Carmelo Anthony will tell anyone who listens: He was never captured riding the infamous Banana Boat.
The paparazzi photo taken during a particularly joyful offseason outing in the Bahamas shows LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union – not Anthony, who was along for the trip. But it’s a losing battle for Anthony, who has been cast in the photo in the public’s memory and commonly referred to as a “Banana Boat brother” even though he’s literally not in the picture.
Throughout their 18-year careers, James and Anthony have had a way of being lumped together, even though they’ve never played for the same team, outside of the Olympics. Part of the star-studded 2003 draft class, the close friends have talked before about teaming up, usually for a bit of a laugh. But this offseason, the right context materialized: With a veteran team in need of an off-the-bench scorer, the Lakers had a mind to finally bring together the partnership many have always assumed was in the making.
Though James, 36, and Anthony, 37, see each other often during the offseason, Anthony said his friend only approached him once this summer about teaming up – and the message was as forthright as possible.
“Bron just came to me one time and said, ‘Yo, the time is now. I want you. We gotta make this happen,’” Anthony told reporters on Monday, during his formal introduction as a Laker. “And I just felt like for right now, this is the best time. Most people would say we should’ve gotten together years ago early in our careers, but we was in two different lanes, we was on two different paths. And everything comes full circle, I’ll say.”
It’s hard to say which seems to be the more inevitable fulfillment for Anthony’s 19th season: That he’s finally teaming up with James, who has been one of his closest NBA friends for years, or that he’s finally joining the Lakers, who have been rumored suitors for him for decades. The closest the Lakers might have come was in 2014, when the Lakers cleared salary cap space (including letting then-young Laker Kent Bazemore walk as a free agent) to make a run at Anthony (who re-signed with New York).
The buzz has never really stopped at various junctures of Anthony’s career since: when the Knicks were looking to trade him; after a short-lived tenure with the Houston Rockets; just before he signed with the Portland Trail Blazers. Said Anthony: “I’ve always been connected to (the Lakers) some way, somehow.”
But this partnership came more organically, which Anthony described as less of a pitch than “an understanding” of the kind of veteran locker room he’d be entering and the reserve role he’d occupy. It’s not the kind of dovetailing that could have happened early in his career, for him or James.
“If all of us would have came together early on in our career, we probably wouldn’t have had the same understanding as we’re going to have right now,” he said. “I think we’re all ready to take on whatever role that is, that all of us feel the need to take on in order to reach the ultimate goal. Which we all know what that is at this point.
“But I like it,” Anthony added. “I like when people talk about the age. It gives a better story.”
Now on his seventh team, Anthony is no longer the player he was. Only James tops him among active scorers (27,370 career points) and he can still get a bucket. But he started only three games for Portland last season – only a few years removed from his famous rant about coming off the bench in Oklahoma City. Sitting out of the league for nearly a year-and-a-half was humbling, and it grounded him in less than a starring role.
Anthony used to headline for the Knicks. Climbing down from those lofty heights was tough. It was only last season, he said, when he truly embraced life as a bench player.
“You go for 16, 17 years and you’re The Guy on the team and you’re the star and then all of a sudden somebody is like, ‘Listen, come off the bench,’” he said. “I had to swallow that ego. I had to swallow that pride. But I also had to use that ego and that pride to keep me on edge and keep me motivated. And I’ve accepted that. It played out well in Portland.”
Even a grizzled veteran like himself can still grow, Anthony insists. He shot 40.9 percent from 3-point range last season, which was one of the best marks of his career. He can still string together rallies on post-ups, which younger players get frustrated by.
Most importantly, he said, he’s latched on to a sense of joy in his game again. Coming off the bench doesn’t keep him from having fun. And that just might be the key to finding a fit on the Lakers, a team that could help him finally reach his first NBA Finals and win an elusive NBA championship to go with the NCAA title he won at Syracuse.
“I think we all know that this is the one thing that I’m missing, right?” said Anthony, whose teams have gone 3-13 in playoff series, his closest trip to the Finals being a loss to the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers in the 2009 Western Conference finals. “This is the one thing that it keeps me up at night, it motivates me, because I don’t have it.”
BAZEMORE BACK TO L.A.
If Anthony is the big fish who evaded capture for two decades, Bazemore is one of the smaller fish the Lakers cleared from the cooler.
Back in 2014, the Lakers declined to extend a qualifying offer to the formerly undrafted guard and kept Ryan Kelly. Bazemore signed with Atlanta and has gone on to a respectable career. Kelly’s NBA career is of little consequence.
“That kind of lit a fire underneath me a little bit back in the day when I used to hold onto those kind of things,” he said with a snicker, “before I understood the business side of everything.”
At 32, Bazemore is back on a one-year deal. A feisty, 6-foot-4, defense-first guard who added some punch off the bench for the Golden State Warriors last season, seemed all smiles as he made his way back to L.A. He’s been known throughout his career for not backing down to the game’s biggest stars, including James.That hasn’t always gone well for him, such as when he first got his wish to match up with James in the Eastern Conference finals back when he played for the Hawks.
“I realized how different of a beast he was and I lost a lot of sleep having to guard him,” he said. “Even when we played them, it got chirpy. His team put me on the floor a little bit, but I didn’t back down and I think that just kind of drove me to want to beat him. So, I would say it’s probably mutual respect.”
Bazemore said the people from the Lakers who recruited him the hardest were GM Rob Pelinka and Coach Frank Vogel, making him feel as though he’d have a defined role on the team. That being said, he knows minutes could be tough to get on a roster that’s fairly deep in the backcourt. To Bazemore, it’s not a problem.
“(Vogel is) a fair man and nothing’s given,” he said. “He’s a defensive-first coach so he wears a hard hat, a blue collar. So it’s nothing that’s, here, it’s yours. He said on the phone, you’ve got to earn your minutes, and so that’s just how I like it.”