The Penitent Rebounder: An oral history of Church Ball ‘Melo

Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images   Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images    Photo by Chris Elise/Getty Images
Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images Photo by Chris Elise/Getty Images /

Carmelo Anthony is undoubtedly a Hall of Fame player, but the same dogged determination that helped him score more than 25,000 points in his career also has led to his stubborn refusal to accept that it’s time to throw in the elbow sleeve and call it quits. This is an oral history* of the first game Anthony played for the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. 

The basketball scene in Baltimore is competitive. Each league, from the west side to the carpet courts on the north side of town, has their own reputation, and winning a title cements a team’s legacy for a generation. From those municipal league, Baltimore has built a rich history of basketball players making it to the NBA, but no one has had quite the career of Carmelo Anthony.

Anthony moved to Baltimore when he was eight-years-old, and attended Towson Catholic for a few years before graduating from Oak Hill Academy. He had success at every level, from high school to AAU, then at Syracuse, then in the NBA and at the Olympics. His combination of size, shooting, speed, and ability to get buckets made him a valuable player, and he was able to be well compensated for his skills over the course of his career.

Toward the tail end of his career, it became clear to those who watched him play that Melo lacked the same ability he had early in his career. While he had always been able to jab-step his way into an open shot, the lightning quick-step he had a23-year-old old was replaced by the lurching jab-step a man makes when trying to get out of a Chrysler Pacifica and your hand gets snagged in the seatbelt. Defenders wouldn’t bit on his pump fakes, offensive rebounds never wound up in his hands, and his spot-up 3-pointers floated towards the rim with the same amount of hope of an elderly mother patiently waiting by the phone for her son that moved out to California for work to call her and tell her about his day.

But the desire to play basketball still remained, beating within his chest, fueling the fire that can only be satiated by the sound of a leather ball flicking through a nylon net. That drive leads us back to Baltimore, back to where it all started, for No. 15.


Carmelo Anthony: Retired NBA player.

Pastor Rolf Simpson:  Senior Pastor, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.

Pastor Manuel Esposito: Assistant Pastor, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church; head coach.

Pastor Emmanuel Felton: Assistant Pastor, Freedom Church; head coach.

George Petropoulos: Power forward, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Silver Basketball Team; dentist, local practice; (Loyola-Maryland, class of 1996).

Alex Johnson: Small forward, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Silver Basketball Team; database manager, UPS; (UMBC, class of 1995).

Jose “Swayze” Gonzalez: Point guard, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Silver Basketball team; vice president of marketing, local non-profit; (Ohio State University, class of 1998).

Josh Shapiro: Shooting guard, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Silver Basketball team; construction foreman, Wilson Concrete; (University of Delaware, class of 1994).

Le’Veon Wilson: Power forward, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Silver Basketball team; owner, Wilson Concrete; (Virginia Tech, class of 1995).

George Springer: Shooting guard, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Silver Basketball team; assistant to the manager, George Mason Office Supplies; (Mount Saint Joseph High School, class of 1991).

Malachi Plumlee: Center, Freedom Church Senior Team; educator, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (North Carolina State, class of 1992).  

Part One: Fellowshipping

Simpson: “When we heard that Anthony wasn’t going to re-sign with the Beijing Shougang Ducks and was planning on returning to play in the United States, we were excited about the prospect of a local kid returning back to his roots. Our church is a strong church, full of happy, faithful members, but come on, who doesn’t get excited when our basketball teams are doing well? The Silver Squad, for some of our older parishioners, well, it’s been a while since they’ve been a good playoff team.”

Petropoulos: “Obviously we were interested in Carmelo when we heard that he was returning to his hometown of Baltimore. This could be our chance to compete for a Baltimore Church Ball Championship. It’s been 24 years since Mount Pleasant last hosted the trophy — I mean, that’s an entire generation that hasn’t been able to see their brothers in Christ achieve success on the hardwood.”

Johnson: “I knew one of Melo’s old teammates from my time growing up here in Baltimore, and we were talking about him one day when we ran into each other at the grocery store. His old teammate mentioned Melo was looking for a team to play with in Baltimore, and if there was a roster spot available on the team I played for. I’d been on the team since I was old enough to play, it’s a team for guys over the age of 40, and I’m not going to lie, I’m one of the leading scorers on the team. I’ve still got that touch from all three levels, got those floaters, pull-up J’s, and I’ll knock in a few from the wings each game. But I’m not going to lie and say I wouldn’t like to have a second option like Carmelo on the team, you know, someone that can help lighten the scoring load I have to carry each night.”

Wilson: “Our leading scorer, Alex Johnson, man that guy can score! Well, at practice one night, while he’s putting his keys down in his shoes before taking the court, he tells me ‘Hey, I think I might have an in with Carmelo Anthony, bringing him out to play with our team.’ I was shocked, I mean, this guy has three gold medals with Team USA, and he wants to play with us? I was sold.”

