Can-do Camby Undersized and outmanned, the Knicks look to Marcus Camby to run circles around the Spurs, as he did against the Pacers

June 20, 1999

New York was trying to climb inside his car window, reaching out
to him, chanting his name. As he carefully maneuvered his black
Jeep through the crowd of Knicks fans who clamored for him
outside Madison Square Garden last Friday night, Marcus Camby
smiled broadly, taking in the scene with those wide, round eyes
that make him seem to have an innocence that, in truth, he lost
long ago. If Camby hadn't fully realized his status as the
city's latest sports savior, he did at that moment, as he
emerged after another one of his heroic, all-over-the-court
performances helped the Knicks eliminate the Indiana Pacers in
Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals and continue their
stunning dash toward an NBA championship showdown with the San
Antonio Spurs. He felt the Jeep rocking as fans pounded it with
their open palms, as though they were slapping him on the back.
If they could not wrap their arms around Camby, they would at
least embrace the hard shell that protected him.

It was as close as any of his new admirers are likely to get to
the 6'11", 225-pound Camby, the long-limbed Knicks godsend who
spent most of the conference finals leaping over tall Pacers in
a single bound. He has been the object of this sort of adoration
before, and he remembers how it led him down the wrong path,
transforming him from a college hero into a campus pariah. That
was not the only time Camby has seen good times turn bad. He
went from being picked second in the 1996 NBA draft, by the
Toronto Raptors, to being branded by the media as injury-prone,
lazy and soft--Cotton Camby, he was called--by the time Toronto
dealt him to New York for forward Charles Oakley last June. Then
he felt the excitement of being traded from the woeful Raptors
to the contending Knicks turn into the disappointment of being
buried on the bench for much of the season.

It is no wonder, then, that Camby is determined now to keep
success at arm's length, to enjoy it without being seduced by
it. "One of the things I've learned from what I've gone through
in the past is how fast your life can change," he says. But now
he is learning how fast it can change for the better. Here's an
exercise: Try to think of a player whose stature has grown more
dramatically in the space of a single postseason than Camby's.
He has gone from being the Knicks' eighth man when the playoffs
began to being perhaps their most valuable player. It is not a
stretch to say that Camby saved New York's season after Patrick
Ewing was sidelined with a partially torn left Achilles tendon
following Game 2. With his playing time spiking from 20.7
minutes early in the postseason to 35.0 against Indiana, Camby
averaged 18.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.25 blocked shots and 2.5
steals in the four remaining games of the series, which ended
with the Knicks' 90-82 victory on Friday. His mere presence on
the court altered the course of games; in the clincher, for
example, he came off the bench and took only six shots, yet he
finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and three blocks, and it
was no coincidence that New York outscored the Pacers 86-60 when
Camby was on the floor. "If Marcus hadn't been sensational, we
could not have won this series," said New York point guard Chris
Childs after Game 6. "It's as simple as that."

Camby will have to be no less sensational if undermanned,
undersized New York--which may be without forward Larry Johnson,
whose sprained right knee ligament left his playing status in
doubt for at least Game 1 of the Finals on Wednesday night--is
to have any chance against the Spurs. Without Ewing, New York
will throw a pair of dogged defenders, 6'11" Chris Dudley and
6'9" Kurt Thomas, at San Antonio's 7-footers, Tim Duncan and
David Robinson, but Camby is the only Knick who has the size and
athleticism to cause as many problems for the Spurs' twin giants
as they cause for New York. "Camby is the key," Pacers forward
Antonio Davis says. "If the Spurs don't do a better job of
slowing that young man down, they're going to have the same
problems with the Knicks that we did. But if the Spurs keep him
from getting out and filling the lane on the break and getting
those putbacks and tap dunks, then the Knicks are going to be in
trouble."

Should New York piece together another upset, Camby will almost
certainly be in the middle of it. In which case all the
difficulties of his past--including the cash and gifts he took
from agents while at UMass, a violation of NCAA rules--will
recede even further into the background. Camby has done his best
to atone for his mistakes, reimbursing the university for the
$151,000 in NCAA tournament money it had to return, but the
scars remain. "I let people get close to me who I shouldn't
have," he says. "That was one of the mistakes I made. But I
won't let it happen again. Now I'm skeptical of everybody.
Unless you're family or a family friend, I'm not letting you
into the inner circle."

That's why Camby isn't out to soak up the love that the big city
has to offer these days. After most games at the Garden he heads
straight to his home in Purchase, N.Y., a leafy suburb 45
minutes outside Manhattan. Pictures of his idol, Muhammad Ali,
hang in his white stone mansion, and his mother and two younger
sisters visit regularly from Hartford to cook him his favorite
dishes, chicken and pasta. Trouble, he reasons, isn't likely to
follow him up the Hutchinson River Parkway.

