NEW YORK -- There was one word that came out of Carmelo Anthony's mouth Wednesday night that everyone will focus on and put in bold headlines after the Knicks lost their fourth straight and seventh in eight games, a slide unbecoming a team that boldly added a second star at the trade deadline in hopes of competing with the elite.
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For uptight Knicks fans immersed on a daily basis in a sky-is-falling phenomenon that is their team -- a chemistry experiment gone horribly wrong at the moment -- that is not a word that will sit well.
But it wasn't the most important word that Anthony uttered at his locker after the Knicks folded up down the stretch again in a 111-99 loss to Orlando. That word, without a doubt, was this: humbling.
The fun will come with winning. But for now, a good humbling is what Anthony needed on the one-month anniversary of his Knicks debut at Madison Square Garden. Anthony admitted it himself, and people who know him well couldn't agree more.
"This right now is a humbling experience for me, for the team," Anthony said, once again struggling to explain defeat -- even after his most complete games as a Knick, with 24 points and nine assists, the most he has had in almost two years. "And right now, we've taken some steps backwards. But there's light at the end of the tunnel, I can tell you that."
But with the Knicks (35-36) in freefall, below .500 for the first time since November and 7-10 since Anthony arrived a month ago, the focus will be on his happy-go-lucky approach to losing. That emphasis won't be entirely misplaced, but it's not the most important piece of this maddening puzzle that is the Knicks of Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, Chauncey Billups and Mike D'Antoni.
"We just need to relax, man," Anthony said. "We're putting too much pressure on ourselves. We're losing games that we know we should be winning. ... We're playing too tense out there on the court. I think we just need to relax and have fun. I don't think there's any fun in the game right now, and I think that's something that we need to get back in the game."
"Everybody just relax," Anthony said. "Go out there and just play basketball. Go out there and play the way you know how to play. These times ain't gonna last forever. I've been through it before. I'm pretty sure a lot of people in this locker room have been through it. I'm not too concerned about that."
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"Every time I touched the ball in the mid-post area, I saw Dwight [Howard] coming over to double-team me and I saw Brandon [Bass], and the weak side was just wide open," Anthony said. "I wanted to try to take advantage of that."
The basketball part will come, because Anthony is a great basketball player. But he's a great basketball player who, according to those who know him well, needed a healthy dose of comeuppance. He needed a slap-in-the-face moment proving that winning in New York, with Stoudemire, was not going to be as easy as forcing a trade that got him everything he spent five months angling for -- the team, the city, the Garden stage, and the $65 million.
"He's never been humbled, and this probably could be a good experience for him," said a person who has spent significant time around Anthony through the years. "You become better when you become humbled."
The impossible standard in this department has been set by Kobe Bryant, whose maniacal drive to win has become a runaway train that none of his contemporaries will ever catch as long as he's still standing. What Anthony needed when he came to New York was what Bryant, against all his stubborn instincts, learned years ago -- both as a rookie entering a league that still included his muse, Michael Jordan, and as a teammate of Shaquille O'Neal.
These are the crucial steps that the young stars chasing Bryant have missed. LeBron, Wade and Bosh got the run of South Beach but quickly learned that their elders -- the selfless Celtics, whose egos shrank in the face of the championship chase -- still ran everything else. James spent the first seven years of his career doing whatever he pleased in Cleveland, never once having to subjugate his ego or game to anyone. Same for Wade in Miami and for Anthony in Denver. Now, they have all impatiently grabbed for something they thought could be manufactured when it is something that has to be learned and built.
"Kobe got that right away, coming right out of high school," the person close to Anthony said. "And he was humbled again when he had to play with Shaq. Melo got everything he wanted in Denver, started from Day One, and he's never been beat up. Maybe this'll be good for him."
He is getting the crash course in what Bryant has been studying for 15 years. He is getting the CliffsNotes version of the flawed novella that Miami's super twins and Bosh have been co-authoring for barely half a calendar year down in their South Florida paradise.
These things can't be accelerated. They have to be experienced, and there have to be setbacks -- embarrassments, even -- for the lessons to take hold.
"Losing games, that's the toughest part," Anthony said. "Losing games that we should win. But as far as this experience, I'm still having the same amount of fun as when I first got here. That's not gonna change. I'm gonna continue to have fun out there. I just want everybody else on the team to have fun. Basketball is about fun. When the fun leaves, then a lot of stressful times come."
Bosh's crying episode notwithstanding, the Miami Three have treated every dose of adversity like some sort of conspiracy against them -- like an inconvenience, something that interrupted this season-long celebration of themselves. Anthony has thicker skin than all three, but what he has in common is that every word he says will be dissected and analyzed. However good his intentions, fans in New York don't want to hear about relaxing and having fun when their team is in freefall.
Losing has never been fun to Bryant, who hasn't relaxed between October and June for 15 years. When he gets wind of Anthony's don't-worry-be-happy quotes after another Knicks loss Wednesday night, smart money says he'll cringe and shake his head. But will he smile, too?
Of all these young stars chasing him, trying to beat him without earning it, Bryant has befriended Anthony the most -- to the extent that Bryant will ever befriend a competitor, an obstacle to his diabolical scheme to chase down Jordan's mark of six championships. Throughout the months-long drama over Anthony's future, Bryant defended him at every turn -- spoke of him as though they had become best friends with Team USA in Beijing last summer, as though Anthony were somehow cut from the same cloth.
The latter might still prove to be true. Anthony is only 26 and has a lot to learn -- and that baptism by fire has begun, in the harsh, merciless way Anthony needed it to begin. But the first part, about how Bryant and Anthony grew so close in Beijing, was made up, according to a person who was there. Bryant didn't hang out with anyone there, much less Anthony, the person said. He was too busy working, plotting, and sharpening the tools necessary for his next surgical demonstration.
"When he first came into the league as a rookie, I always hit the young fellas, hit them pretty hard with elbows and stuff like that," Bryant said of Anthony earlier this season after a loss to the Nuggets in Denver. "Some of them just kind of shied away from it, and he welcomed it. He just kept coming and coming and coming, so I respected that about him. He plays hard, man. He just keeps working, keeps working, keeps working, makes big shots. ... He's a handful."
But the work ethic described by Bryant is not what people around Anthony in Denver observed, and certainly wasn't obvious to those around Team USA. So why all these bouquets from Bryant to Anthony during the months Melo was trying to escape Denver? Why all the references to Anthony being such a "bad boy," and worse, a "bad [expletive]?"
One person who knows both Bryant and Anthony suggested -- quite cynically and perhaps truthfully -- that this was Bryant's way of talking up the younger rival he felt would be his biggest threat. And, well, if helping to create this mythology about Anthony accelerated his escape from the Western Conference, where Bryant would no longer have to deal with him, all the better.
Now, with the honeymoon long since over for Anthony in New York, he has arrived at the wakeup moment those around him have believed for some time that he needed. If it serves its purpose and changes him for the better, he will emerge with scars much deeper than the one in the corner of his left eye.
"Like I always tell him, he's got some catching up to do," Bryant said of Anthony during that interview earlier this season. "It's a long, rocky mountain to climb."
And then Bryant chuckled, almost cackled in a ghoulish way that suggested he was recalling all those missteps along the way. This is the defining obstacle that Anthony inevitably will need to embrace. And it might as well happen sooner than later, so we can all find out how he will handle it.