RIO DE JANEIRO – Carmelo Anthony had one last thing to teach his young teammates.
On the podium wearing his third Olympic gold medal, Anthony, who led this inexperienced U.S. team from the moment it first gathered weeks ago in Las Vegas, pointed toward one end of Carioca Arena, to the spot where the American flag was about to rise.
“I just told them, ‘Look at the highest flag,’” Anthony said, “and that’s what we did.”
Now there’s nothing left to do for Anthony, whose Olympic career began in disgrace and ends with him being the most decorated player to ever wear a USA jersey. It’s a comeback almost hard to believe.
“I don’t think I can explain how I feel right at this moment,” he said, later adding he will retire as an Olympian.
The only U.S. male player to be chosen for four Olympic teams, Anthony became the first to win three golds as the Americans saved their best for last and crushed Serbia 96-66 on Sunday.
After a few close calls earlier in the Olympics, this game was no contest. Kevin Durant scored 30 points and helped the Americans jump out to a huge lead by halftime.
It was the final game with the national team for Mike Krzyzewski, who took the Americans back to the top and leaves with them there after becoming the first coach to win three Olympic gold medals.
The U.S. beat Serbia by just 94-91 in pool play. This rematch looked nothing like that meeting.
The blowout win capped a remarkable 12-year journey around the five interlocking rings for Anthony, only 20 and fresh off his rookie year in the NBA when he played on a 2004 team remembered for failure.
The Americans lost three times at the Athens Games, and the sight of them wearing olive wreaths on their heads, bronze medals around their necks and disappointment on their faces, was a low point for the sport’s standard of excellence. USA Basketball was down and deflated.
But along with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and others, Anthony helped pump pride and power back into the U.S. program, which remains on top of the world.
Anthony grew over his Olympic run spanning games in Europe, Asia and South America. He matured as a person and found his voice, which he has used to address social issues at home. He became more than just a player whose talents seem to perfectly suit the international game. Anthony, so often criticized for not winning NBA championships, became the model for U.S. players.
He showed commitment, dedication and heart. While James and Paul and other skipped these games, Anthony signed up for another tour of duty to represent his country.
“It’s just his love for the game,” said U.S. forward Paul George, who completed his own amazing story following a horrific leg injury. “It’s his passion for the country and his love for the game, that’s all that it comes down to.”
During his stay in Brazil, Anthony became the leading scorer in U.S. history and he returned late in the second half of Sunday’s rout just so he could snatch one rebound and move past David Robinson on the career list.
However, Anthony’s most significant mark in Rio may have come when he visited the city’s favelas, blighted areas he compared to Baltimore’s inner city of his youth.
It’s another sign of his maturity, which Krzyzewski saw developing 10 years ago.
After the Americans lost to Greece in 2006 in the FIBA World Championships at Tokyo, Anthony sat at the postgame podium with Coach K and expressed humility and determination.
“He didn’t make any excuses,” Krzyzewski said. “He took responsibility for the loss and gave credit to the Greek team and we’ve built on that. I call it character, and in that moment, sometimes after a loss, you find out a deep character in someone. That’s what happened with Carmelo and in the commitment of LeBron and Kobe and Chris, all these guys have great character and it just built to where we now have a great culture.”
The Americans haven’t lost since, winning 76 straight games counting exhibitions. And Anthony has collected three golds as precious to him as an NBA ring.
A fifth Olympics isn’t in his plans, but neither was a dozen years wearing the red, white and blue.
“I’m hanging these things up, USA Basketball-wise,” he said. “It’s been a fun journey for me. It’s been a fun ride. I’ve seen both sides of it. I’ve seen the losing side and I’ve seen what it feels like to win three gold medals. I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.