Carmelo who? Catch the Nuggets versus the Knicks tonight
One of the strangest things about sports fans is the way we form complicated relationships and strong opinions about players who we know nothing about beyond their contributions on the field or on the court. A superstar is a symbol of pride for the city he represents...and if he skips town to put on another uniform, it feels as personal as a divorce. Dedicated sports fans make connections to their favorite players, and when that player decides he wants to get paid more playing for someone else, it's a harsh reminder that it's all just a game, and we will never matter as much to our sports heroes as they matter to us.
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For eight years, Carmelo Anthony was the favorite son of the Denver Nuggets. He was arguably the first true superstar to wear powder blue, and he was the first player in decades who had the ability to take over a game with his scoring. So when Anthony demanded a trade in 2011, it was a shot to the heart of every basketball fan who had bought his jersey and cheered him on from the Pepsi Center stands.
Anthony had committed the cardinal sin of abandoning his fans, and the betrayal was especially harsh because it sent him off to a glamorous franchise, the New York Knicks, confirming the feeling of many Nuggets fans that mid-level teams like Denver will always be at the mercy of the big-market organizations. But tonight, Anthony will be back at the Pepsi Center for the first time...and when he steps out onto the hardwood in his Knicks jersey, the boos will be deafening.
The Knicks team that will take the floor may as well be the New York Nuggets: In addition to Anthony, its roster features ex-Nuggets J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton and Kenyon Martin. It will be a flashback to a recent, but very different, era of Nuggets basketball. The Nuggets of the Anthony-Martin-Smith era were all about swagger and attitude; it was this group that was at the heart of the infamous Nuggets-Knicks brawl in 2006, which earned the team the nickname "Thuggets."
Since the blockbuster trade that sent Anthony to New York, the Nuggets have evolved into an unselfish, unflashy style of play that emphasizes teamwork over the achievements of a single star player. In the process, Denver has accomplished a rare feat: remaining relevant after losing a star player. In many ways, Denver is better off without Carmelo's attitude and off-court baggage.
That does not mean he has been forgiven, however. He was a town hero who turned his back on his fans to try to find a bigger spotlight. (Nuggets owner Josh Kroenke said of the trade, "This is a process that was started by Carmelo.... This is all a result of his request to play in a different market.") When Carmelo comes to town, the Pepsi Center will be packed with Nuggets fans who feel like he betrayed them, and nothing could be sweeter for those fans than to watch their team show Carmelo how much better they are without him.