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Syracuse legend Carmelo Anthony savoring NBA opportunity with Trail Blazers

With a greater appreciation for his career, he looked back on the year that propelled him to the pros.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

ORLANDO, FL — We never fully comprehended Carmelo Anthony’s value to basketball culture until he almost fell from the NBA entirely. His rapid descent through Oklahoma City and Houston, then ousting early this season, had Melo’s harshest critics (count this Celtics fan among them) seeking the best fit for one more taste of that legendary jab step and turnaround shot.

Portland provided what every NBA fan, openly or not, wanted. In a quiet Amway Center for a sleepy March matchup between the Magic and Trailblazers, Melo’s stardom overpowered the absence of Aaron Gordon and Damian Lillard. The sparse crowd knew what it took for granted during Anthony’s prime. His return has fared so well that someone asked him if he enrolled his son in a Portland school.

“I thought about it,” he said laughing. “Not yet.”

Three fans sitting against the wall behind the basket hoped Melo would take every shot. Their calls for his name during Portland’s sets rang louder than anything either coach or Orlando fan brought to the arena. When they left at halftime, or more likely moved up, you could clearly hear the swish of the basket across the arena – mostly off CJ McCollum’s fingertips. March isn’t as mad in the pros.

With a 130-107 Portland win long in hand, those with access lined the divider separating fans from players alongside the visitor’s locker room. One carried a hand-drawn mural recounting Melo’s Knicks tenure. Another raised her No. 15 Syracuse jersey. Anthony now wears No. 00, with 11 reasons behind it – among them a new beginning.

The Blazers have struggled in a competitive west, losing their two rotation centers to injuries and defensive-minded wings to free agency. It’s easy to forget they challenged the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals less than one year ago. They’re now fighting with four other teams for the final west seed. Melo helped more than hindered that effort.

“Obviously he had difficult circumstances when he left the league,” said Terry Stotts, Portland’s coach in his eighth season. “For us to have him in the locker room, a lot of guys really looked up to him when they were coming up. I’m glad he’s part of what we’re doing.”

Anthony scored 10 points on 5-for-9 shooting with eight rebounds in two assists. He’s averaging 15.5 PPG, with his best field goal percentage since leaving the Knicks (42.6%). He didn’t play an NBA game for a calendar year after Houston set him loose in November 2018.

That allowed a skinnier, more grateful Melo to return to where it began for the Orange’s Nov. 6 opening night against Virginia. He addressed the team, praised Jim Boeheim and at that point gushed humbleness about the six months that propelled him to a once unquestioned relevancy among the game’s stars. Two weeks later, a laboring Portland team signed Anthony to non-guaranteed deal he easily earned before the New Year’s deadline.

Melo looked back at 2003 and the impact Syracuse had on his basketball life, now fully renewed, in Orlando, down the hall from Michael Carter-Williams, who has revived his once-celebrated NBA life with the Magic.

What brought you back to the Dome in November?

”I had the opportunity to come up there with the timing, me being off, and I just wanted to come up there. I had a chance to go to opening night. I hadn’t had a chance to do that in a long time. I was in the city and I shot up there.”

Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

How’d your friendship with Adam Weitsman form?

”I have personal experiences with him. He’s a great guy, great family guy, very nice to my family. We spend a lot of time together traveling and things like that, so anything I can do for him, that’s like my family.”

How’d it feel to return for the first time since your jersey retirement?

“I’ve been back there before. You always get those feelings going back. Your memories start to flowing and you get to reminiscing and telling old stories.”

What about Syracuse’s recruiting drew you in then?

”For one, Big East, just the history that Syracuse had to that point. Being in New York. Once I got into the Carrier Dome, it was like this is where I want to play. I want to play in front of this crowd, I want to play in front of 30,000 people. That’s the experience.”

Where did you live during the 2002-03 season and what was life like?

”I was on South (Campus). I was down bottom. The main one. First, I was trying to get my feet wet and get accustomed to college life. It was different, but also just being on a campus of that size, that magnitude early on. Trying to figure things out, not knowing anybody. I didn’t even know the team at that point in time. It wasn’t until we actually started to practice and have the blue-white game. That’s when things started to get comfortable for me. I was really trying to just enjoy it, being up there and knowing what I was a part of and embracing that culture.”

NCAA Photos Archive

What do you wish you learned in your time at Syracuse?

”It’s hard to say when you’re coming in and you’re there 6-8 months. It’s hard to say because you don’t really know what classes you want to take, what you want to study, what you want to major in. You don’t have time for that at that point.”

What was the experience being coached by Jim Boeheim like?

”That was a great experience. He’s obviously a hall-of-famer, one of the greats. For me to be alongside somebody like that and also learning with him, that created a different dynamic for us as a friendship and as a coach-player. He was tough, I’m not going to say he wasn’t tough, he was tough, but it worked out. We had to listen, we had to buy into it, but we won so it paid off.”

Portland returns home to host the Sacramento Kings tomorrow. They are currently 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot and will be looking for more vintage Melo to grab that spot and an opening round match-up with Dion Waiters and the Los Angeles Lakers.