He's rising like an oak

Anthony: The nation's No. 2 prep player returns home with an unbeaten Oak Hill Academy team, but he's refined more than his shooting stroke in the quiet hills of Virginia.

January 20, 2002|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

MOUTH OF WILSON, Va. - Carmelo Anthony is finally free.

Free of the relentless calls from agents looking for his signature on a contract. Free of the movie theaters, video arcades and malls that diverted him from his homework. Free of the colleges that tried to dissuade him from committing to Syracuse.

Here, at Oak Hill Academy, where cell phones barely work and the closest mall is 42 miles away in North Carolina, Anthony is free to do the two things that matter to him most: study and play basketball.

"I won't let myself down," said Anthony, a 6-foot-7, 205-pound swingman from Baltimore who has signed with Syracuse.

That determination - a quality, many say, Anthony exudes on and off the court - is paying dividends. In just 13 months, he has gone from a local talent at Towson Catholic to a national name.

The Sun's All-Metro Player of the Year last season is widely touted as the No. 2 high school basketball player in the country. Although Anthony says he has "been looking forward to college for a long time," he hasn't ruled out skipping Syracuse for the NBA.

Like a prodigal son, Anthony - now playing for the undefeated Oak Hill Warriors, the nation's top-ranked high school basketball team by USA Today - returns to Baltimore to face his former Owls teammates at 8:30 tonight in the nightcap of the State Farm Roundball Classic at the Towson Center.

For Anthony, 17, the trip home will be an opportunity to reconnect with the family and friends he left behind.

"Everybody wants to see me play against my old high school," Anthony said. "People have been talking about this game since September."

Being 350 miles from home for more than six months hasn't changed Anthony that much. He still likes to laugh and mock his friends, which earned him the title of team jokester from his Oak Hill coach.

If there's been a difference, it's been the development of his game. Blessed with an explosive first step and a will to drive to the basket, Anthony can now brake suddenly for a pull-up jumper from 15 feet away, and his shooting stroke from beyond the three-point line is silkier.

Chris Monter, the editor and publisher of collegebasketball- news.com, has ranked Anthony just one notch behind Amare Stoudemire, a center from Florida who has committed to the University of Memphis next season.

"He is one of the best scorers in the senior class," said Monter, noting that Anthony broke the camp record at the Adidas Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas in August by scoring 227 points in nine games for an average of 25.2. "I think Carmelo has the ability to be an NBA player whether it's a year later or four years later."

That's not news to Baltimore fans who followed Anthony. They were well aware of his capabilities last season when he averaged 23 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists and powered Towson Catholic to a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship.

But with those accolades came distractions from agents, shoe companies and other interests eager to hook the next big thing. And during the season, Anthony's grades spiraled toward ineligibility because he was spending too much time with his friends, he said.

In middle of nowhere

Anthony found an oasis at Oak Hill, where the closest motel is 30 miles away down U.S. 58 in nearby Galax and the nearest major airport is nearly three hours away in Charlotte, N.C.

"Down here, I have no distractions," Anthony said.

It is at Oak Hill, a small Baptist boarding school tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, where Anthony can be "just one of the guys."

Like the other 130 students, Anthony wears the school's standard khaki slacks. He eschews the blue button-down shirts and the white or green short-sleeved polo shirts for a T-shirt underneath his Oak Hill pullover that he doesn't take off during class.

After seven hours of classes, Anthony has time to complete his homework or study for a quiz after school, but sometimes he takes a nap, which can be quite an adventure, according to his roommate Justin Gray, a guard from Charlotte who has signed with Wake Forest.

"He talks in his sleep," Gray said of Anthony. "He'll wake up, start talking, and fall back to sleep."

Their room is clean considering two teen-agers live there. Nike sneakers and Timberland boots are lined up against the wall, and books are neatly stacked. There's no computer. And although Gray has a cell phone, the only way to contact Anthony is on a dorm phone shared by the entire team.

Anthony and Gray pushed together four twin beds on which to sleep. Each sleeps on his own side and a large pillow in the middle serves as a makeshift divider.

Practice, which begins at 6:30 p.m., is like a McDonald's All-Star game. Six of Anthony's teammates have committed to Division I schools such as Temple, Cincinnati and Miami (Fla.). Another is undecided and could apply for the NBA draft this summer.

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