Shapiro: “I wasn’t sure if it would be a good idea, we had a good squad already, and we had a lot of potential, we just needed to be more familiar with one another. We didn’t know Carmelo, what if he messed up our locker room? Would he be willing to do the small things to make the team click, like making phone calls to make sure we’d have referees at the games? If I miss a shot, is he going to freeze me out? I’m the guy we like to go to out of timeouts when we need a 3-pointer, is he going to want to take my role? I know my boss, Le’Veon, was really into it, and I needed this job, so I kind of bought in because I didn’t want to discourage him in any way. These student loans aren’t going to pay themselves off on their own, you know what I mean?”

Johnson: “So I send an email to my old teammate, and a few days later he responds with Melo’s phone number. I waited until one of my smoke breaks the next day, and gave him a call. The phone rings and few times, and then I hear his voice crack through my speaker, with a “Hey, this is Melo.”

Anthony: “I knew I was going to be getting a call about possibly playing for a Baltimore church ball team, and while at first I was skeptical — I mean, I won three gold medals, and now I’m gonna be playing church ball?? — I could tell from Andrew’s tone that this guy was a winner. I’ve played my whole career on winning teams, and I got that feeling, down in my gut, that yeah, this was going to be the right move.”

Gonzalez: “I get a text message during a meeting from Le’Veon, all caps “WE GOT MELO” and I had to excuse myself. I mean, I’m going to be dishing to a Hall of Famer? I’ve got kids that don’t understand the way the game used to be played, their mom is always telling them that the game is better now, and Bradley, her husband, doesn’t even watch sports. Now their real dad is going to be able to introduce them to one of the best scorer’s of all time, and he’s on my team? That’s going to be great, I was so excited.”

Esposito: “How did I react when I found out? When that group chat lit up, I was smiling for days. I didn’t want to tell anybody on Sunday during the services, we wanted to wait for him to show up and put on a penny, be part of the team, but I told a few of the elders, I just couldn’t help myself.

Looking back, there wasn’t any reason to be worried. Yeah, it was definitely just a lot of positive energy. As the head coach, I knew we needed an isolation scorer, someone that could get points and give the other guys a chance to recover before playing defense, I didn’t think there would be anything wrong with bringing on a guy like that.”

Part Two: Born again

Esposito: “That first practice was great. George Springer, our backup 2-guard, he even showed up early to stretch. You know the last time he stretched? Probably when he was running into Wal-Mart on Black Friday to buy that 65-inch flatscreen he has down in the basement. I love him, he’s a brother in Christ, and he can shoot like 30 percent from distance, he’s a key part of our team, but that guy is on time for two things, Ravens games and meals.”

Johnson: “That first practice was incredible. I don’t think I’d ever played with a guy that skilled. He was just casually making 18-footers like it was nothing. Swayze would toss him the ball in the post, he’d turn around, sweat already dripping down his nose like he was playing in San Antonio and the AC was off, just rise up like Enoch being taken away into heaven, then bless us with that jumper. Automatic.”

Wilson: “I was so worried he wouldn’t show up, or that he’d roll in wearing New Balances or something. He walked in, wearing his headphones, tear-offs, sandals, with his gym bag, and warmed up like he had, what, every day for 15 years. He had it all, layups, hook shots, banging in jumpers off the glass from the wing, I don’t think he missed once, and if he did, it was probably because we need to replace a couple basketballs in our gym. You know, the kids get them, and kick them around, take them outside when it rains, they’re all out of wack.”

Anthony: “I just wanted to show them that I was one of the guys. I’ve been on a lot of teams, and I was just glad that they all spoke English for a change, you know? (laughter) I mean how many times I have to say “Pass me the ball” before you set me up?

They had a pretty good team, and I’ve been playing for a while. What was the point guard’s name, Swayze? He was quick, not like Allen Iverson quick mind you, but he had a right-to-left crossover that could fool you if you weren’t paying attention. The concrete guys, they were tough on the block. I don’t think Le’Veon jumped once but he must have had like 10, 12, maybe 15 rebounds at the end of our intersquad scrimmage? Like a vacuum, just sucking them (woooomp) right into his hands. Hard to move that guy off the block, I like having a guy like that on the team.”

Shapiro: “I’m one of the older guys, the veterans, and it meant a lot that Carmelo came to me and said, ‘I don’t want you to have to shoot ever again.’ That kind of confidence, I needed that in my life. I’d been struggling to get motivated for the season, but to know that even though I’d just met him, he had my back, that meant a lot. I’d been playing on the team just because I liked the exercise, and I had a good jumper that I’d kept with me since my middle school team, so why not get out and have some fun? But with Melo on board, we could have fun and win. That was exciting.”

