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The GOAT Latino NBA player is still a free agent

Born to a Puerto Rican father, Carmelo Anthony is unquestionably the greatest Latino player of all time. He'll tell you that, too

Though more Latinos are making their mark in the Association every year, it’s not easy for even the biggest NBA fans to come up with a starting lineup of Latino basketball players. For a multitude of reasons, Latinos have failed to make their mark in the NBA as much as they have in MLB, MLS, and even the NFL.

But as difficult as it can be to find Latino professional basketball players, it’s very easy to name the greatest: Carmelo Anthony, small forward, born in Brooklyn to a Puerto Rican dad. And if you didn’t know that, that’s okay. He’ll tell you all about it.

Carmelo Anthony’s Puerto Rican legacy

Anthony was born in the Red Hook housing projects in Brooklyn, New York City, where he lived until he was eight years old. His father, Carmelo Iriarte, was of Puerto Rican heritage, making Carmelo the NBA’s best-ever Latino player. And unlike other NBA players with Latino heritage, Anthony flossed his Boricua roots from day one, even with the Puerto Rican flag tattooed on his right hand.

Photo credit: Getty Images

“People are definitely starting to recognize that,” Anthony said of his heritage to ESPN. “I’m still trying to get that message out there, to let them know that I’m one of them and part of that community too.”

His pops passed away in 1986 when he was two years old, but Carmelo has spoken fondly of his Puerto Rican connection through his father. Speaking to ESPN, “[My dad] wrote poetry. I have a book full of poems that he wrote. The book is too heavy to carry around, so I leave it in my office, but I always try to go back and read them.” 

Activism runs in the family

His father was involved with the New York chapter of the Young Lords, a grassroots civil rights organization with aims of neighborhood empowerment and Puerto Rican self-determination. The group stood alongside the Black Panthers and fought for social programs and healthcare to improve the lives of working-class Latinos during the 1960s and 70s.

Carmelo Anthony helps in Puerto Rico
Photo credit: GV Cruz, Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony has continued his father’s legacy. He is active in Puerto Rico by building basketball courts in low-income areas of La Perla, San Juan, Luquillo, Trujillo Alto, and Bayamón. “I want people to know that dreams can come true, that whatever people want to do when it comes to sports and things like that is doable,” he told ESPN. “I want to lead the charge and let them have hope, let them know that it is possible to make it to the NBA coming from [Puerto Rico].” He’s also been at the forefront of relief efforts when the island was decimated by Irma and Maria, where Carmelo raised over $110,000 in relief aid.

And when his voice was needed most, Carmelo stepped up in place of his father.

A protest leader

Many NBA players past and present stepped up to protest in the wake of the George Floyd murder, and few were as vocal as Carmelo Anthony. Speaking to The Washington Post, Carmelo said Floyd’s murder motivated him “to fight back.” “It was time to fight back… in a way. It was disturbing. If you was a human being, you was disturbed by it… That was the last straw. The George Floyd thing really just took the lid off of it, and people exploded.”

Photo credit: Phillip Faraone

Carmelo has never been uncomfortable speaking out on social issues, even when doing so could have affected his career. “My thing is just to make sure people feel comfortable with speaking on shit that they’re uncomfortable with and holding people accountable for not having those conversations, for not wanting to have those conversations,” he said to Marc J. Spears in an interview with Andscape

He also spoke to him about continuing the activism legacy built by his father. “I wish my dad could see this, because this was him. And I laugh and joke. My brother, we talked about it. He’s just like, ‘Yo, man, you’re just like your dad. You don’t even know that you’re doing the same thing that he was doing. You’re fighting a fight that he was fighting for so long for his freedom.’ I hear that. It’s a blessing for me.”

A not-quite-finished career

Carmelo Anthony is long past the point where he can carry a team to the playoffs, but his recent resurgence with the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers has kept him a steady contributor in the NBA long after many thought he was done. And as a free agent, he’s still searching for a team to complete his 20th NBA season, a feat that fewer than ten players have ever accomplished.

But even if we’ve seen the last of Carmelo in professional basketball, he’s already left an impenetrable legacy. At 38 years old, Carmelo is far from the player he was in his prime with the New York Knicks. But as a three-time Olympic champion, Latino icon, and a voice for the underprivileged, he has grown into the kind of veteran teams need more of in the locker room.