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Carmelo Anthony in Santa Marta, a favela in Rio de Janeiro.

Carmelo Anthony is a New Yorker, now playing for my hometown team, the New York Knicks. I’m proud that he is a Knick, but as I grew up a St Johns Redmen fan, and he led Big East rival Syracuse to an NCAA championship, I wasn’t an immediate fan.

When Anthony joined the Knicks after essentially demanding a trade from Denver, I looked on the deal with tremendous skepticism. The Knicks have floundered in the Carmelo years, although that floundering began way before he arrived. Skepticism has turned to apathy, and my expectations for my Knicks have dropped.

But my respect for Anthony has continued to climb. He has been a proud Olympian, representing the US men’s basketball team a record four times, helping the US to three gold medal championships in the past three Olympics. More importantly, Melo has been willing to speak out on social matters important to him, an uncommon trait for well-paid athletes.

During the Rio Olympics, a day after Ryan Lochte told the world that he and fellow swimming teammates were held up at gunpoint at a Rio gas station, Carmelo Anthony was visiting one of the more notorious favela in Rio, Santa Marta. Favela are where the poorest of the inner city in Brazil live, their lives influenced by the vice of the drug trafficking economy.

Anthony, with a few friends, went with cameras, and without security to hang out with citizens of Santa Marta. It was a couple of days after the USA defeated France by a unexpectedly slim margin, and a day before their opening match in the knockout round with Argentina. The US team’s mission was far from complete, but my guess is that Anthony worked this out with the coach so that he could fulfill a dream to visit a favela. He admitted that he had seen the film, City of God, dozens of times, and as a child of the inner city growing up in Baltimore, he wanted to see what life was like in Santa Marta.

“This was on my bucket list, to be honest with you; specifically to go to the favelas — forever,” said Anthony, staying on a nearby cruise ship with his teammates. “I just always wanted to see and experience that. Growing up in Baltimore, and knowing what that was like, in my own favela, you know what I mean? So I wanted to go and experience that for myself. I wanted to touch that.”

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One of the more powerful images in social media during the Rio Olympics was Carmelo Anthony sitting in a plastic chair in the middle of the favela, his blaring red clothes and cap in contrast to the multi-colored canvas of the favela apartments behind him. What he wrote below his Instagram picture was a statement of empathy and ease, one that I’m sure enamored him with many in Brazil.

“I discovered that what most people call creepy, scary, and spooky, I call comfy, cozy, and home.”

This image and statement was in direct contrast to the image painted by Lochte, who reinforced the perception that Rio was a scary, violent place. You can see how people quickly picked up on the contrast between Lochte and Anthony here.

Anthony walked around, played basketball with the neighborhood kids, and brought smiles to people in the favela. I think that when stars combine acts of unexpected kindness with a consistent articulation of their values, you get a more authentic view of them as people. So now I’m glad and proud that Melo is a member of the New York Knicks. There’s more to life than winning championships. (But I wouldn’t mind if he does.)

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Brazil’s Rafaela Silva celebrates after winning the gold medal of the women’s 57-kg judo competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Policeman and firemen in Rio de Janeiro, who were so incensed they were not getting paid, decided to greet visitors landing at the airport with a sign – “Welcome to Hell – Police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will be safe.”

Despite the budget troubles, officials arranged to ensure a security force of 85,000, of which 23,000 are actually soldiers.

And yet, the anecdotes of crime are painfully ironic.

  • Sailing gold medalist, Fernando Echavarri and Liesl Tesch, an Austrailian paralympic sailor, were both mugged at gunpoint.
  • The minister of education of Portugal was robbed on his way back to his hotel while strolling near the rowing venue.
  • A New Zealand sports official was nearly shot by a stray bullet as he was standing in the equestrian media area.
  • The Olympics own security chief was attacked by four men with knives. The security chief, fortunately, had security, who had a gun, and was able to shoot one and chase the others away.

And while crime in Rio has gotten heightened attention due to the Olympics, Carioca have lived in an environment of insecurity and unease their entire lives, particularly those who live in the slums known as favela.

One person who has emerged from the drug and crime-infested favela called Cidade de Deus, made famous in the film, City of God, has put a dent in the perception that all is doom and gloom in the deeper recesses of the mega-city Rio de Janeiro.

On Monday, August 8, Rafaela Silva won gold in the women’s 57kg judo finals. Defeating Mongolia’s Dorjsurenglin Sumiya convincingly, Silva emerged as Brazil’s newest hero.

Silva grew up only 10 kilometers away from the artificially up-scale Olympic center, in the City of God favela, where as a dark-skinned woman, she faced racial abuse, got expelled from school, and grew up poor and hungry.

Rafael Silva

In an attempt to help Silva avoid bullies and drug gangs, while steering her down a better path, she was enrolled in free judo classes. For whatever reason, judo was the way out of the favela.

At the 2012 London Games, Silva was expected to do well, but was disqualified for an illegal move during a preliminary match, and never made it to the medal round. That made it easy for the racists to flame her with insults, calling her a monkey who needed to be in a cage.

Silva’s achievement is more than just an athletic achievement – she had to overcome far more than the average Olympian. As Juliana Barbassa, author of “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God” told the BBC, “It’s a situation of literal marginalization- they were pushed to the margins. To get out if it as Silva has done is really challenging. She literally had to fight her way out of the environment.”

When Silva won the gold medal, her reaction was complex: of joy, of vindication, of shame.

The monkey that they said had to be locked up in a cage in London is today an Olympic champion at home. Today, I’m not an embarrassment for my family.

She is not an embarrassment. She is a hero to all Brazilians, a hero to the downtrodden and the hard working. A hero from the City of God.