The front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s sports section on Nov. 5, 2003, was designed with an old-fashioned boxing poster theme. In the same style in which “Ali vs. Frazier” would’ve splashed across a page under a banner reading “Clash of the Titans,” it showed dramatic poses of Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
The tagline read: “Rivalry Begins Tonight!”
In James’ first home game as a Cleveland Cavalier that night, the front row resembled a major heavyweight fight as Nike founder Phil Knight, Jay-Z and Ken Griffey Jr. sat side by side.
All these years later, James and Anthony are teammates with the Los Angeles Lakers. It might seem like it was inevitable because of their long-standing relationship. But that isn’t the case.
James and Anthony were never destined to be teammates. As that mock boxing poster foretold, they were meant to be rivals. Friendly rivals perhaps — there were even comparisons to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the mid-aughts — but the concept of them joining forces remained little more than a fantasy for nearly two decades.
“We knew each other since we were 15,” Anthony said this week. “We’ve been competing against each other since we were 15.”
They spent time together and got to know each other’s girlfriends, who became wives. They became fathers and watched their children grow. They worked in the same sneaker house, a subculture of the NBA that has its own distinct personality and stakes, with Nike. But it was always very much a competition.
They played the same position, small forward, when slotting into a position really mattered in the NBA. They fought for and badly wanted the same honors. James was the consensus No. 1 pick in 2003, but Anthony not-so-secretly thought it should’ve been him after his dominant championship season at Syracuse. To this day he can’t believe he didn’t go second.
Anthony and the Nuggets beat the Cavs that night in 2003 — and Anthony outplayed James, who had one of his eight single-digit regular-season games, scoring just seven points on 3-for-11 shooting.
When Anthony averaged more points (21.0) and rebounds (6.1) than James in their rookie seasons and led his team to the playoffs, Anthony believed he had a stronger case for Rookie of the Year. James won it with 78 votes to Anthony’s 40, one of the closest races in the past 20 years.
When James, after the Cavs had been eliminated, showed up to a playoff game in Denver that spring to support Anthony, the Nuggets star was surprised at the act of friendship.
James beat Anthony to the All-Star Game, the All-NBA team and the second round of the playoffs. But Anthony won a whopping eight of their first 10 meetings, making sure the rivalry still had edge even if there were typically jovial meals before and hugs after the matchups.
In 2006, when it was time to discuss their first contract extensions, James invited Anthony on a conference call with other 2003 draft picks Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and pitched the idea of signing then-unprecedented three-year max contracts, instead of the standard and richer five-year deals. Bosh, Wade and James took the three years. Anthony signed for five.
When those three then spurned open star slots with the New York Knicks as 2010 free agents, Anthony soon forced his way there to become the face of the Knicks franchise.
Free agents at the same time again in 2014, when James returned home to Cleveland, Anthony decided to stay with the Knicks. James, who had taken a discount with the Heat to help build the roster, decided he would sign only one-year max contracts. Anthony, instead, signed another five-year contract with the Knicks and took a discount to help the team bolster the roster.
Appropriately, in James’ first game back with the Cavs in Cleveland, he faced Anthony and the Knicks. Appropriately again, Anthony outplayed James, scoring 25 points to lead the Knicks to an upset win.
Even though James was the undisputed king of the Eastern Conference, as he was in the middle of his streak of eight straight Finals appearances, Anthony never stopped trying to beat James. Joining him was the last thing on his mind.
“I was on my own path. He was on his own path,” Anthony said. “Different situations, different circumstances.”
Their friendship blossomed anyway. They played five summers together with Team USA and won two Olympic golds. Their dinner tables started featuring expensive and rare wine bottles. In 2015, the year after they again passed on the opportunity to play together, they went on a famous yacht trip off the Bahamas, where they posed for what would become the legendary banana boat photo. And it was on that trip that James famously saved Anthony from drowning when he was swept out to sea when the currents changed on him.
“Through the grace of God and through strength and not being afraid of the water, I was able to help him back to the boat,” James said about that indelible moment in their lives. “The only thing that was on my mind at that point in time was, ‘Get my brother back to the boat.'”
“LeBron jumped off the boat like he was MacGyver,” Anthony said last year in a conversation with Wade.
Still, very little indicated that James and Anthony would ever be teammates. In 2016, James gave an interview to the Bleacher Report, saying he hoped to play with Anthony (and Chris Paul) someday, a comment that certainly caused some waves, as it hinted James might be plotting his next superteam with new superfriends. It was a delicious news item, but it still seemed to be more on James’ mind than Anthony’s.
A few years later, another window opened. In the summer of 2019, after Anthony had been out of the NBA for months following his release from the Houston Rockets, there was discussion about the Lakers adding him. But they’d just traded for Anthony Davis, and playing for the Lakers likely meant Anthony would be coming off the bench.
Even though it would’ve been fulfilling James’ long-stated desire of playing with his friend, Anthony wasn’t ready for that role, sources said. Anthony still saw himself as someone who started opposite James, not someone who came off the bench for him. Thanks — but no thanks.
“No matter if I was in Denver playing, New York, no matter where I was at and wherever he was at, that connection was always there,” Anthony said. “The conversations always happened. There were talks before. Honestly, I don’t think he was ready and I don’t think I was ready at the times that it could’ve happened.”
James, of course, has thrived, advancing to 10 Finals and winning four of them along with four MVP awards. Anthony, for his part, has made just one trip to the conference finals. They matched up only once in the playoffs, in 2012, with James and the Heat easily winning their first-round series 4-1 against Anthony’s Knicks. Anthony will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, like James, but Magic-Bird … it never was.
But the stars began to align in a new way last year. For the first time in his career, Anthony accepted the role as a backup after a year as a starter in Portland. He’d modified his game to focus on catching-and-shooting as opposed to the isolation scoring he’d preferred for a decade. And when James called this summer after Russell Westbrook‘s trade to L.A. opened up the need for spot-up shooting off the Lakers’ bench, there was finally a scenario that made sense to Anthony.
“Here we are now,” Anthony said. “Timing is everything.”
And they’re fully embracing the moment. They’ve hung out in Las Vegas together for informal workouts. They’ve sat in suites together at Los Angeles Rams games. And soon enough there will be highlights to celebrate, most likely of James whipping a pass to Anthony for a 3-pointer in the corner, which at this stage of their careers is about as good as it gets.
“It’s not just basketball, it’s different. It’s a different feel, it’s a different vibe that we have. It’s a different connection,” Anthony said. “The journey itself alongside somebody like LeBron, you can’t write that any better.”
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin contributed to this story.
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