Springer: “I was one of the defensive stoppers on the team, I didn’t have the range I used to, not after all these years of working, my knees aren’t quite what they were. But I knew how to grind, and I told Melo, ‘Hey, Melo, if there’s a guy out there getting hot, just let me switch onto him, we’ll get a stop.’ During practice, Alex made two in a row, and Melo looked at me like ‘Bury this man,’ we already had the non-verbals down, and I switched onto him, and he didn’t score again for like, 10 minutes or so. Melo even got me the ball off a back-cut, most people don’t guard me, and I nearly made the layup, I just got excited and put too much behind it. That doesn’t normally happen, I’m usually a pretty steady guy.”

Petropoulos: “It looked like he hadn’t lost a step after all these years. I think he nearly got up for a dunk, which would have been cool, but we try to discourage that, just so we don’t have to fix the rim in case someone breaks one. We had a kid, visiting his cousin once, he went up for a dunk and got his finger stuck in the net, broke it, there was blood everywhere. We’ve banned dunking since then, have to be safe out there. Don’t want anyone to be hurt.”

Simpson: “Now, as a man of God, no I wasn’t going to bet on us winning, but I had a lot of faith. God is good, all the time, but if felt like He was being extra good to us this year.

Our first game was against Freedom Church, just down the road. They’re a nice congregation, I’m friends with the pastor, we go to a few Orioles games together every year. I’m humble enough to admit that it would have been nice to start the season with a win over those guys though (laughter).”

Part Three: Paradise Lost

Wilson: “I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited for something in my whole life as I was for that first game against Freedom Church, and I’ve been married three times.”

Esposito: “We had talked with Melo about the rules of the team, you know, practicing with us two times a week, showing up to games on time, start and finish each game with a prayer. We were playing a 2-3 zone to help the team rebound, there’s a lot of missed shots in our league, and securing the ball is paramount to our defensive success. Our starting bigs are both 6-foot-4″, if there’s a guy out there that’s 6-foot-7 or taller, it’s going to be like watching Moses Malone out there, 30 and 20 by halftime.”

Johnson: “There was a definite buzz in the car as I was driving over, my girls stayed off their phones on the ride over, they were asking me things like ‘You think you guys will take pictures after you win,’ and ‘We’re so happy for you Daddy, this is going to be so fun for you!’ My family was happy, I was happy, doesn’t get much better than that … especially if we get that win!”

Paston Emmanuel Felton: “We had heard that Mount Pleasant had added a new starter to their team, and I’d heard that Carmelo was back in town, but I never in a thousand years imagined he’d be playing basketball for them. Our league has a policy that you have to be a member of the church, and if you’re not, you can only have two guests on the court at a time, so it’s not uncommon to see new faces out there. But that’s a smile that you’re not expecting to see put on the white jersey for the visiting team.”

Petropoulos: “I won the opening tip, and Swayze kind of caught Freedom by surprise by taking it to the rim for a lefty layup. That’s a shot he’s been working on for probably 20 years, he’s not going to miss more than half of those.”

Felton: “We got off to a good start, got a couple missed shots and into our transition offense. Our halfcourt offense kind of relied on Alex Johnson before, but he was on the bench with Carmelo at the 3. Le’Veon got a few offensive rebounds, he put back one or two and kicked out for some 3s that just didn’t find the bottom of the net, they were good looks though.”

Malachi Plumlee: “I definitely was a little surprised at the beginning, I’m used to being the best guy on the court, mostly because I’m 6-foot-9 and I can dribble to my spots, but seeing a NCAA champion out there was new. I got him on a couple post moves though, and calmed down. Mount Pleasant had a six-point lead at halftime, but we knew if we forced him (Anthony) into some jumpers, we might be able to get back into this. So many of these games come down to if anyone has the energy to score in the fourth quarter, and we were feeling strong.”

Gonzalez: “We had a little lead at halftime, I must have had like eight assists though. I was feeling great, we were stoked to see the ball go in the net, and we were just happy to be winning. It’s a contagious feeling, and we were more amped than normal on the sideline during halftime. George’s wife had brought these new energy bars that one of the other mom’s at their kid’s school was selling, I figured I’d give it a try, George is good people.”

Springer: “I hate those energy bars. I’d rather eat slurry.”

Simpson: “We came out strong in the second half too, we just play two 20 minute halves, to try to get more games in and avoid injury, but we looked pretty fresh. We were feeling pretty optimistic, the scoreboards were working, no one had fought, it was a good game.”

Johnson: “When I checked in for Melo with eight minutes left, we were up 12. That’s an insurmountable lead in our league, four possessions? We slapped hands, and I got the sense the team wanted me to take them home, deliver them to the promised land.”

Shapiro: “I had made my first free throw, then Melo checked out, and I made the second one too to put us up 13. I think I had scored double-digits by then, didn’t have foul trouble, things looked good. Alex was fresh, and I was ready to coast out to a win, get the season started on a win. But then, Swayze got hurt.”

