Two minutes before the opening tip of the megahyped summit
between Massachusetts's Marcus Camby and Wake Forest's Tim
Duncan last week in Amherst, Mass., Minutemen coach John
Calipari walked up to Duncan and said, "Why don't you and Marcus
just play one-on-one and we'll watch, and then afterward we'll
all go grab a pizza?"
Calipari couldn't resist the sarcasm after reading in the local
newspapers all week that this meeting of the two premier college
centers would be comparable to the legendary wars between Lew
Alcindor and Elvin Hayes, Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing, the
colonials and the redcoats. To be sure, Duncan came into the
game as everybody's All-America (SI, Nov. 27), and Camby was
rated as the next best big man in the land, a status he
solidified with a brilliant both-ends-of-the-floor performance
in UMass's 92-82 defeat of then No. 1-ranked Kentucky on Nov.
28. But the hype started getting to Calipari as the game
approached. By the time he had watched a dozen plugs on ESPN the
night before the big matchup, he had even been moved to phone at
11 p.m. to check on Camby's emotional state, only to discover
that it was too late--Camby had already bought into the frenzy.
When the phone rang, Camby was staring at an index card tacked
to the wall over the extra-large bed in his dorm room. Scribbled
in black Magic Marker were the words DECEMBER 6. TIM DUNCAN. #1
PLAYER IN COLLEGE. "You couldn't go anywhere in my room without
seeing it," said Camby after the game. "I put it up there as
added motivation because he's got it and I want it."
Though Massachusetts's 60-46 defeat of Wake Forest didn't
absolutely settle who has the best-of-the-big-men title, it
constituted a victory for Camby, since nobody believed when the
1995-96 season began that the title was even up for grabs.
Camby, a junior, scored 17 points and held Duncan, also a
junior, to a measly nine, and all of a sudden both surnames were
being mentioned in the same bated breath of the 15 NBA scouts
who were on hand for the center summit. "This summer I think
most teams would have had Camby slotted to go anywhere from 6 to
10 in the draft," said Vancouver Grizzly director of scouting
Larry Riley. "But after just a few games this season his name is
on the lips of every NBA scout. If both guys declare for the
draft this spring, I believe Camby has put himself in a position
to challenge Duncan for the Number 1 pick."
Said Calipari, "I think all the people around the country
watching Marcus so far this season are scratching their heads
and saying to themselves, Who the heck is this guy?"
Well, who is Marcus Camby? Camby will tell you that labeling him
a basketball player doesn't do him justice. He'll insist that
the real Camby showed up about eight hours before the Wake
Forest game at nearby South Hadley Middle School, where he
somehow folded his wispy 6'11" frame into a chair built to fit a
fifth-grader. As part of his classwork as an education major he
tutors special-education students twice a week. So there he
was, before the biggest game of his young season, helping a
group of kids with their long division and rewarding those who
came up with the solutions to particularly difficult problems by
giving them his autograph, which sure beats the daylights out of
a gold star. "That's the real me," said Camby. "I don't need the
spotlight to be happy. Last week I met a kid whose father had
died not too long ago. The kid was depressed and wasn't working
very hard, but I helped to get him studying again for the first
time in weeks." Camby's dream is to become a school principal
when his basketball career is over.
Until this season Camby wanted to be anything but the principal
on the basketball court. During his first two years at UMass,
Camby was overshadowed by fierce forward Lou Roe, who now plays
for the Detroit Pistons. He spoke rarely and gained a reputation
for squeezable softness. A slightly sprained pinkie meant two
days of missed practice. Calipari tried everything short of a
hotfoot to get a rise out of Camby. "That first year the
conditioning was pure misery for him," Calipari says. "He'd be
running sprints with the other guys, and all of a sudden he'd
drop to the floor like he'd been shot in the back. He wasn't
used to dealing with adversity, because everything had always
come so easy to him. I had to literally drag him, push him, prod
him along while he kept telling me, 'Coach, I can't do it.'"
Camby's game matured through two seasons, but his attitude
wavered until the Minutemen were eliminated in last season's
East Regional final by Oklahoma State. Bryant (Big Country)
Reeves, the Cowboys' 290-pound center, had manhandled Camby in
the post, limiting him to just 2-of-10 shooting from the floor
before Camby fouled out midway through the second half. Camby
then considered fleeing to the NBA rather than face another year
in Calipari's boot camp. "If you're not going to work hard, go
steal their money," Calipari told Camby after the season. "Take
it and go."
Camby decided to reenlist. He worked out nearly every day this
summer at the YMCA in his hometown, Hartford, with his close
friend, Missouri guard Kendrick Moore. He concentrated on ball
handling and developing a turnaround jumper, and his confidence
increased exponentially. After one afternoon session, flush with
his swelling self-esteem, he visited a local tattoo parlor and
acquired a red-and-green etching on his left shoulder, a
basketball swishing through a net with an inscription underneath
that reads, MR. CAMBY.
"When I got to school this fall, I knew that everybody would be
looking to me to be The Man," Camby says. "I'm really a
laid-back guy, so to be a leader, I knew I'd be forcing it a
little. I asked myself all kinds of things: Am I ready to fill
Lou Roe's shoes? Am I ready to meet all the high expectations? A
lot of questions had to be answered."
