Carmelo Anthony, Knicks' Savior, Can Become Hoops Hero for Hispanics, Too

New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony (7) works against Milwaukee Bucks' Carlos Delfino (10) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony (7) works against Milwaukee Bucks' Carlos Delfino (10) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)  (AP2011)

Carmelo Anthony’s arrival in New York represents a new beginning.

The blockbuster trade signifies the start of a new era for the Knicks, marks an Eastern Conference power shift, and it is one of the biggest midseason deals in NBA history.

Sure, some of the storylines are hype, but so much in sports is these days.

For the forward, it’s his time to shine, to show that he’s capable of playing in the spotlight of a major media market, and to prove he was worth the amount of talent the Knicks had to part with to land the star.

But for Anthony, whose father was Puerto Rican, the move also presents a chance to connect with a Hispanic segment of fans that, while incredibly passionate about the game, hasn’t had a superstar-caliber player with whom they could culturally identify.

Until now.

“Latino fans are excited because he’s a good basketball player,” said Clemson Smith Muñiz, the play-by-play voice of “Los Knicks en español” since 1994. “It’s too early to see if he’ll have the same effect as [Jets quarterback] Mark Sánchez.”

Sánchez has been a textbook example of how to win over both a city and an entire demographic. He’s become a New York City favorite after leading the Jets to back-to-back conference championship games. He’s become a favorite within the Latino community –  both in the United States and abroad – by openly embracing his heritage, both at the college and pro levels.

Anthony has yet to really have that same opportunity. The Knicks’ forward helped bring an NCAA championship to Syracuse before making the jump to the NBA after his freshman year. He then spent seven seasons in Denver. However, now playing in a market with 4 million Latinos, a third of whom are Puerto Rican, the stage is set.

“This is a chance for Carmelo to embrace that [Puerto Rican] side, in a way he hasn’t had the chance to do before, and there’s no better city,” Smith Muñiz said.

For a long time, people, including Anthony, seemed uncertain about his place within the Latino community.

The new Knicks star, whose father died when he was a toddler, admitted to being surprised when he was named one of Hispanic Business Magazine’s Most Influential Hispanics in 2008. At the time, he said that while he identified with his Hispanic heritage, he didn’t think most fans were aware of it. That’s changed.

“There's a lot of second- and third-generation Latinos in NYC that will be able to relate to him, including myself,” said David López, a longtime Knicks fan from Brooklyn. "Most Puerto Ricans are already proud of him, and we're proud to claim him. That's just elevated now that he's in a city with a good-sized Puerto Rican population.”

And because of that connection, Anthony has a chance to be one of the few athletes who can broaden his appeal beyond the confines of the Madison Square Garden faithful.

“My mom and sister were big fans of his wife [TV personality LaLa Vazquez] and his show about planning their wedding…in part because they knew he and his wife are Puerto Rican,” López said.

Of course, before anything else, Anthony will have to live up to the incredibly large on-court expectations that come with being touted as a franchise savior.

While measuring the overall reaction of the fan base is difficult, Gilberto Godoy, host of Spanish-language radio show WADO Deportivo, noted that most of the conversations with his program’s callers centered around the specifics of the trade as opposed to simply heralding Anthony’s arrival.

Latino fans welcome an elite player with Puerto Rican roots, but heritage doesn’t win championships. As the saying goes, defense does, and Anthony, while renown for his scoring ability, is rarely lauded for his performance on the defensive end.

To Godoy, anecdotally, fans are more concerned about the pieces (both talent and draft picks) the team gave up. They question if the move makes the team stronger and wonder whether the Knicks really came out the winner in this deal.

Anthony will have to prove himself to the die-hard fans. He made progress in his Knicks debut on Wednesday night, hitting a pair of key baskets late and notching a double-double in New York’s 114-108 win over the Milwaukee Bucks. The process may prove lengthy, and Anthony will likely only be considered successful if he brings a championship back to Madison Square Garden.

But he also has an opportunity – one that perhaps no Knick before him ever has had – to be the hero for a basketball team and become an icon within the Hispanic community.

Achieving success on either of those fronts will take time. But observing how he takes on those roles will make Anthony interesting to follow, even after the hype dies down.

Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter: @BurnsOrtiz

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