It's easy for Carmelo Anthony to figure out what kind of role model he'd like to be. He just thinks of the one he never had.
"That was lacking in our community," Anthony, who grew up in Baltimore, told CBS Sports. "Who were the figures that we looked up to? Who were the male figures for the kids who didn't have male figures in their lives, such as myself? Trying to look and sort out and seek who's the right person to get that information from, because you're so closed in, and closed off, and on edge just from being in that environment and living in that environment. It's hard to trust people. So once you find that trust, it means a lot."
Anthony, an ambassador for the Jordan Brand, earned that trust on Wednesday by helping to name 32 Wings Scholars, who will each receive a four-year scholarship to the university of their choice or any post-secondary education program. Jordan Brand has now funded over 1,800 scholarships in the U.S. and Greater China since the inception of the Wings Scholars program in 2015, helping to "level the playing field" for students in need.
This year's winners completed a rigorous application and selection process, and were identified by the Jordan Brand committee as not only great students, but also as local leaders who are active in their communities. In addition to the scholarship, the Jordan Brand provides each student with resources throughout their collegiate studies including one-on-one mentorship and internship sourcing.
"I never thought I would have the opportunity to go anywhere I could imagine. Without the financial burden, my possibilities are endless," said Gionna Clift, a Class of 2024 Jordan Wings Scholar. "I can focus on the other aspects of college life instead of worrying about how it will be paid for. This is something I only could imagine and now that it has come true it's almost unreal."
These scholarships come at a particularly uncertain time in terms of education, with most students nearing the completion of the school year having spent the last few months learning from home rather than in-classroom instruction. Anthony hopes that announcing the Wings Scholars will help refocus students on their education.
"I just want kids to understand, and the youth to understand, that everything is shifting and you guys will be the pioneers and the leaders of what will happen going forward," Anthony told CBS Sports. "So just to have that opportunity to do these Zoom schools and classes -- it's a new form of learning, and we have to embrace it. If we embrace it, then our kids will embrace it."
These messages take on extra weight coming from sports heroes like Anthony and Michael Jordan. One of this year's Wings Scholars, Mekdes Hilete, said that seeing Jordan's name on his award certificate "really restored my faith in my path." It's part of the mission of the Jordan Brand -- one that started with MJ himself.
"Education will always be at the top of the message when it comes from MJ and even myself," Anthony told CBS Sports. "We want to create that around the whole world. We want people to know that and understand that and believe that throughout the whole world. That's where we really want to do this, and I think that's why MJ himself created this and wanted this as part of his legacy, because he knew that he wasn't going to play basketball forever. He knew that times were going to change."
Anthony said that "The Last Dance," the documentary on the Chicago Bulls that captivated NBA fans and non-NBA fans alike over the past several weekends, helped bridge the gap between Jordan and some of the younger fans who didn't have the privilege to see him play.
"Up until this 'Last Dance' docuseries that just came out, there was a big disconnect between the younger generation and Michael Jordan," Anthony said. "There was no disrespect, but there was a disconnect. I think after seeing that, it's connected the dots of all generations to who he is, and this is a prime example of who he is. This educational component of him -- this is really who he is."
That's part of the reason why Anthony, who became the Jordan Brand's first signature athlete in 2003, recently shifted his focus toward the Wings Scholars program. He didn't want to have his name on something unless he was "hands on," so he sat down with brand representatives and helped come up with the plan for this year's awards. It's also a way for Anthony, who has been active in various communities through The Carmelo Anthony Foundation during his 16-year NBA career, to connect with the younger generation, especially those going through the same trails that he faced.
"I am a product of that environment, and I've seen both sides of it," Anthony told CBS Sports. "I've dealt with the day-to-day struggle that goes on in those underprivileged and under-served communities, but also I came out on the other side through my determination and through my focusing on wanting to be something and wanting to do something. I see it from both sides, so I feel like I always will be obligated to speak up for those communities. I'm their voice and I'm also their hope. I want to be that. 'If he did it, I can do it,' and that's my goal."