Carmelo Anthony Wants To Be Great At Basketball If That Will Help His Image, Will Focus On Venture Cap Firm In The Meantime

ESPN The MagazineCarmelo Anthony arrives a few minutes late for his second job, and he hurries into a back office to change out of his basketball uniform and into a sweater and loafers. “Sorry, sorry, a CEO should never be late,” he says, apologizing to his staff of six, which assembled for this urgent meeting in Brooklyn at his request. An image consultant has come from Manhattan, and a branding expert has flown in from Los Angeles. His chief of staff hands him a laptop, and his assistant offers coffee. All of them follow Anthony into a sparse meeting room with wall-to-ceiling windows and a single desk. 

Anthony purchased this office space about a year ago, even though he was still unsure what he wanted to do with it — still unsure what he wanted to do himself. He rented two nearby billboards to announce the rollout of his new social media campaign and imprinted them with a slogan that has become his personal quest: define yourself, the billboards read, which is also the reason he is holding this meeting now.

“So who exactly is Carmelo Anthony?” asks the branding expert, Anthony Rodriguez, kicking off the meeting. “What do you want to be known for?”

“That right there is the big question,” Anthony says.

“Are you a basketball player? A New York Knick? The league’s most unstoppable scorer?” Rodriguez asks.

“No way,” Anthony says. “This isn’t just about basketball. I hate just being known that way. It’s got to be bigger than that.”

 He just signed a five-year contract with the Knicks worth $124 million, forgoing a better chance to win a quick NBA title with the Bulls and instead staying with a lesser team that offered a longer, more lucrative deal. “I’ve got money. That’s not the problem,” he says. The problem as he sees it is that he is still defined mostly by what he lacks. No championships. No universal adoration. No sense of peace with his own place in the world as he begins the transition from the prime to the twilight of his career.

“What I really want is a bulletproof legacy,” he says. “How can I be known for being a visionary, for being truly great?”

Anthony recently started a tech investment firm — “my big push for greatness in the future,” he calls it — and now he is obsessing over how to grow his influence. He wants to brand himself as the “tech pioneer athlete,” he says. He wants to be known in 20 years not only as “the basketball player but also as the innovator, the business tycoon.” He wants to invest in startups and multiply his bank account by 100, because maybe billions can solidify a reputation in ways that millions can’t.

 No, the thing that finally made him doubt everything he had or hadn’t done during his NBA career was the throwaway answer his 7-year-old son gave on a homework questionnaire, when asked to write a few sentences about what his father did for a living.

“Basketball player,” Kiyan Anthony wrote, and then he left the rest of the space blank.

“I hate it when people say that’s all I am,” Anthony says. “I don’t want to just be an athlete. I kind of obsess on that sometimes. I don’t want my son to be reading, oh, ‘disappointment, just a scorer, selfish, didn’t win enough, never quite the best’ — whatever. I want to be bigger than that. I want to shape my own destiny instead of just having him read about whatever on the back page.”

So early in 2013, as Anthony entered the last year of his contract with the Knicks, he began thinking not only about his next contract but about the future that awaits him after he stops playing. He studied other athletes — David Beckham, Andre Agassi, John Elway, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson — whose postcareer brands he admired and called some to seek advice. “How can I control my own reputation? How can my influence outlast my career?” he asked. Anthony says they all told him the same thing: Find one thing you’re passionate about and start building on that now.

Anthony had always been passionate about money — not just the cash itself but the luxuries it afforded him and the ways in which it signified success.  “When you’ve never had something, you want it worse than anything,” he says.

Along the way he developed obscure high-end habits that tended to show off his wealth: Nicaraguan cigars. Italian top hats. Ascot ties. Rare red wines. Vintage sneakers. Installation art. Ralph Lauren and Gucci. He hired a New York stylist to buy his outfits and deliver them with personal instructions about when and how they should be worn. He still wanted to look like the guy with the most cash in his pocket…

“People say I am all about more money, but it’s not like that,” Anthony says. “It’s about having the appearance of someone with success. Image and reputation matter to me. If you’re being honest, they matter to everybody. Money is about people thinking of you as someone who does well.”