Gonzalez: “I was trying to fight over a screen, and I must have stepped on someone’s foot or something, but I rolled my ankle. I knew it wasn’t intentional, but I couldn’t let it get worse, I had a business trip to Wilmington the next day, so I subbed out and had Josh take over the point for me. There wasn’t much time left, we weren’t worried.”

Esposito: “Josh isn’t a good point guard, he can’t dribble with his left hand, but he can hide it for stretches against most teams. But tonight, maybe it was just the pressure of seeing a former NBA player on the court with you, but he couldn’t take care of the ball.”

Springer: “Josh had a couple turnovers, and Freedom cut the lead down to four. We needed to regroup, so Pastor Esposito called timeout so we could get Carmelo back in the game for us.”

Petropoulous: “That timeout was big, Freedom had closed the gap, and we were a little shook. None of us were blaming Josh, he’s a great guy, and we know we all make mistakes every now and then. But we were tired, and we wanted to get this game over.”

Anthony: “I had already put on a couple towels, I didn’t think I’d have to get back into the game. When Pastor Esposito looked at me during the timeout and was like, ‘Melo, can you deliver us?’ I wasn’t sure at first, but I knew I had done it before against tougher competition, and everyone was looking at me, so I told him I’d handle this.

We went out, and just started trading baskets. I was focused on getting points, but Freedom, man they were passing the ball and dribbling, getting shooters open, and shooters shoot, they took the lead with 45 seconds left. I inbounded the ball to Johnson, he set up Wilson for a nice layup, and we took the lead again.”

Plumlee: “I blew it by sticking close to Anthony on that layup, but I knew I could score on him on the other end. He was winded, and he doesn’t jump anyways, so I could just get him to the free throw line, try to have him foul me or I’d hit the jumper. I pump-faked, he bit, and slapped down across my arms. Easy call, refs had to blow the whistle.

We line up for the shot, and I see Carmelo looking at me, and I’ll admit, I got a little nervous. My knees must have been shaking, because I missed the first shot. I stepped back, dapped up my teammates, and then stepped in to take the second shot.”

Petropoulos: “Malachi is a good player, he’s tall, healthy. I think he’s on that Ketone diet (ed. note – Keto diet) and he’s really fit. We figured he’d knock down that second free throw, and tie the game. We’d call timeout, and then figure out a way to get Melo the ball to win the game at the line for us.”

Gonzalez: “I’m watching from the bench, nervous as a deacon on his first Sabbath teaching Sunday School, and Plumlee misses the second free throw, and it bounces right to Anthony, who jumps up, and grabs the ball with two hands …”

Felton: “Our league is built on respect of each other and respect of Christ. There are families at these games, and we don’t allow players to use foul language. There’s no room for vulgarity. It was a close game, yeah, I understand that you have to play with passion, but the word he used, yeah, the refs have to call that.”

Anthony: “I just forgot the rules for a second, I felt terrible, still do. We could have started the season undefeated, and I cost us that. That’s on me.”

Wilson: “My son showed me this YouTube video of Anthony rebounding the basketball — it’s not like I’d never watched him play before, I just hadn’t noticed that part of his game.”

Springer: “Honestly, whenever I watched the Thunder — that’s the team he last played for, right (ed. note — it wasn’t) — I was watching Russell Westbrook. I really like the way he plays the game, I see a lot of my game in the way he plays, just with a lot of intensity and a drive to win. But that night, Carmelo’s intensity cost us.”

Johnson: “Of course they were going to make the technical free throws. We tried to recoup for the last shot, but Carmelo couldn’t bring himself to be the guy to take that shot, so they asked me to, and I was too strong on that pull-up, hit the back iron and the ball didn’t fall.”

Next. Caris LeVert was propelling the Brooklyn Nets towards the playoffs. dark

Simpson: “That Sunday, I remember seeing this hush over the congregation, we all had heard about what happened during our league game this week. I didn’t feel like the time was right to address it from the pulpit. I actually don’t think we’ve ever brought it up. The lesson was shared by the Spirit of God, telling us what had happened was wrong. While we all wished it would have been taught in another way, that would have helped us win, God works in mysterious ways.”

Wilson: “I felt bad that I had been the one to invite him, and my guest cost us the game. If we were going to win, we didn’t want to win with someone that would use that kind of language. I had to tell him that we were going to play the rest of the season without him. I know it hurt him to get cut from a church ball team, but we had to make the right move to help keep the Lord’s spirit with us as a team. I think he understood.”

Anthony: “It was only one game, but I felt like I clicked with them. At least I was with them for longer than I was on the Hawks. Those guys at Mount Pleasant will always be my brothers. We could have won it all that year. I’ll have to carry that with me for the rest of my days.”

*This work is fictional, and any references are not intentional.