Carmelo Anthony stepped off a private jet Sunday afternoon, outside a tiny airport in a tiny city, and stepped into a surreal new reality.
Three hundred shrieking fans pressed against a chain-link fence to get a glimpse. They cheered and chanted his name.
Anthony grinned, walked the length of the fence, touched fingers through the links. Then he strolled back again, his smile never wavering.
The swaggering star who lusted for Broadway fame, who always sought the brightest lights and the biggest role, had touched down in the heart of the heartland—a stranger in a strange land, the most celebrated third option in the NBA.
This was Alice through the looking glass. Dorothy in Oz. Melo in OKC.
The small-town warmth suited him. It has to.
Oklahoma City is not where Anthony, now 33, envisioned spending his twilight years as a pro. It's not where he set out to land when he began pressing the New York Knicks for a trade all those weeks ago. It would not have even made his top 25 the last time he forced a trade, in 2011.
It is, however, his last, best hope to script a happy ending; indeed to change his career narrative.
This is not about stardom, which Anthony has long enjoyed. It's not about statistics, of which he has in abundance. It's not even about his resume. With 24,156 points (25th in NBA history), three Olympic gold medals and an NCAA championship, he's a near-lock for the Hall of Fame.
No, this is about reputation, perception, legacy.
We have seen Anthony score at an elite level (albeit with a sometimes-maddening shot selection and a tendency to throttle the offense). At times, we've seen him pass and defend and rebound, too.
What we don't know, after 14 years on the NBA stage, is how much Anthony truly wants to win—and how much he's willing to sacrifice toward that end.
Will he accept a complementary role, to accommodate the reigning MVP (Russell Westbrook) and a younger, spryer All-NBA forward (Paul George)? Will he be OK with a smaller spotlight? Will he embrace life as a power forward, a position he's long resisted?
Those questions will surely come Monday afternoon, when Anthony faces the Oklahoma media for the first time. But maybe he's already telegraphed the answers.
When the breaking point came in New York, when Anthony and the Knicks mutually concluded they were better off apart, Anthony specified a single trade target: Houston, where he could join the MVP runner-up (James Harden) and a perennial All-Star point guard (Chris Paul).
When that deal failed to materialize—and with training camp fast approaching—Anthony expanded his list to Cleveland and Oklahoma City.
And as the Thunder and Knicks proceeded toward a deal, Anthony waived his trade kicker (worth about $8 million) to ensure the deal.
In doing so, he chose collaboration over comfort, talent over Nielsen rank, postseason promise over personal glory. Anthony has won just three playoff series in his career and made the conference finals only once (in 2009). Moving to Oklahoma City means a chance to be viewed as a winner, at long last.
"He's choosing to come to us," one Thunder source said. "So there's a certain understanding on his part that he wants to learn a new way."
There's no shortage of skeptics around the NBA—particularly at Madison Square Garden, where Knicks officials were eager to cut ties with Anthony, after a largely unfulfilling six-plus-year run (and a four-year playoff drought). But in Oklahoma City, devastated 14 months ago by Kevin Durant's departure, the trade brings only optimism.
It's a low-risk move for the Thunder, no matter how this experiment goes. The trade cost them two wholly expendable role players, Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott, and a second-round draft pick.
Kanter was already expensive ($17.9 million this season, $18.6 million in 2018-19), and McDermott will be seeking a fat new deal next summer. Neither plays any defense.
Anthony doesn't either, but he might just become the deadliest third option in the NBA and the ideal stretch-4 for today's pace-and-space game. Anthony has converted 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers over the last four seasons. He's been even more lethal in international competition, hitting 46.2 percent of his threes as a small-ball power forward for Team USA, per ESPN's Mike Schmitz.
The veneration of "Olympic Melo" was always a bit overdone—it's easy to play a complementary role for just two weeks every four years while surrounded by NBA All-Stars and facing fourth-tier defenders. But it is a model the Thunder believe can be replicated, with Westbrook and George representing the best one-two punch Anthony has ever played alongside in the NBA.
For the first time in his career, Anthony will not carry the burden of every win and loss. This is Westbrook's team and Westbrook's town, at least for the next seven or eight months.
Westbrook can become a free agent next summer, along with George and Anthony. If the partnership thrives, perhaps all three stars re-sign next summer (and the Thunder will happily pay the estimated $100 million luxury-tax bill to keep them). If the experiment blows up, well, how much worse off would the Thunder really be? The threat of Westbrook and George leaving for Los Angeles was already there.
The Thunder are all-in for this season, because going all-in was the only option.
Anthony has much at stake, too, after cutting ties with the city and the team he cherished most. It was seven years ago that Anthony—infatuated with the bright lights and the big city—first started agitating for a trade to the Knicks, disregarding their years of dysfunction, because he wanted the biggest stage.
He forced a trade, rather than wait for free agency, because it meant more money at the time—and in doing so cost the Knicks all of their best assets, crimping their ability to improve the roster for years to come. Given a chance to join Houston or Chicago as a free agent in 2014, Anthony again opted for wealth over winning, staying with the Knicks on a near-max deal that clogged their salary cap but ensured he'd remain the No. 1 option.
He never did mesh with Amar'e Stoudemire, or make room for Jeremy Lin, or attract another worthy co-star. He never did elevate his teammates, or carry the Knicks on a deep playoff run, despite the dismal state of the Eastern Conference.
Every Knicks coaching staff pleaded for the same things: ball movement, defense, leadership. And every staff left frustrated.
"The organization had to move on," a Knicks source said. "It's not going anywhere with him in its present state. He can't be the best player on your team."
Now, at long last, Anthony has broken the cycle. He left New York, albeit under duress. He chose a winning culture and a roster with two superior stars. With his window of opportunity shrinking, Anthony chose a path that all but mandates a personal evolution.
For the second time in six years, Anthony forced a trade, this time choosing the second-smallest market in the league, to a city of around 638,000 people—about the number that pass through Penn Station on a given weekday.
On Sunday, the most dedicated Thunder fans flocked to Will Rogers World Airport to welcome the swaggering star from the big city. They cheered him like a conquering hero. Only this time, Carmelo Anthony doesn't need to play savior. He just needs to fit in.