Wednesday April 7th, 2010

Funny how the older Marcus Camby gets, the more forgiving (and populated) his fan base gets. These were the complaints he heard in his 20s: too fragile, no low-post moves, doesn't score enough.

Now he hears little of that. At 36, he earns admiration for all of the good things he is still able to do. He plugs up the lane and positions his teammates like a 6-foot-11 defensive coordinator under the basket. He drains his favored key-top jumper like he's working the pop-a-shot at the local tavern. As for reliability -- the biggest irony of all -- he has come to the Trail Blazers' rescue as the most durable center on their roster of doomed big men.

Older stars often see critics turn into admirers. The young Nolan Ryan was criticized for walking too many batters, but in his 40s he was lauded for continuing to strike them out. "I definitely have sensed that over the latter half of my career," said Camby, who was voted Defensive Player of the Year in 2006-07 for averaging 3.3 blocks and 11.7 rebounds with Denver. "People get so consumed with scoring and stuff like that, but I always felt it takes more than scoring to make you successful in the league. My last few teams have really appreciated what I brought, being a veteran who provided leadership and focusing on the defensive end, which lot of people don't do."

Camby ranks No. 4 in the NBA with 11.6 rebounds and No. 5 with 1.96 blocks this season. Since arriving via a February trade from the Clippers, he has led Portland's rebounders in 12 of 17 games and the Blazers have won 13 of their last 16. He has fit in quickly because he has learned to see where the ball is going before it arrives.

"When the opposing coaches are calling out plays, I'm the first one to relay it back to our bench," Camby said. "I'm telling those guys what's going to happen before they even know. When I think a screen is going to come, I let them know so they won't get blindsided by it, or if I see that a back-door [cut to the basket] is going to happen, I put myself in position in case they do get beat. The running joke from coach Nate [McMillan] and GM Kevin [Pritchard] when I got here was that I knew Portland's plays better than the Portland players knew their plays."

Yet he was ambivalent about leaving Los Angeles. Camby is one of those shot-blockers who doesn't like to experience rejection. He would rather stay in one place than move from town to town, even though the Clippers had underperformed since his 2008 arrival from Denver. "I was a little upset," he said of the trade that earned the Clippers $3 million cash in addition to point guard Steve Blake and forward Travis Outlaw. "Obviously, the Clippers didn't want me."

Now that he's been in Portland for almost two months, he said he doesn't want to leave. He likes the selflessness and promise of the young Blazers, and the idea of returning next year to take pressure off Greg Oden, who could find his way by coming off the bench in support of Camby.

But Camby will have other options as a free agent this summer. His last three employers -- the Knicks (1998-2002), Nuggets and Clippers -- have each let him know they'd like him to return, and an even more intriguing offer may come from Oklahoma City, where the league's youngest roster could use a wise defensive quarterback to protect the rim and create fast breaks for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. "I know [coach] Scott Brooks really well," Camby said. "He was an assistant in Denver. There are a lot of different scenarios" -- he would mention Houston as another possibility -- "but my main focus is trying to come back here to Portland."

One thing he won't do is sign with a contender simply because he thinks it's on the verge of winning him a championship. "A ring wouldn't define me or anything like that," he said. "I want to win one, but I'd like to do it where I'm still contributing to the team. I wouldn't like to be the 11th or 12th man on the team, where I'm on the active list but I didn't have input on getting that ring -- that's not a big priority for me."

Camby's career was formed by his experiences in New York, where he arrived following his second year with Toronto in a trade for Charles Oakley that was denounced by Knicks fans as well as coach Jeff Van Gundy. They would come around to appreciate Camby after he helped the Knicks reach the 1999 NBA Finals. "I learned so much from my New York days, and I give a lot of credit to Jeff Van Gundy and being surrounded by guys like Pat Ewing and Larry Johnson who taught me about getting myself in the right position defensively and rebounding the basketball," said Camby. "It was tough at first to go to New York, and that setback opened my eyes to how much extra I need to put in my game."

He learned to lengthen his career by extending his arms and legs in the most uncomfortable ways. Camby has missed 39 games over the last four years, which amounts to an improvement in durability that he attributes to his stretching regimen before games while his teammates are jogging the layup line.

He has also extended that reach beyond the court. His Cambyland Foundation continues to oversee a Denver program called "Marcus' Mentors," providing college scholarships to high schoolers who counsel students in elementary school. It promotes education while also teaching teenagers to take responsibility for younger children in their communities. Camby hopes to become a grade-school principal after he retires from the NBA, perhaps after three more years.

But first, he looks forward to helping the Blazers to a first-round upset, though it would make the job easier to escape their current No. 8 seed and avoid a matchup with the defending champion Lakers.

"I know L.A. [LaMarcus Aldridge] and Brandon [Roy] are our franchise guys, and I've just been trying to add to what was established here," said Camby. "When I first got here and I had a meeting with Nate and Kevin, they told me to be me and play like I've always been playing."

It took 14 years, but at long last Camby's glass is more than half full.

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