As his Trail Blazers continue to perform, stubbornly and consistently, so performs Marcus Camby. They keep winning as he keeps winning and you wonder altogether, how do they do it?
Through Monday, they're 6-2 -- second-best in the West -- despite the absences of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, who were supposed to be Portland's stars. But the Blazers keep winning all the same. Camby, who will turn 38 in two months, was leading them in rebounds (9.0) and blocks (1.4) while playing no more than 24.0 minutes per game. This is the 16th NBA season of a career that goes on and on and on.
"I feel great," he said.
No chronic pain? No long-term worries?
"Nothing at all," he said.
Think about the baseball stars of Camby's age who become designated hitters because they could no longer run the grassy outfield a few times each game. Now think of Camby, at 6-foot-11 and 220 pounds, running up and down the hard court for practice after practice, game after game. This week he faces back-to-back home games against the Clippers' 6-11, 265-pound DeAndre Jordan (who is 23) and the Magic's equally gigantic Dwight Howard (who 26).
Adding to the strain has been the tightened schedule enforced by the lockout. One day after he's finished with Jordan and Howard, Camby's Blazers will fly to San Antonio for six road games in nine nights with flights in between.
"This lockout was a blessing for older players," he said. "It gave us more time to recuperate from last season, to get in better shape."
At least, he thought that was the case. Now that he's working through the schedule, he isn't so sure. "I don't remember it being this hectic in '98," said Camby, who was in his third NBA season when the 1998-99 lockout limited that season to 50 games. "I think it's worse than back then."
Back then, Camby was an athletic 24-year-old who had been traded by Toronto to the Knicks for big man Charles Oakley, and many in New York were skeptical of that deal because Oakley was a 35-year-old who knew how to win. But Camby's spry athleticism helped vault the eighth-seeded Knicks to the NBA Finals.
Now Camby looks back and realizes he has become Oakley. He isn't the physically intimidating, grab-and-hold enforcer that Oakley was. But Camby has earned the understanding of the game he lacked as a 24-year-old, and that education makes all the difference. "I feel like I'm a whole better player," he said.
He plays with less energy and more efficiency. This season Camby was ranking No. 5 in the league in rebounds per minute, and among centers he was No. 2 in assists per minute. Through eight games Camby averaged as many assists overall (2.9 per game) as points, which is an achievement that most young players never would appreciate.
Not so long ago, he admitted, he would have complained about averaging his current 3.1 shots per game. "A whole lot," he said with a laugh. "Especially when you're young, and you come in with all the hoopla as the college player of the year, and you know you want to focus on scoring and starring and things that really don't matter as you get older. Now I'm really all about winning. I want to win a championship. I never won one; I got to the Finals that one time. My stats aren't there, but I'm a starter, and I know I have a voice on team."
Teammate LaMarcus Aldridge (22.6 points, 7.8 rebounds) is "the best power forward in the game," according to Camby. "He's always picking my brain about rebounding, asking how come I'm a high-volume rebounder. He's always asking how I read the trajectory of the ball or position myself, or on the defensive end how I anticipate blocking a shot -- and he's been picking it up. Me and [coach] Nate [McMillan] are talking to him about how he needs to be a double-double guy."
The Blazers' trade last season for All-Star Gerald Wallace has enabled them to remain in contention while they develop Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews and work in newcomers Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton. Their resilience has been drawn from McMillan, who has refused to lower expectations despite the recent retirement of Roy or the indefinite absence of Oden.
And as he watches McMillan, Camby thinks about becoming a coach someday.
"I would definitely have no shootarounds," he said with a hoarse laugh.
He enjoys the discussions of strategy brought to him by the Blazers coaches, and he maintains a relationship with John Calipari, his college coach at Massachusetts. "I talk to Cal every day," Camby said. "He's like my father, even though it's hard for me. Kentucky was the team that beat us in the Final Four. I still can't believe he went to Kentucky."
This is how far the circle has turned. Calipari is now coaching 6-10, 220-pound freshman Anthony Davis, a high-lottery pick who is viewed as the next Camby. "I can see the same build, and how he blocks shots," Camby said. "He definitely brings back a lot of memories of me running and jumping all over the court."
Camby hopes to play for another year or two (his contract expires after this season), which means he and his next-generation self may find themselves defending one another next season. In the meantime, he'll continue to study video of current opponents, and spend time with Kurt Thomas, the Blazers' backup big man who was Camby's former teammate with the Knicks. "We hang out a lot," said Camby. "We sit together on the plane, we talk about a lot of the old stories."
Thomas, at 39, is the oldest player in the NBA.
"I'm glad he's on my team," said Camby.
You're glad because you're not the oldest on your team, I said. Camby's answer was another laugh, another loud one that made him sound young.