Among the Egyptian students, the American students, the Japanese and African students, the bright students and the wild students, Carmelo Anthony stood out as the most visible student on the tiny campus of Oak Hill Academy, tucked away in microscopic Mouth of Wilson, Virginia.Now on the worldwide stage, he stands out in the news media, on NBA basketball courts, and in the Olympic Games.
I don’t remember the first time I met him.I might even venture to say I never actually met him, merely shared space with him, sitting in the same classrooms, chapels, library, gym, and cafeteria that he did during our senior year in high school.For a brief time, in a rural town plumb in the middle of Appalachia, our very different lives intersected.Yet, and such is true of all successful athletes, there remained a barrier between him and the rest of us.As his career has propelled him to world fame, that barrier has stuck around.
Carmelo came to Oak Hill Academy via Towson Catholic in Maryland, where he was already being touted as a standout player.At 6’8”, 230 pounds, he towered over the rest of our senior class, which consisted only of a few dozen students.Athletic talent aside, Carmelo blended in fairly well with the myriad of personalities our group contained – drop outs, rich kids, internationals, nerds, and partiers.But he was the only one of us named to the McDonald’s All-American Basketball team.
Every morning at Oak Hill, before the school day commenced, all the students filed into the chapel for our morning “devotional” speech and administrative announcements.We sat in tiny wooden chairs, organized alphabetically, seniors in the front.Carmelo sat directly in front of me, just a few inches away.He could frequently get away with putting the hood from his jacket up, and dozing off while the principal rattled on about whatever pestered him.A lucky student would often be forced to write his own “devotional,” and present it to the entire student body in the morning.I gave mine a month after September 11th 2001, and asked everyone to never forget.I can’t remember if Carmelo ever spoke to the students during the morning announcements – he did most of his talking in the gym.
Sometimes when I’m walking through the mall, or driving in my neighborhood, I spot young kids wearing a replica of Carmelo’s jersey.This never ceases to interest me.I sometimes want to tell the kid, “Hey, I used to see him every day.”I hold back, realizing the kid would then have all kinds of questions that I wouldn’t be able to answer.Or they would dismiss me, disbelieving, because I am far too short and nerdy-looking to have anything to do with an NBA superstar.I get the same feeling when I walk past a shoe store and see a life-size cardboard cutout of him, in his trademark pose: a grin on his face, mid-stride, head and shoulder tilted slightly down, one leg bent at the knee and a basketball attached to his giant hand.
For nine or ten games, during the freezing cold winter of 2001-02, I had a front row seat to basketball magic.In a miniscule gym, hundreds of miles away from the nearest airport, towering talents sprinted up and down a brown and burgundy wooden floor to the excitement of thirty or forty dedicated fans, plus the hundred or so students of Oak Hill.The non-student crowd that showed up was mostly local folks, old-timers who had been in the area for generations and had nothing else to do with their nights.Occasionally a big-time college coach would show up, scoping out the talent and trying to recruit for UNC, Duke, or somewhere.We students could suppose that eventually we would see these same athletes on television, but there was no real evidence to prepare us for what that would be like.
Although I knew what kind of sports talent I was watching, I was caught up in a young romance; to me the basketball games were just an excuse for some rare close contact with my girlfriend, a break from the rigid rules that separated genders for the majority of the day.I didn’t have the privilege of being on the basketball team, which frequently traveled out of state to play in tournaments. I envied that they didn’t suffer the monotony of campus food on their weekends away, and no doubt squeezed in some R&R.When they would come back on Sunday evenings, their hair would be braided and goatees spotted their chins, all of which had to be undone by the next morning before school.Although he followed the dress code, Carmelo and the rest of the team had a loophole – they could wear their warmup jackets, which sported the Oak Hill logo, while the rest of us trudged along in our solid colored polo shirts, tucked in at the waist.
After a number of national championships, Oak Hill’s reputation became a magnet for star players who are looking for the spotlight, coming from all over the world to join the Warriors.Coach Steve Smith steadily built a basketball powerhouse over the past few decades, frequently turning down high-profile professional and college job offers to stay in a place that guarantees the most talented players, year after year.
In my first year at college, Carmelo was a freshman at Syracuse University where he racked up school records and won the NCAA tournament MVP award.The burgundy and gold uniform I knew from Oak Hill had been transformed into bright orange, and he added a signature headband.I would sit in my smoky dorm room at Appalachian State, next to my roommate on a pair of folding chairs, watching an old classmate entertaining thousands of fans, millions of TV viewers.I had lost my spot courtside, and now I watched from afar.Whatever bar or party I walked into, there was Carmelo, glowing from a TV tucked away in a corner, winning 35 games and taking his team to the championship.
When Carmelo was drafted into the NBA, that’s when the jealousy kicked in.In college I just had pride.But when I started reading the news reports about the size of his contracts, those millions of dollars made my mind reel.I was a dedicated fan during that rookie year.I would stay up late to watch the west coast games, and even sometimes wanted my local Wizards to lose if they were playing the Nuggets.I also developed a dislike for LeBron James, who the rest of the sports world was so infatuated with, and who went first in the draft that year, before Carmelo’s third pick.
I tried getting in touch with Carmelo once after high school, to no avail.He was in town to play the Wizards, and the day before the game, I emailed his agent.“Any chance of getting some complimentary tickets for an Oak Hill alum?”I got a response that my information would be passed on to “Melo,” but never heard from him.Maybe I was ignored because I waited until the last minute.I don’t know.After that, my interest waned.I stopped paying attention to his seasonal percentages, his wins and losses, and only noticed when he was in the news for marijuana possession or some other controversy.
The times I have seen him on TV, in magazines and newspapers, and on the jerseys of kids in the mall, far outnumber the times I have seen him in person since our graduation day.I’ve only seen him twice.In November 2006, he was in town to play the Wizards and I bought some pricey seats so I would have a good view.I took my girlfriend along, who didn’t really know what to expect from this celebrity I kept claiming to know.As the game went on, Carmelo outscored everyone else on the floor, and the Nuggets walked off with a convincing win.A few times throughout the game I thought I saw him looking up at me, maybe in a flash of recognition.I’ll probably never know.
I can be fairly sure that I won’t ever have a fifteen million dollar advertising contract with Nike or a salary twice that amount to play professional sports.I’ll never be in the Olympics, and I won’t have little plastic action-figures made in my likeness. But I will have a college degree – something Carmelo skipped over on his path to stardom – and I’ll always be able to pass unnoticed through the supermarket or shopping mall.I wonder if Carmelo ever wishes he could go to the movie theater without having to sign autographs, or take his fiancée out without having to fend off hangers-on and admirers.Being a regular guy has benefits, after all.
Last year I traveled to Charlotte where Nike was hosting an Oak Hill Alumni game.Jerry Stackhouse and many others all got together to shoot hoops in their old Oak Hill uniforms, casually entertaining a modest crowd.Carmelo was present but sat the game out, reserving his health for the NBA season.Still deprived of an NBA championship title, he has a lot to plan for.And when it comes (which I count on) I’ll be cracking a smile and thinking about how I (kind of) knew him when he wasn’t even allowed to put his hair in braids.