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How Carmelo Anthony grew up to become Captain America

This version of Carmelo Anthony was difficult to imagine when he was buried on the bench of a humiliated 2004 U.S. Olympic team. It was harder still to imagine months later, when Anthony was a young pro making off-court mistakes. 

After an airpot pot bust and an appearance in a gang-related video, he was vilified by many as emblematic of everything wrong with the modern NBA. Today, he's representing the United States with leadership and grace. 

Anthony now prepares to lead Team USA to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics. It will be his fourth Olympics, a record for an American male basketball player. It could net him his third gold medal, another record. 

But off the court, Anthony is shining just as bright. The New York Knicks star seized a leadership role in the world of athlete activism this summer while readying for Rio. 

The problem he's pledged to address is a particularly American one: The repeated killings of unarmed black men by police, and the resulting climate of distrust between many law enforcement officers and the people they're sworn to protect. 

Carmelo Anthony's story has played out over the past dozen or so years before millions of basketball fans. It's unfurled as he's raked in millions upon millions of dollars in contracts and endorsement deals. But it's also a story many of us normal folks can relate to — it's the story of a young man growing up. 

The 2004 Olympics in Athens were an unequivocal disaster for USA Basketball. The second half of the year 2004 was nearly as disastrous for Anthony. 

Never had the U.S. failed to win gold at an Olympics since it began sending NBA players to the Games with 1992's iconic "Dream Team." This time the Americans, coached by Larry Brown, finished third. They might as well have finished last. 

Anthony was named to the 2004 team after his rookie NBA season with the Denver Nuggets. Before that, he'd played just one season of college ball. Before that, he'd been raised by a single mother in unforgiving West Baltimore. 

Anthony was seen at the time as an NBA star-in-waiting, but he hardly played in Athens. In Team USA's semifinal loss to Argentina — the debacle that derailed the Americans' gold medal hopes — Brown didn't even put Anthony in the game. 

"The first day I got this group, I knew what was in store, basically," Brown said after the U.S. lost its 2004 Olympics opener to Puerto Rico. 

Much of the blame for the failure in Athens was placed on young team members such as Anthony. They didn't play together, the popular thinking went. They didn't share the ball. They didn't respect the game, nor their opponents. 

To many, Anthony symbolized a me-first generation that cared more about money and status more than character or accomplishment. 

The heat only intensified when Anthony got back to the States in 2004 — and he brought that heat upon himself.

In October 2004, two months after the Olympics debacle, Anthony was cited for marijuana possession at the Denver airport while preparing to board a Nuggets team flight. A friend later claimed the pot as his and Anthony, who was 20 years old at the time, said he had no knowledge of it. 

But his reputation had already taken another blow. Two months later, it got worse. 

In December of 2004, an underground DVD emerged from Baltimore. It became known as the "Stop Snitching" video, and featured a self-professed drug dealer saying citizens who call the police on illicit activities deserve to "get a hole in their head." Anthony briefly appeared alongside the man in the video, laughing and hanging out on a Baltimore sidewalk. 

Again — Anthony, who was hardly out of his teens — had put himself in a position not at all befitting a budding pro sports star. The DVD gained national attention.

"It is exasperating to me that a high-profile, hot athlete ... would lend himself to a video like this," Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) later said during a House of Representatives committee meeting. 

But a young man can do a lot of growing up in 12 years — on the court and off. 

By the time of the 2008 Olympics, Anthony's basketball game had grown and Team USA officials had refocused on American dominance in the sport. Team USA — known that year as the "Redeem Team" — thrilled fans while winning gold in Beijing. 

Unlike in 2004, Anthony was a key player. He played the fourth-most minutes on the team and found his niche as a devastating power forward. International rules and playing style perhaps suit Anthony's skills even better than the NBA, allowing him to torture bigger defenders with his quickness and jumpshot, yet still bully inside when required. 

He returned to Team USA to win another gold medal in London in 2012. Now 32, he's back for the 2016 Games in Rio as the team's oldest player. 

Along the way, Anthony — who could hardly get off the bench in 2004 — has put together one of the most impressive careers in USA Basketball history. 

By the end of Rio 2016, Anthony will have played more games in Olympic competition than any American male before him. If he scores 35 total points in Rio — a virtual guarantee — Anthony will own the U.S. male record for career points in the Olympics. He's also likely to ascend to second place on the team's all-time rebounds list while in Rio. He already holds the record for most points in a single game, erupting for 37 against Nigeria in 2012. 

"I'd take him anywhere," Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said last summer in vouching for Anthony to be on the 2016 team. 

Anthony reflected on his own maturation process in an interview with the New York Post last December. 

"I had to learn the hard way. Unfortunately. I had to figure out that I had control of my own career and which direction I wanted to go in," he said. "There comes a time you sit down with yourself, have some ‘me’ time and figure out what you want out of your life and career."

But off the floor, Anthony's best was still yet to come. 

Team USA canceled a pre-Rio practice this Monday because of Anthony. Not because he'd become a problem, though — quite the opposite. 

Anthony organized a summit between inner city teenagers and police officers in the tough South Central section of Los Angeles. It was held Monday at a Boys & Girls Club, and several of Anthony's USA Basketball teammates attended. Krzyzewski even canceled practice Monday to accommodate the closed-door meeting, according to The Undefeated

The summit was meant to bring inner city teens and officers face-to-face amid a toxic national climate following the repeated deaths of young black men at the hands of police — and, more recently, attacks against police as well. 

One of the most high-profile deaths in this tragic, ongoing American saga came in Baltimore, where Anthony was raised. 

Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died after sustaining a neck and spine injury while in Baltimore police custody in April 2015. Medical examiners ruled Gray's death a homicide. But this month, prosecutors dropped charges against three of the six officers involved. The other three officers had already been acquitted, meaning no one will be held responsible for Gray's death. 

“It’s just sad,” Anthony told The Undefeated earlier this month. “The people there, the communities there, all they want is justice. Everybody is expecting something to come out of this. It’s just getting worse and worse.”

In early July, after five Dallas police officers were murdered during a protest march, Anthony posted a long comment on Instagram in which he urged fellow sports celebrities to take a leadership role. 

"We have to put the pressure on the people in charge in order to get this thing we call JUSTICE right," Anthony's comment read. "A march doesn't work. We tried that. I've tried that. A couple social media post/tweet doesn't work. We've all tried that. That didn't work. Shooting 11 cops and killing 5 WILL NOT work. While I don't have a solution, and I'm pretty sure a lot of people don't have a solution, we need to come together more than anything at this time."

At the ESPY Awards on July 13, Anthony took the stage with fellow NBA stars Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James to begin the nationally televised program with a message for social change. Anthony spoke first. 

"The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new, but the urgency for change is definitely at an all-time high," he said.

Then came this week's summit between teens and police in South Central, which Anthony told The Undefeated made him "proud." 

Town-hall summits and award-show statements won't magically fix America's problems. But like the public statement issued by Michael Jordan on Monday, activism by celebrity athletes does carry weight. Stances by athletes are easily critiqued for what they're not not but they do help, they do matter and they do throw more weight behind the cause for positive change. 

Team USA plays an exhibition game against Venezuela in Chicago on Friday night. Its final exhibition game comes against Nigeria in Houston on Monday. Then it's off to Rio for the Olympics, where Anthony will seek to make history as the first American to win three gold medals in men's basketball. 

He's traveled a long road since the Athens embarrassment of 2004, when it was so difficult to imagine any of this. Now it's hard to imagine a better player to represent America on the world stage with the letters "USA" emblazoned across his chest. 

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