So as Anthony played out the final year of his contract with the Knicks last season, he experimented with ways to associate himself with luxury. He co-founded a watch magazine. He offered style tips to the British edition of GQ and talked to advisers about starting a line of luxury hats or buying land to open a winery in Napa.

Maybe one of those endeavors could be his legacy, he thought. Maybe somewhere in there was his greatness.

“You need one big idea,” his manager told him one day. “I don’t think you’ve found it.”

Then in January of this year, his wife introduced him to Stuart Goldfarb.

When the Knicks’ 2013-14 season ended, a disappointing 37-45 campaign, Goldfarb and Anthony flew together to LA and San Francisco to meet with tech companies and venture capitalists so Anthony could learn more about business. Goldfarb showed Anthony how to look for key phrases in business plans. He sent him links to tech blogs. When they returned to New York, they scheduled three or four informational meetings each day with tech entrepreneurs. Anthony would work out from 8 to 11:30 a.m. and then come to his office for the meetings.

“Stu has the experience, the connections and the real business know-how,” Anthony says.

“Carmelo has a good creative sense, a lot of influence and really, really big dreams for himself,” Goldfarb says.

Before the summer ended, Anthony and Goldfarb agreed to formalize their partnership. They would identify promising tech startups together, splitting the investments fifty-fifty. Anthony had chosen tech to be his passion, but he didn’t want to invent his own products or necessarily become an adviser to certain companies. Instead, he and Goldfarb agreed that their primary goal would simply be to invest money and make a profit, hopefully enough to “show that what we’re doing here is a huge success,” Anthony says.

They named the company M7 Tech Partners, although Anthony sometimes refers to it as something else: “Stage two.”

After a preseason Knicks practice, Anthony pulls out his laptop and navigates to a site called CrunchBase. “This is where I spend most of my free time now,” he says. The Knicks are a few days away from opening the season, their first under new president Phil Jackson and his triangle offense and the 12th on which Anthony’s reputation seems to hinge. “People say every year is the one that will determine if I’m great or terrible, if I’ve met expectations or been a disappointment,” Anthony says. “To be honest with you, I’m tired of it.” He knows he is sensitive to what people think of him, and in earlier seasons he sometimes styled his play in a failed attempt to appease his critics. “I passed more if they said to pass more or shot more or whatever, and that’s no way to live,” he says. Now he has vowed to stop reading about himself in the newspaper or watching sports on TV. When his teammates turn on ESPN in the locker room, he logs on to CrunchBase.
The key, Goldfarb says, is finding a few “hundred-exers,” investments that multiply by 100 or more, which is why Anthony reads through a dozen business plans each week and Goldfarb takes five meetings every day. In just the past three months, they have received pitches from hundreds of companies. “The blessing and the curse of being a famous athlete is that you get pitched a lot,” Goldfarb says, and Anthony is still learning how to sort through the deluge. He calls business founders from the bus on the way home from games, and he reads business plans in his hotel room on the road.

“As an athlete, you don’t really have a voice,” he says. “Everything you say or do, people have a million opinions about it, so it doesn’t really get heard the way you want it to get heard. People are putting things on you and shaping your reputation, and you don’t really have control.”

And so that has become his preoccupation: Can he take back control with his investment company? Can he make enough money, or have enough success, or invest in enough home runs to claim total ownership of his legacy? As a tech entrepreneur, can he not be perpetually fifth but inarguably first? Can he feel in each moment like he did when he came out here onto the roof — not swallowed by the swirl of the city but apart from it, free from judgment, in command of his own reputation?

“Basketball, business ventures, tech — whatever it is,” he says. “I’m just hoping to be remembered for doing something great.”

Really good feature from the upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine diving into the current mindset of Carmelo Anthony.  I condensed the story a bit, but it was difficult because there’s so much content there. It’s an interesting examination of what I think a lot of people already suspected is the case with Carmelo.  The big knock on Melo his entire career has been that he’s a “money first” guy and that he’s more focused on scoring titles and contracts rather than winning championships.

