Sunday, February 19, 2012

Carmelo 2.0

Dear Carmelo,

By the time you read this, you will have returned to the lineup, I assume. I’m writing after having watched Jeremy Lin score 28, along with 14 assists, in a win against the Mavs, without you. More turnovers, but still: the kid was pretty sensational, again. To paraphrase Office Space, the Knicks haven’t exactly been missing you, Carmelo. In the history of professional sports, has there ever been a situation like yours, where a team’s fans are openly fearing the return of their franchise player? Surely not. I’m no Carmelo fan—cards on the table—but those fears are stupid. You’ll make the Knicks better in far more ways than you’ll make them worse. (Yeah, Lin's scoring will go down, but so will the turnovers, I bet. And defenses won't be able to key on him as easily.) Stop listening to what people say about you on Twitter or in the papers. In fact, cancel your Twitter account, Melo. This blog canceled its Twitter account a few weeks ago, much to the chagrin of our four followers, and it felt glorious. Whatever happens in your first few games back, bad or good, don’t worry about it. The only thing that matters now is the playoffs, and putting yourself in a position to make a run in the postseason. And the beautiful thing for you guys is that the Knicks are suddenly a team that can actually make a big run, if everybody's healthy. Here’s something I never thought I’d say: I’ll be pulling for you, Carmelo. But I need to get a few things off my chest, before I do.

After this letter I won’t ever bring this quote up again—that’s a promise, Melo—but a year ago at this time, during all the trade speculation in Denver, you said the following: "I take my hat off to myself for dealing with all this stuff that's going on and still be able to go out there and play at the high level that I can play at. I really don't think an average person can walk in my shoes. I don't think that." I take my hat off to myself: that never gets old. And the end of the quote is even worse. I’d like to think that in the last year you’ve learned that it’s hard for fans to root for an athlete who says things like this, but I’m guessing you haven’t. A couple weeks ago, when the Knicks were sucking and you were shooting fifty shots a game even though you had a hurt wrist, I thought again of this quote and officially diagnosed your problem, both on and off the court: a complete lack of self-consciousness. Being one of the most self-conscious men in the world, I’m intimate with the many negatives of self-consciousness, but I also know that there are upsides. I figured you’d benefit from these upsides, benefit from a little self-awareness, just as I’d benefit from a little Carmelo-esque obliviousness (slash swagger).

But then, a week before Linsanity began, after a loss to your old team, something crazy happened: you became introspective. At your locker after the game, you gave what the Times described as “an eight minute confessional.” Here’s part of it: "Maybe I need to not take so many shots. I don’t know. That’s just a bunch of stuff that goes through my mind. Just coming down, taking less shots, just figuring out ways, how to make other guys better. Should I pass it more?" And here's more: "Maybe I should take the blame for the games we’ve been losing, the offensive struggles. The coaches do run the offense through me. I’ll take it. I’ll take that blame." Well, I really admired the way you took the blame, Carmelo, but I’ll tell you what: I hated to see you this way. It was terrible. I regretted ever thinking that self-consciousness would help you. No athlete—or any other kind of performer—should ever have “a bunch of stuff” going through his or her head while they're performing. It’s no good for business. What makes athletes great is precisely their ability to keep stray thoughts out of their head while they play, something I'm sure you've known for a long time. (Read any of David Foster Wallace's incredible nonfiction pieces about tennis for more about this. Or actually don't, because then you'd be thinking too much.) And I’m an idiot for forgetting that, Melo. The director Wes Anderson—a guy who, like you, is great at what he does but also gets hated on for it—once said that "there’s never any time to have too much self-doubt." He’s right. What good does it do you, or anybody? So the day after your confessional, when you disavowed your comments—“I was just beating myself up”—and returned to your normal self, I was happy. Self-consciousness is not the answer.

But what is the answer then, Melo? Well, I think I know now, and I think it’ll help you on and off the court—and the answer involves my grandfather. My granddad, J. Ray, was the least self-conscious person I’ve ever known. Put that man in a room with a stranger of any age, sex, race, class, sexual preference, or personal disposition, and he’d start BS’ing and quickly involve them in a conversation, an enjoyable conversation, whether they wanted to be in one or not. I saw this happen probably a thousand times. The man never had any hesitation with people. And like you, he completely lacked self-awareness. ("Son, you can’t possibly know everyone who knows you," he once told my brother, after somebody had said hello to him at a restaurant.) But the difference between the two of you, besides the fact that he was an air-conditioning salesman and you're a famous basketball player, is that he never lacked others-awareness. Where you seem at times to be oblivious of both your teammates and the "average person," my granddad always wanted to make people around him enjoy themselves. The self-conscious man, like me, worries how he’s coming across to others; the people-conscious man worries if everybody around him is having a good time. That's what I've learned from my granddad. And that's how I want to be from now on, and maybe how you should try to be, too. This would mean making sure your teammates are having a good time by actually playing D and moving the ball around, while still being the great player you’ve always been. (Think Beijing Olympics Carmelo, when you did exhibit others-awareness, on the court at least.) Also, you'd have to start taking your hat off to other people, not yourself. And the best part is, Linsanity has already made this easier. How can you not be more aware of others when you see your team thriving without you? How can you not be more aware of others when you're now the second most famous Knick? Having Lin around to take some of the attention away, on and off the court, should—should—make it easier for you to become Carmelo Anthony 2.0. And that’s what we all want to see: a Carmelo who retains what makes him great, but rises to the occasion to become even better, to become a man for others, as the motto went at my high school. You can do it, Carmelo. Think about my granddad. I'll do the same.

Before I end this letter, Melo, let me say this: The most interesting bit of Linsanity news all week was when Lin confirmed on a radio show that you—Carmelo Anthony—told D’Antoni to put Lin into the game vs. the Nets, the game in which he played his first substantive minutes, the game that started everything for him. The fact that you’re telling D’Antoni who to put into games, I don’t know what to make of that. But still: You helped Jeremy Lin get his chance. You, the guy who everyone sees as a threat to Linsanity, actually advocated to make it happen. That's incredible, really. And now maybe Lin will return the favor and help you. I hope so.



P.S. Saying all the right things doesn’t make you a good guy and saying obliviously arrogant things doesn’t make you a bad guy. You can be a terrible person and just be good at sounding humble. Or vice versa. And you know what? You were actually right: It would be incredibly hard for an average person to play the way you did under all that scrutiny, of course it would. You just shouldn’t have said it aloud, or at least not that way. And it'll be incredibly hard to play that way again over the next week or so, under even more scrutiny. But you’ve done it before. No self-doubt.