It didn't take long. In that season-opening defeat of Kentucky,
which was the third time in three years that the Minutemen had
upset the nation's top-ranked team in November, Camby had 32
points, nine rebounds, five blocks and a newfound swagger. As
Massachusetts huddled in the final minute with the game in hand,
Camby looked Calipari in the eye and said, "Coach, don't act
like this wasn't supposed to happen."
"That was the kind of controlled arrogance I've been looking for
from Marcus all along," says Calipari. "Everybody in the gym
knew he was getting the ball at crunch time, and he scored
anyway. That's big."
As Maryland coach Gary Williams prepared his team to face Camby
on Dec. 2, he sat in his office and reviewed a play from UMass's
game with Kentucky, in which Camby grabbed a defensive rebound,
dribbled out of traffic and up the court before dishing a
textbook bounce pass for a layup. "You couldn't make a better
play," said Williams. "Every dribble was perfect. If you didn't
know he was 6'11", you'd swear he was a guard. There aren't many
people that big who can do that." Camby scored the clinching
basket against the Terps as the Minutemen prevailed 50-47.
The next day, after Camby scored 30 points in an 80-58 blowout
of Florida, hitting turnaround jumpers from 15 feet, running the
court like a guard, throwing passes to slashing teammates and
swatting away two shots, Gator center Dametri Hill admitted what
all of Camby's opponents have been thinking: "He's so good that
I caught myself watching him a little bit out there, and he made
me pay for it."
In front of that platoon of NBA scouts in attendance to watch
the nation's best centers, Camby stumbled a bit in the early
going. He forced several shots in the first half against the
Wake Forest zone and told Calipari at halftime that it was his
fault that UMass led by only 30-27--the kind of admission that
would have been rare in seasons past. Camby showed more patience
in the second half, concentrating on defense, where he played
Duncan man-to-man most of the night. Duncan had entered the game
shooting a robust 76.7% from the floor, but he made only 4 of 18
shots against UMass. Camby shot just 6 for 19 from the field
himself but had nine rebounds and three blocks and generally
dazzled the assembled judges. "You can tell Camby has worked
very hard on his low-post moves," said Jon Jennings, the Boston
Celtics' director of basketball development. "He's always been
good at creating off the dribble, but now he shoots off his
right and left shoulders. On defense, when he blocks the ball,
it comes back to him. Bill Russell did that."
As the final buzzer sounded, Duncan sought out Camby, gave him a
brief hug and whispered in Camby's ear, "I'll see you at the
draft." Duncan may or may not have been kidding. UMass and Wake
have a rematch next season on the Deacons' floor, but neither
center has declared whether he will be on hand for it. What does
seem likely is that once Duncan and Camby do graduate to the
NBA, it will spell the end of their head-to-head confrontations.
Despite his height Camby weighs only 220 pounds, giving him the
body of an NBA small forward with the potential to grow into a
power forward. Duncan, a 6'10", 240-pound shot blocker with more
limited range on offense, is projected as a center, one of the
few prospects at that position in college basketball. "Marcus
has a more well-rounded game, with a combination of height and
quickness that will provide plenty of matchup problems in the
NBA," says Chuck Douglas, an assistant general manager with the
Washington Bullets. "But Duncan may have the edge when it comes
to which guy gets drafted higher, because he's only 19, and
there's a real scarcity of true centers in the NBA."
Will last week's meeting prove pivotal in their battle to become
the NBA's No. 1 pick? "It's a rare treat for a scout to see two
players of that quality go toe-to-toe, but you don't judge any
player on one game," says the Grizzlies' Riley. "I think that
each met his match. It wasn't quite like watching Ewing and
Sampson out there, but I still like both of them."
Indeed, in the end it was not Alcindor-Hayes or Sampson-Ewing
but more Abbott-Costello, at least as far as the shooting
percentages were concerned. "It's rare that a game like this
lives up to the extraordinary buildup," said Wake Forest coach
Dave Odom, who sat on the Virginia bench as an assistant coach
when Ewing dueled Sampson 13 years ago this week. "The way to
have made this a great game would've been to have invited Camby
to practice with us this week so that these two tall guys
could've gotten accustomed to each other. It looked like it was
startling for each of them to have someone staring him straight
in the eye whenever he turned around, but that made for a
spectacular defensive show."
"Marcus played great defense, bothering me to a point where I
let myself get frustrated and disappointed out there," Duncan
said after the game. "He beat the crap out of me, but I learned
a lot, and I think it was fun for both of us."
After Duncan was long gone from the arena, Camby headed back to
his dorm room, where he had tacked up another index card for
last Saturday's game against intrastate rival Boston College, in
which he would score 19 points and make a pivotal block in the
Minutemen's 65-57 win. As he strolled out of the arena, he
encountered six friends from Hartford. Camby crowed about his
victory over Duncan, but his confidence was sincere. "Duncan's
soft," said Camby, his warm breath rising into the freezing
Amherst night. "He's scared of me. After the game was over, he
said, 'You got me.'"
A moment later a UMass fan yelled from a passing car, "You
schooled him, Marcus."
That's Mr. Camby to you.