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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Sobering reality behind joyous Melo debut at Garden

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NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony ran out into the center of the basketball universe Wednesday night, out of the shadows and onto the floor at Madison Square Garden. Moments earlier, Skylar Grey's haunting voice filled the building with words that summed up the night for one of the NBA's biggest stars.

Tell the world I'm comin' home.

Anthony was finally home, in the city where he was born, after a six-month odyssey through the bizarre, often comical maze of in-season free agency -- the NBA's new craze. This was the feel-good part of a trend that rocked the league to its core on the very day Anthony made his debut with the Knicks -- joining Amar'e Stoudemire in the kind of superstar union that has taken over the sport.

"I've never experienced anything like that before," said Anthony, who had 27 points and 10 rebounds in his Knicks debut, a 114-108 victory over the Bucks that brought the Garden crowd to its feet -- and I mean everyone -- 20 minutes before tipoff.

It was the kind of sports spectacle that happens nowhere else, the reason Stoudemire and Anthony wanted to play here. And the way this shell game is going, this conga line of stars joining forces and dictating their terms, they won't be the last.

"I think New York needed a moment like this," Anthony said earlier in a packed news conference, less than two hours before he would put on his blue and orange No. 7 Knicks jersey and run out of the tunnel on the 33rd Street end of the Garden.

Anthony needed it, too. He had endured six months of speculation, endless trade talk, meetings with billionaires, and a high-stakes game of chicken over a $65 million contract extension -- all handled without blinking or caving under the pressure, because this was Anthony's end game all along. This was his doing, what he wanted. Like everyone else of his stature in basketball, what was good for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would be good for him. What was good for Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce would be good for him, too.

"I think it started when K.G. came to the East," Stoudemire said, "and everyone started trickling over. I think the East is becoming a powerhouse."

This was a night to remember at the Garden, a night when sound traveled to corners of the building that have been quiet for more than a decade. A night when people on the streets were asking patrons on smoke breaks at halftime if they could borrow their ticket stubs, just to go inside and stand there for a few minutes. Just to be there.

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"Just running out of that tunnel, and them doing that welcome home video, and the crowd just going nuts," Anthony said. "I will always remember this."

Under these lights, the bright lights of the Garden, the latest star-driven power play was easy to embrace. Anthony, 26, is the most likeable of this new generation of stars who will carry the league to new heights over the next decade. He is forthright and earnest, and his smile and personality will go a long way toward delivering the $10 million in annual earnings that sources say his agents estimated would be his in New York, as a Knick, over and above what he'd make anywhere else.

Unfortunately for Anthony, what he got himself involved in here -- this staredown with Denver in which he bulled his way to the sport's biggest market the way he blows past defenders on his way to the rim -- has a dark underside that will bring the NBA to a standstill in a few short months.

We may very well look back to Feb. 23, 2011, as a day to remember for more reasons than Anthony's debut in a Knicks uniform. We may be able to trace the Armageddon that's coming to this very day, too.

Around the time Anthony was on the floor for the first time as a Knick, putting up shots in a one-man morning shootaround, word began to spread through the NBA that the Utah Jazz would be nobody's fools. In stunning news, they traded Deron Williams to the Nets -- a full year before they would've found themselves in the same desperate position that the Nuggets were in with Anthony.

The move sent shockwaves through the league, because if a player of Williams' magnificent talent could be dumped at the trade deadline for an inferior player and draft picks, nothing was sacred. Anthony was living in the feel-good moment of this star-driven trend Wednesday night, the way James, Wade and Bosh soaked it all in back in July on their little smoke-filled stage in South Beach. The flip side, the dark underbelly of what counts for progress in today's NBA, can be found in Utah and Denver -- not to mention Cleveland and Toronto. The stars were fleeing those outposts as if running from burning buildings, and the Jazz chose not to be played. A family-run team with firm ownership and the same coach, Jerry Sloan, for more than two decades until he resigned abruptly after a confrontation with Williams, the Jazz were in ruins Wednesday. But at least it was a detonation of their own doing, a nuclear option that was their only recourse -- even 17 months before their franchise player was scheduled to hit the free-agent market.

Who's next? Well of course, it's the guy who started this next phase of NBA star alignment in July, Chris Paul. In speaking with general managers in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, I asked if any team would be bold enough to do the very thing Utah did Wednesday -- trade its star a full year before they'd be strong-armed by the free-agent power game. Too risky, they all said. Can't sell that to the fans. Take your shot while you have it, and deal with the consequences later.

And yet boom went the dynamite in Utah Wednesday, when a franchise refused to stand by and let the star movement pass it by. The next logical question is, will New Orleans do the same with Paul, who put the wheels in motion with his toast at Anthony's wedding to forming "our own Big Three in New York" with Anthony and Stoudemire? Would a shunned franchise like Cleveland, for example, package its assets in a bold play for Paul -- using the scraps it received in the sign-and-trade that gave James his free pass to Miami -- and then hope it could trap him there with a franchise tag?

It's a good idea, except for the fact that the Hornets -- with a persistent habit of making short-term moves to add future salary, despite meager resources to pay the tab -- are the NBA's charity case. The league assumed ownership of the destitute franchise in December, and all transactions must be approved by the commissioner's office. I would like to dare a team like the Cavs to propose a trade for Paul that the Hornets couldn't refuse, just to put David Stern in the position of having to tell his owners, once and for all, if he's in favor of this superstar insanity or not.

And if Stern was getting ripped by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for allowing the Hornets to take on salary and give out cash in an otherwise unremarkable trade with Sacramento on Wednesday, I'd like to hear what the other 29 owners would say about Paul -- an asset they technically own -- being pawned off for pennies on the dollar the way Williams was.

Someone has to stop the madness, because Paul and Dwight Howard are next -- and who knows what alternate-universe trades will be consummated before Thursday's 3 p.m. ET deadline. The Anthony saga, I must admit, made for good copy and good theater -- something the NBA is finding it can market and sell much more easily than the game itself. It is hard to judge Anthony as harshly as we did LeBron, because he is well meaning and deserves the success he will enjoy in New York, back home. He was born for this stage, for this moment that embraced him Wednesday night.

Everyone should enjoy it while it lasts, because we are four months away from the owners rebelling and taking control of their sport back from the players who are running it. Anthony came home Wednesday night, to the grandest building in the sport, where he will put on many performances that make us smile as widely as he does. The problem is the darkness and disappointment in all the other arenas, in the markets that can't keep their stars and have begun giving up the fight to keep them.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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