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NBA Star’s Low Key Activism Is a Sign of the Times

Lebron James: 'We all have to do better' 3:38

Carmelo Anthony isn't the showiest of NBA stars, which turns out to suit his modern brand of social activism perfectly.

The New York Knicks small forward gets a lot of coverage for the ups -- and mostly downs -- of his storied franchise, but he has also been increasingly active and outspoken on matters of race, gun violence and social justice.

His engagement was on full display when he stood on stage alongside fellow NBA icons Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James at the opening of the ESPY Awards on Wednesday night and urged athletes to use their celebrity to speak out against injustice and inequality.

"The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new and the racial divide definitely is not new, but the urgency for change is definitely at an all-time high," said Anthony.

Related: Carmelo Anthony calls on athletes to take political action, stop worrying about endorsements

The remarks came on the heels of a column Anthony penned for The Guardian, following the controversial police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, in which Anthony linked the current conversations about race in the sports world to the black athletes who became vocal proponents of civil rights in the 1960s.

"We all know our history, especially when it comes to sports and activism. We know Ali. We know Jim Brown. We know Kareem Abdul-Jabbar," he wrote. "But over the years as athletes started making more money, they started thinking: I don’t want people to talk bad about me for talking politics. But this is not really about politics. There’s nothing political about taking a stand and speaking on what you believe in. The teams and the support systems around athletes urge them to stay away from politics, stay away from religion, stay away from this, stay away from that. But at certain times you’ve just got to put all of that aside and be a human being. That time is now."

And albeit in a more low-key style than some of his predecessors -- like the former Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who paid a real devastating price for their infamous black power demonstration at the 1968 games -- Anthony has walked the walk on the issues he cares about.

In 2012, while several prominent NBA stars (including the entire Miami Heat squad) expressed empathy for Trayvon Martin following the unarmed African-American's controversial death, Anthony actually invited the late teen's family to meet with him and his teammates privately in the Knicks locker room at Madison Square Garden.

“It was a blessing and honor," Anthony said at the time. “We all know the tragedy that happened. Bringing them to the locker room in the back, meeting all the players, meeting the coaches. We had no media there. It was something I wanted to do. I lost my sister last year so I know how it feels."

Last spring, Anthony marched in his old stomping grounds of Baltimore (he was born in Brooklyn, but raised in the Maryland city) alongside Black Lives Matter protesters in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody.

"This is not just my community — it's everybody's community. It's America's community," Anthony said at the time. "So for me to come back here and be part of a community where I grew up at, and really get a chance to kind of talk to the people and get a feel for what's going on ... I had to come. It was only right for me to come down here."

That December, Anthony was one of several NBA stars who appeared in a Spike Lee-directed PSA for Everytown for Gun Safety speaking out against gun violence. That same month he spoke candidly on the subject following the non-fatal shooting of his teammate Cleanthony Early during a robbery.

“We all are targets, at the end of the day,” Anthony told local reporters.

And Anthony is also known as one of the most financially generous pro athletes. Recently his charity organization has been funding the construction of basketball courts for impoverished children in his father's home country of Puerto Rico, which is still reeling from a major economic crisis.

The 32-year-old Knicks star may have inherited the activism bug from his father, a former member of the legendary Young Lords, an NYC-based, radical Puerto Rican nationalist group that took matters into its own hands in the 1960s and '70s to tackle issues like garbage disposal, medical assistance for the poor and children's hunger in their community.

The organization, whose origins have been traced back to a Chicago street gang, folded under pressure from the FBI, and Anthony's father passed away from liver failure when he was just 2 years old. But Anthony has tried to carry on his legacy and has expressed interest in releasing a documentary about the Young Lords' exploits.

Related: Carmelo Anthony Joins Freddie Gray March in Baltimore

Meanwhile, although this past NBA season ended in disappointment for Anthony (the Knicks missed the playoffs for the third straight season) he has signaled that he will be using a potentially bigger platform -- this summer's Olympics in Rio -- to advance his sociopolitical agenda.

"In three weeks I’ll travel to Rio with the United States’ Olympic team to perform on a global stage," he wrote in The Guardian. "I haven’t spoken with my teammates yet about the opportunity before us and how we can take advantage of it, because at the end of the day, I want it to be genuine. If you don’t feel like you want to make a statement or make a stand, then don’t do it. You shouldn’t feel forced to do it. You have to want to do that."

"For me, I do feel like this is a platform where we should—we as athletes, we as Americans—use it for something," he added. "Whether we make a statement out there or send a message, we can show the world that we’re united. Whatever way we want to do it, this is a chance to do something meaningful before an audience of billions. I don’t know what that something is yet, but we still have time to figure it out."