I used to think that the 82-game regular season of the National Basketball Association was largely farce: Since most teams make the playoffs, it seemed that lots of millionaire players went on cruise control during the season and ratcheted up their intensity only when the number of cameras increased.
I was wrong about two of the NBA's biggest stars, Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, at least concerning one particular game, Tuesday night's Madison Square Garden contest between their team, the Denver Nuggets, and the New York Knicks.
The Nuggets and Knicks were meeting for the first time since last Dec. 16, when they had an on-court brawl that led to the suspensions of seven players and unprecedented $500,000 fines for each team. Anthony received a 15-game suspension for punching a Knicks player.
Before the game, in the cramped visiting team locker room that the Nuggets used, Anthony walked by a poster-size photo of himself and a Knicks player, David Lee, elbowing each other while fighting for a rebound. "You look scared, man," one of the Nuggets joked to Anthony.
The game itself became a close struggle for pride that the Knicks won with a couple of key baskets and defensive stops at the end. No one brawled, but Iverson was hit in the mouth with two minutes to play, and was unable or unwilling to talk as he sat in front of his locker after the game before a gaggle of equally-silent reporters.
I've never been in a stranger - or more depressed - pro locker room. Anthony sat bathing his feet in a tub of water. Iverson sat with his head between his legs. No one else said anything, so maybe only the abundant tattoos of the two players spoke. Iverson has dozens, including a skull on one arm, the words "Only the Strong Survive" at the top of his back, and praying hands over his heart.
Anthony has "Dedication" and "Determination" on his shoulders, "Loyalty" on his left arm, and many others, including "Blessed" and "Delivered" running vertically down his back, with a big tattoo between those words of a gunner blasting away with a sub-machine gun. Go figure.
Minute after minute the two stars sat there, seemingly in exhaustion and deepest gloom, until they finally walked to the shower room and reporters gave up. Pampered players, sure, but I was impressed that they cared enough about an early-season regular game to give it all on the court and not laugh it off afterwards.