One day, perhaps, the U.S. men’s basketball team won’t have the world to kick around. Ben Simmons and Australia are coming, as are Andrew Wiggins and Canada. Croatia and France also could be threats, at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics or further down the road.
This much is certain though: We won’t have Carmelo Anthony to kick around anymore.
No other U.S. player has won three gold medals. He’s Team USA’s all-time leader in games, points and rebounds. Along the way, he evolved into USA Basketball’s elder statesman, suiting up for Rio while contemporaries such as LeBron James, Chris Paul and others bowed out.
Yet Anthony has been something of a punch line on the international stage, where his tremendous success is a stark contrast to his NBA travails. It doesn’t help that he also played a role in Team USA’s darkest moments since NBA players joined the fold, the bronze medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics and 2006 FIBA World Championships.
But representing his country is no joke for Anthony.
He became emotional Sunday after the U.S. defeated Serbia to win its third consecutive gold medal despite struggling earlier in the Olympics. Three opponents finished within 10 points during pool play, including a couple of losses by one possession (Serbia and France). When the Americans routed Serbia in the rematch, 95-66, the enormity of the moment got the best of Anthony. He stopped to gather himself for several seconds during a postgame interview.
“I know this is the end; this is it for me,” he said on NBC. “I committed to this in . I’ve seen the worst and I’ve seen the best, and I stuck with it – we stuck with it. And I’m here today, three gold medals later.”
He hasn’t always been appreciated by hoops aficionados. They complain that his international game is superior to version he supplies for the New York Knicks. Critics pile on for what’s he’s not (an all-around great like draft classmates James and Dwyane Wade); what he is (a volume scorer who relies heavily on isolation); and what he hasn’t done (advance past the second round of the playoffs more than once).
Some folks clowned him for suggesting that three gold medals could help him ease the pain of not winning an NBA title. Based on the miasma that is the Knicks, Anthony might have no choice except contentment. But he doesn’t have need to apologize to USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo, who considered Anthony’s participation a godsend as other stars dropped out.
“I think this was a coming-out party in terms of leadership for him,” Colangelo told USA Today. “I think that’s going to bode well for the Knicks, and for Carmelo going forward, and I want to just thank him for his great service to USA Basketball.
“Think about it,” he said. “Four times? And to be able to win three times? It just says a lot about his character, and the fact that he had the success that he had with our program makes it even that much better… He’s been terrific. I can’t say enough about what he’s done for USA Basketball.”
The three gold medals might speak volumes about Anthony, but they don’t exactly whisper about the level of competition. Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski steps down with a 76-game winning streak in international competition and five consecutive gold medals between the Olympics and FIBA World Championships combined.
Colangelo said other countries need to up their game to give the USA a better run.
“I’m all for raising the bar for global basketball,” he told reporters Sunday. “The more interest in basketball on all levels, I’m for. I’m a lifer in the game. I love the game. Basketball is the No. 2 sport in the world, [but] we just need to see these other countries get their acts together and become more competitive.
“… Someone said to me [after the game], one of the officials said to me, ‘You know next time you play, you ought to play with four.’ And I said, ‘No, maybe the other teams better get their act together and compete.'”
They might have a window of opportunity as USA Basketball transitions from Krzyzewski (to Gregg Popovich) and the next wave replaces stars like James, Wade and Paul, not to mention Team USA’s only four-time Olympian.
“As much as I’m going to miss it, it’s time to pass it on to some of the guys that [were] on our team this year but also to the younger guys coming along, to give them an opportunity to be a part of something great,” Anthony told reporters.
“It’s been a fun journey for me. It’s been a fun ride. I’ve seen the losing side, and I’ve seen what it feels like to win three gold medals. I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.”
The world’s other teams are glad to see him go away.
Maybe we’ll appreciate him more when he’s gone.