When Phil Jackson was considering taking over the Carmelo Anthony-led Knicks, George Karl said, “I don’t think Melo is a Phil Jackson type of player.”
Maybe Karl was onto something.
In his new book, Karl – like Jackson – reveals himself to be an old white man who struggles to connect with younger black players, including Anthony. Of course, Karl doesn’t put it in those terms. But passages on coaching Anthony, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith with the Nuggets are filled with demeaning code words, stereotypes and paternalism.
The Nuggets team that I would try to lead and coach had three AAU babies: the starting forwards, Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony. And J.R. Smith.
I didn’t know Carmelo specifically, but I’d seen seen him play, and I knew him in a general way. I’d coached a lot of players with his background. I call them AAU babies. Basketball’s AAU babies are similar to the spoiled brats you see in junior golf and junior tennis, but with a few important differences. The USGA and the USTA have some control, and prevent the worst abuses, because there’s less money floating around, and they’re strict about handouts like merchandise and free travel. The best young tennis players rarely bother with college, and great young golfers such as Jordan Spieth give it only a year or two. Besides, golf and tennis are country club sports, with country club parents. Basketball is nothing like that.
I knew right away that our power forward was one of the most insecure, immature players I ever coached. Kenyon Martin had grown up poor in South Dallas. Single-parent home; his mother worked two jobs. He was teased unmercifully, for his stutter, and for his skin color. The other kids didn’t think he was black enough, so they called him Yellow Boy. That must have been miserable, but he found some refuge in sports, especially in high school and AAU basketball.
Carmelo grew up poor in West Baltimore. Single-parent home; his father died when he was two. With the drugs and violence in his neighborhood, it must have been like a combat zone. But like Kenyon, he found a safe place under a hoop and on the playground. Hard work, skill, talent, and lucky DNA got Carmelo into a private high school and onto an AAU team.
Carmelo was a true conundrum for me in the six years I had him. He was the best offensive player I ever coached. He was also a user of people, addicted to the spotlight, and very unhappy when he had to share it.
Wait. There’s more.
He really lit my fuse with his low demand of himself on defense. He had no commitment to the hard, dirty work of stopping the other guy. My ideal—probably every coach’s ideal—is when your best player is also your leader. But since Carmelo only played hard on one side of the ball, he made it plain he couldn’t lead the Nuggets, even though he said he wanted to. Coaching him meant working around his defense and compensating for his attitude.
Our main problem was that he liked to separate himself from our team. A player can talk back to me, we can argue, but that’s between us. One player is a lot less important than how everyone performs together. I don’t think Melo cared enough about being a good teammate.
But he got away with some shit over the years because he made All-Star teams
Some players at the top of the pyramid have so many people swirling around them—helpers and agents and advisors—that it’s hard to get close to them. But far more often I’ve gotten really close with individual players on my teams, and I mentor their existence off the court, especially regarding girls and money. Carmelo was far from the first group. He didn’t need my help and we weren’t close.
Kenyon and Carmelo carried two big burdens: all that money and no father to show them how to act like a man. As you’ve read, I grew up in a safe suburban neighborhood, with both my parents. I had a second father in my college coach, the most moral, decent man I ever knew. And I never made enough money as a player to get confused about who I was. When I compare my background to Kenyon’s and Carmelo’s, it’s no wonder we had a few problems.
J.R. had a slightly different story. He went straight from high school in New Jersey to AAU success to the NBA. His father was on the scene and in his life, which is obviously good. But Earl Smith Jr. urged his son to shoot the ball and keep shooting it from the very moment I put him in a game, which is obviously bad.
Some of Karl’s criticisms are fair. Anthony doesn’t always work hard enough defensively. He’s not always the best teammate, which is particularly harmful from the star player. But Karl had a hand in enabling Anthony’s poor tendencies. It was Karl’s job to reach Anthony – and it’s little wonder he failed.
It seems Karl is trying to be empathetic, but he falls short. He admittedly makes snap judgments about Anthony and Martin based on their upbringings, not actual interactions with the players.
The section on AAU relative to junior golf and tennis contains especially appalling coded language (and ignores that AAU basketball has similar issues as high school basketball, but receives far more resentment).
And let me get this straight: The problem with Anthony and Martin is that they grew up without fathers, and the problem with Smith is that his father was too involved?
Maybe there’s a different actual common denominator here.
Disclosure: I received a promotional copy of “Furious George.”