of the best players of their generation. Both are destined for the Naismith Hall of Fame and both are looked upon by peers as maestros in a world of mere court musicians.
And yet, when all is said and done, the NBA titles and MVP awards are bound to be what basketball fans remember most about James and Anthony.
When all is said and done, one stands to be perhaps the greatest to ever lace up the Chucks, while the other—front-page fodder though he might be—will find his ink below the fold.
Of goodness and greatness
On Nov. 5, 2003, a little over a week into the new season, James and Anthony met for the first time as professionals.
The game itself was wholly pedestrian—a 93-89 victory for Melo and the Denver Nuggets in which neither Anthony nor James, who would finish the season one-two in the rookie scoring ranks, crested the 15-point mark.
Neither player played particularly well, as Anthony tallied 14 points on 6-of-17 shooting from the floor while LeBron had seven points on 3-of-11 shooting.
But it was in the box score’s finer ephemera that the stage was slowly being set for the disparity of dynamism to come. While Melo managed only six boards and a pair of assists, LeBron’s 11 rebounds and seven dimes single-handedly kept Cleveland in the game.
Ten years later, it’s that very stat-stuffing prowess that has launched James to the head of his draft class and into the conversation of being "the greatest of all-time."
Melo, meanwhile, has forged his own identity: that of a gifted offensive player—part bucket-getting machine, part poetry in motion, who is prone to sacrificing efficiency for degrees of difficulty.
That’s been the narrative at least as far back as 2010, when both James and Anthony both began looking for a change of scenery.
Of heroes and villains
In less than a calendar year, both had gotten their wishes of moving on, and both had paid for it dearly on the public-relations front.
For LeBron, a half-hour of ill-conceived television—“The Decision,” as it became infamously known—imbued his free-agency move to the Miami Heat with a villainy tailor-made for America’s burgeoning 24-hour sports hype machine.
Meanwhile, Melo’s gambit, though slightly more muted, entailed its own nefarious narrative—that of a “selfish gunner” who “forced himself” to a “big market.”
That big market, of course, was the New York Knicks.
Rather than encourage Melo to wait for the summer of 2011, when he'd be able to sign with the Knicks outright without the team having to part with too many pieces, Knicks owner James Dolan bent to the superstar’s whims—gutting his team to a degree that the repercussions are still felt even today.
Eventually, LeBron would re-endear himself to the world at large. His genius was simply too great to deny, his unselfish play and cerebral approach being a brilliant beacon in a league still coming to grips with a decade of public purgatory and—let’s be honest—pretty bad basketball.
For Anthony, the fight for love lingers on, as his struggling Knicks continue to paint a picture of a franchise to which patience and prudent management are arcane currencies.
Their NBA fortunes might have forked long ago, but the two longstanding friends do share a common glory: Olympic gold.
A bond abroad, more LeBron at home
Following a disastrous showing in Athens in 2004, Team USA approached the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics four years later like a conquered juggernaut back to claim what was rightfully his.
Both James and Anthony had borne witness to that spectacular debacle, and both figured heavily into their teams' demon-exercising runs in 2008 and 2012.
Here, astride the sporting world’s grandest stage, the two American superstars—who offered different expressions of the same basketball-genius gene—forged a common helix.
For all the oft-bandied criticism of Carmelo as being a me-first chucker, his chief function on those Olympic teams was something to behold.
Spared the self-imposed burden of being options one through five, Melo turned spot-up shooting into basketball high art, breaking the Team USA single-game scoring record with 37 points in a blowout win over Nigeria by doing little more than catching and stroking—often off a LeBron swing pass:
Back on the NBA hardwood, the following season saw the Knicks come as close as any Anthony team has to challenging LeBron’s supremacy.
Buoyed by Melo’s best campaign to date, the 54-win Knicks entered the postseason riding high and hell-bent on a Heat showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Instead, it was the upstart Indiana Pacers who bruised and bludgeoned their way past the outmuscled Bockers and into contention.
Towards the end of the Pacers’ decisive Game Six victory, one play in particular threw Melo’s aspirations to match LeBron into a lower orbit. With his team up by two, Anthony lofted a one-handed shot off a baseline drive with the ball hanging high over the rim, but not high enough to breach the outstretched hand of Roy Hibbert, whose sheer force sent the ball spinning harmlessly away.
The Pacers closed out the game with a 9-0 blitz, sending Melo and the battered Knicks home for good.
Miami, meanwhile, survived an Indy onslaught and eventually captured the franchise’s third NBA title, including its second with the planet’s greatest player at the helm in James.
New York has never been the same since.
Requiem for a rivalry
The two’s teams enter Thursday night's first season showdown fueled by opposite fortunes. The Heat are (27-8) hot on the trail of the NBA’s first three-peat since the Shaquille O'Neal-era Los Angeles Lakers while the Knicks (12-22) are barely out of the basement.
Riding only their second two-game winning streak of the season, the Knicks will be looking to prove that they remain on the Eastern Conference radar screen.
The Heat, meanwhile, would love nothing more than to drive a psychological stake through the hearts of their longtime rivals, and put an end to any hope the Knicks might have of a conference coup.
Like they always have, James and Anthony will be the focus of the cameras and the commentators, the narratives and the next-day musings.
Melo and LeBron will make their statements—one with rim-homed eyes and a loose right wrist, one in more ways than can be counted.
Like they always have, the two will trade words and hugs before and after buckets, and both will put on a show, imprints painted with their own brilliant brushes.
When all is said and done, regardless of the outcome, James and Anthony will have given us another chapter in a rivalry that—although one-sided in so many ways—never fails to remind us how much fun this league can be.
Like they always have.