I’ve always tried to avoid pigeonholing Anthony like that because I think a guy can be focused on both money and winning (e.g. LeBron).  But when he re-signed with the Knicks this summer I had to reconsider.  Maybe Melo has come to terms with his public image? Maybe he is comfortable making ridiculous money and dominating on the court, but never winning a chip? As a fan, I don’t want to hear that from my team’s centerpiece, but as a man I understand it.  The only thing that still confused me about Carmelo’s decision to spurn Chicago and stay in New York was how interested the Anthony camp seemed in building his own “legacy”.  Throughout the summer recruitment process, that word got thrown around a lot and one would think that meant Melo was solely focused on winning titles. It seemed like Carmelo and his team were focused on finding the best situation to build his brand, establish his own winning legacy, and break away from LeBron James’ massive shadow.  So, was Carmelo lying? Was he just saying what organization wanted to hear, playing auctioneer to the bidding NBA owners?  Does Anthony care about titles or is he only concerned with paychecks and building his brand?  What this story tells us is that there might not be a singular answer.  The answer could very well be “all of the above.”

I’m not going to criticize Melo’s business decisions or his attitude towards winning championships.  I can’t sit here and pretend to understand how someone in his position possibly feels. One can only imagine that the frustration and paranoia that comes from being such a megastar is astronomical.  Melo has dealt with endless criticism since he left Syracuse in 2002.  Since Day 1 in the League there have been plenty of parrots saying he could never lead a team to the promise land. In the piece, he admits that he’s paid too much attention to the peanut gallery for most of his career, even going as far as altering his game because of it. Obviously, this aspect of fame has taken a toll on him mentally. The one point that I hope Melo realizes, though, is that all the athletes whose brands he admires – Elway, Agassi, Magic, Beckham, Jordan – were champions first, businesses second.  Guys like this were able to build their brands largely due to the adoration and respect given to champions. In total, these five men won 28 championships at the highest level. As their on-court careers winded down, their focus began to shift, but that was not necessarily the case before they had won anything. I truly hope that Melo can wrap his brain around this, because I would love to see him win a title, but he just doesn’t seem to get it.

The theme of the piece is that Anthony is “not just a basketball player.” The fact that these athletes make millions playing a game does not bar them from enjoying hobbies or focusing on outside interests. That’s fine. Like Melo, I have hobbies, too.  I like writing this dumb blog and hoping for more than thirty pageviews a day. That’s fun.  I also like looking for bit stocks to invest in, watching sports, and touching myself (in no particular order).  Investing “Carmelo money” would be thrilling, and that would make the chase to find winning investments even more rewarding.  But becoming a truly great venture capitalist takes as much time as winning an NBA championship.  There are only twenty-four hours in a day.

What I’m trying to say here is that whether or not Carmelo cares about winning, it’s clear that he is not consumed by the need to win a championship. I’m sure Melo would like to be an NBA champion.  That would help his image and cement his basketball legacy as “successful.”  But it seems like Anthony’s main focus is being viewed as a success. Anthony wants to be remembered for doing something great, and now he’s hedging his bets as far as basketball is concerned. Maybe Anthony has been so beaten down by public perception that he wants to create a new image free of sports media constraints.  Maybe he’s sick of being number 2, 3, 4, or 5.  Maybe he is just bored of basketball and wants a new challenge. Whatever the case, it sure feels like Melo is more concerned with browsing CrunchBase than studying the Triangle Offense. That’s something that’s bound to bother Phil Jackson.

The bottom line is that this story is not going to go over well in New York. Not with his teammates, not with Derek Fisher, Phil Jackson, and damn sure not with the fans.  Second, third, fourth, or fifth will never cut it in NYC, and if Melo is really so obsessed with controlling his image he should let Stu Goldfarb handle the tech investing and get his fucking nose back in a playbook.  Attaining status, wealth, and power is all well and good, but Melo could become the black Zuckerberg (sorry, Amare) and the first line in his bio will still read: basketball player.  If he doesn’t cut the shit and devote himself to winning championships, New York City will chew him up and he’ll go down in history as a second-tier, All-NBA money pit. If that happens he’ll never control his “legacy.” In all honesty, he’s probably better off telling everyone to fuck off, owning that basketball is a means to an end, and going all-in on investing.  No more toeing the line.

The more I think about it, maybe Carmelo is entering his Magna Carta Holy Grail phase. If you say you’re the greatest, and act like the greatest, some people are bound to believe it.

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