Byline: Aaron J. Lopez, Rocky Mountain News
When the alarm clock went off Monday, Carmelo Anthony had an extra bounce in his step as he climbed out of bed.
His game-day routine was back to normal.
Wake-up at 8:45, a quick egg-and-bacon sandwich for breakfast and out the door for the Nuggets' morning shootaround.
Greeted by clear, blue skies in the wake of Denver's latest round of snow, Anthony enjoyed the short commute to the Pepsi Center as his older brother Justice shuttled him to work.
Fresh air, fresh start.
'This is like the beginning of the season,' he said.
As Anthony returned from a 15-game suspension, he tried to maintain the routine that has served him well in his three-plus NBA seasons.
'I'm calm,' he said, standing amid a pool of microphones, cameras and recorders more commonly seen during the playoffs. 'I'm going to try to be calm, but I know it's going to be hard.'
If Anthony was showing any signs of anxiety, those closest to him didn't notice.
His fiancee, La La Vazquez, shared his excitement about rejoining the Nuggets after a 36-day layoff. Nearly eight months pregnant, Vazquez got stuck making breakfast but said it was an otherwise tranquil day in the Anthony household.
'Just happy to be back,' she said as she sat courtside at the Nuggets' game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Before the game, Justice Anthony and Vazquez's mother, Carmen, were able to spend time with their high-profile relatives, but the house guests did not interrupt Anthony's routine.
He was able to take a 2-hour nap between shootaround and tipoff. Sporting a dark-brown leather coat and matching hat, Anthony was a picture of cool when he walked into the Pepsi Center at 5:30 p.m.
It was the first time he was able to join his teammates in the 2 hours leading to a game since Dec. 16 when he took the floor against the Knicks.
Anthony was one of 10 players ejected in that game, and he was subsequently suspended for throwing a punch that caught New York rookie Mardy Collins in the jaw.
'I wish I could take that punch back,' Anthony said. 'But things happen.'
During his exile, Anthony lost 4 pounds but gained an immeasurable appreciation for the game he has been playing since he was about 8.
He said as much during a morning meeting with coach George Karl.
'I give him credit. I think he's respectful,' Karl said. 'I asked him what he learned, and he came out very clearly that he missed the game and how much he wants to fight back and be responsible and respectful to the game.'
Back in his element, Anthony was not immune from razzing.
Equipment manager Sparky Gonzales quipped Anthony's shoes had cobwebs and teammate Eduardo Najera turned off the music Anthony had selected just a few minutes earlier.
Unfazed, Anthony walked upstairs to the Nuggets' practice court for some more pregame work and later attended a chapel session. It wasn't until he saw his jersey hanging in his locker that the magnitude of the moment hit him.
'I was like a kid,' Anthony said. 'I stared at it. I put it over my head. I smelled it. I missed it. I don't ever want to leave this uniform here until I'm ready to retire.'
Nuggets fans certainly don't want to say goodbye anytime soon. The welcomed Anthony back unconditionally, cheering him during warm-ups and honoring him with homemade signs.
One sign near the tunnel to the locker room read: 'All Hail King Melo.'
When the lights went out for pregame introductions, Anthony was the last Nuggets starter introduced, with public address announcer Kyle Speller pronouncing: 'He's ba-aack!'
The sellout crowd, already on its feet, went wild as Anthony bounded onto the court with the enthusiasm of a 22-year-old with fresh legs. He received a big hug from teammate and close friend J.R. Smith, then took a moment to thank everyone who supported him through his suspension.
Tipoff couldn't come soon enough.
'The national anthem, it took about 5 minutes, but it felt like an hour,' Anthony said. 'I really wanted it to hurry up and get the first couple minutes going. My chest was burning. I felt like I was going to pass out, but I fought through it.'
Anthony was understandably rusty, missing all eight jump shots he took, but he still managed to score 28 points on 8-of-25 shooting. He added five rebounds and six assists in a 115-98 rout of the Grizzlies.
After leaving the floor to more adulation, Anthony found Vazquez and gave her a hug before heading to the locker room.
It was a day of celebration, a day of relief, a day of redemption.
For the first time in 2007, Anthony felt a sense of normalcy. He no longer was an outsider in his own locker room.
'I've never been away from the game of basketball this long except for in the summertime,' he said. 'This was different because I was punished. Now it's like I'm back off punishment and I'm good to go now.'
RATE OF RETURN
Return of Jordan
* After riding buses and whiffing at fastballs in the minor leagues, Michael Jordan gives up on his baseball dream and returns to the Chicago Bulls on March 19, 1995. He scores 19 points on 7-of-28 shooting in an overtime loss against the Indiana Pacers.
Return of Saturn
* After achieving multiplatinum status with Tragic Kingdom, frontwoman Gwen Stefani and No Doubt release Return of Saturn in April 2000. The album is received well critically but does not achieve the commercial success of Kingdom nearly five years earlier.
Return of the Jedi
* After rescuing Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, young Luke Skywalker tries to lure his father, Darth Vader, from the Dark Side. Luke prevails in a light-saber duel with Vader on the Death Star and fulfills his destiny to return balance to the Force.
Carmelo Anthony salutes the crowd after leaving Monday's win against Memphis with 28 points and six assists in his first game back from a 15-game suspension. EVAN SEMON / ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS
CAPTION: Gwen Stefani
CAPTION: Michael Jordan