RIO DE JANEIRO — Carmelo Anthony was the last one to take the practice floor Friday, joining his U.S. teammates after wrapping up interviews where he was asked about everything from the opening ceremony to his diet.
He was in heavy demand.
With two Olympic gold medals and a chance to be the first men’s player to win three, Anthony has become the unlikely face of USA Basketball, a rise that couldn’t have been imagined 12 years ago.
This star-studded American squad, missing some big names but still ferocious, needed someone to show the way. And like Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James before him, Anthony has emerged as the ring leader inside the five rings.
“Carmelo is the veteran and a super-likable guy,” said Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. “We got 12 Alphas in here. But he’s the leader of this team and we follow him.”
Probably to the top tier on the medal platform.
The Americans’ journey to a probable gold begins Saturday against China, a team the U.S. drubbed by 49 and 50 points in two recent exhibitions. The matchup will likely dissolve into another lengthy layup drill, but it will give Brazil’s passionate hoop fans inside Barra Carioca Arena the chance to snap selfies and scream for every thunderous dunk and 3-pointer by players they’ve only seen on TV.
Anthony, though, has warned his teammates not to take any opponent lightly. It’s a lesson he learned in his first Olympics at Athens in 2004, when the U.S. was stunned by Puerto Rico in the opener and then fell to Lithuania and Argentina while stumbling to a bronze — and worldwide embarrassment.
“He’s very open about what happened there,” forward Draymond Green said, “and he’s very open about how that pushed them into wanting to get back to the top.”
While close friends James and Chris Paul skipped Rio and a chance at winning their third golds, Anthony, the New York Knicks All-Star often criticized for not winning more and not making his teammates better, embraced the chance to take a leading role in this summer blockbuster.
This is an Anthony those outside his inner circle have rarely seen, a player unafraid to raise his voice on and off the floor, one who demands with compassion. Following the recent police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and the ambush on officers in Dallas, Anthony was moved to take social action.
During the pre-Olympic tour, he organized a community event in Los Angeles to help curb gun violence, and it’s possible he and his U.S. teammates could use these games to promote causes to a global audience.
The 32-year-old Anthony said he hasn’t changed, but his actions say otherwise. Bryant and James may have been more extroverted as Olympians, but Anthony says he’s always been willing to express his opinion, provide advice or steer a straying teammate back on track.
He’s just doing it more.
“Even with those guys around, I’m still the same and so my role hasn’t changed since 2007 when we first started creating what we wanted to create,” said Anthony, who along with Kevin Durant are the only holdovers from 2012. “Even though guys lead in their own way, that Olympic experience and the type of player that I am and the type of person that I am, it’s been easier and it’s been more genuine.
“I’ve always been a person who has embraced that role and it’s just become more visible now to people. If you’re around us or at our practices, they know that this is who I am and this is not anything new.”
It’s nothing Jim Boeheim hasn’t seen before. He coached Anthony for one year at Syracuse and the U.S. assistant sees his elevated status as an extension of his personality.
“He’s the most vocal,” Boeheim said. “They all look at him as the senior guy and this team has a lot of guys that qualify as leaders because they all play hard, they all do the right things. That’s what leadership does, anyway.”
Although U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski has not officially named a captain, Anthony is the one he meets with to discuss scheduling practices, team meetings and anything else that might pop up.
Krzyzewski, who served as an U.S. Army Captain, believes leadership is earned.
“First of all, a leader has to lead by example,” he said. “A leader always has to have courage and whatever the leader says, he has to back up. And by doing that he’s trustworthy. Those things help a really good player become better because that means you have to be ‘on’ all the time.
“I’ve always said that if your best player is a leader he’ll be a better best player.”
And, in Anthony’s case, a third-time gold medalist.