There were many nights during the regular season when he made
that drive in frustration, angry and confused by coach Jeff Van
Gundy's refusal to give him significant playing time. He
appeared for only 19 seconds in the season opener against the
Orlando Magic and clocked a total of five minutes the first two
times the Knicks played their bitter rivals, the Miami Heat. As
recently as Game 1 of the second-round playoff series, against
the Atlanta Hawks, Camby played for just 10 minutes. He didn't
know whether he was a pawn in a game of office politics--between
president and general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who made the trade
that brought Camby to New York and who has since been demoted,
and Van Gundy, who treasured Oakley's toughness--or if there was
some other unspoken reason for his bench time. "My pride was
hurt more than anything else," says Camby, who had made the
NBA's all-rookie team in Toronto. There were times he wanted to
erupt at Van Gundy, to complain in the media, but he bit his
tongue, partly because of two meetings with the coach in which
Van Gundy assured Camby that he was not in the doghouse and that
he wasn't being punished just because he wasn't Oakley. "Marcus
persevered," Van Gundy says. "He handled the situation
professionally, and his rewards are coming to him. That says a
great deal about the kind of character he has."

What's not clear is whether Van Gundy would have taken advantage
of Camby's capabilities if Ewing's injury hadn't forced his
hand. "I still don't think they realize how good a player they
have," says NBC broadcaster Isiah Thomas, who, as Raptors
executive vice president, had drafted Camby.

The Knicks are hoping that the Spurs don't fully appreciate how
gifted Camby is. After seeing Duncan and Robinson have their way
with some of the Western Conference's top big men, they don't
seem terribly worried about Camby. "Dave went through [Arvydas]
Sabonis, Rasheed [Wallace], Shaq, Kevin Garnett," San Antonio
guard Mario Elie says of Robinson. "He went through the best big
guys in the league. Not taking anything away from Camby and
those guys, but I mean, it's a mismatch."

At the very least Camby's role is a huge responsibility for a
25-year-old who had never even been in a playoff game until this
season. But as he put his feet up on the coffee table in his
living room last weekend, Camby didn't seem the least bit fazed
by the size of his task. "I'm sure there are a lot of people who
think we don't have a chance and that there's no way Kurt and
Dud and I can stand up to Duncan and Robinson," he says. "That
doesn't bother me. Nobody thought we could handle Indiana's big
men, either. I know I'm facing great players, but right now I
have a lot of confidence."

Whenever possible Van Gundy will have Camby guard Robinson
instead of Duncan. Because Duncan is the focal point of the San
Antonio offense, Robinson is less likely to get Camby into foul
trouble, which would probably doom New York. Camby is also
especially adept at leaving his man to block shots, and he'll
have more opportunities to do that if he's not guarding
Duncan--a task that will fall mainly to Dudley and Thomas.
Though the Indiana frontcourt of Rik Smits and Dale and Antonio
Davis looked about as mobile as park benches next to Camby, he
won't have such a clear advantage, if any, against the Spurs.
"When I run the floor against these guys, Tim and David are
going to be running right along with me," Camby says. But
Robinson, 33, has been bothered by chronic back and knee trouble
for the past few seasons, and he doesn't move quite as fluidly
as he did. He could find that keeping track of a pogo stick
eight years his junior is easier said than done.

"It's a lot like the last series, when [Portland Trail Blazers
forward] Brian Grant came in hot and was giving them a lot of
energy," says Robinson. What he didn't feel the need to add is
that the Spurs cooled off the 6'9" Grant in a hurry. He wasn't
nearly as effective on the offensive boards against San Antonio
as he had been in the earlier rounds. When Grant got the ball in
the low post against the Spurs, he was hard-pressed to get off a
shot, much less make one. Camby, who hasn't shown much of a
back-to-the-basket offensive game, isn't likely to unveil one
with Robinson and Duncan--and, occasionally, the Spurs' third
7-footer, Will Perdue--harassing him.

That means he will have to get the bulk of his points the way he
did in earlier series, by slipping and swooping around the
offensive glass. Even though the Spurs seem well equipped to
keep that from happening--San Antonio ranked fourth in the
league in rebounding in the regular season--they gave up the
second-most offensive boards of any team, so it's hard to
believe they'll be able to hold down someone as relentless and
elusive as Camby. On the perimeter, guards Latrell Sprewell and
Allan Houston can create off the dribble as well as keep New
York's transition game in high gear. What's more, the Knicks are
quick enough to take away the devastating three-pointers that
Elie and Jaren Jackson have dropped on other opponents in the
playoffs.

Sprewell and Houston will attack just as they did against
Indiana, looking for buckets or trips to the foul line. Elie was
surprised that Indiana didn't double-team the two New York
slashers, and the Spurs may use that strategy to try to force
nonscorers like Dudley and Thomas to take shots. Even if the
Spurs play straight up, any Knick who penetrates can expect to
meet more resistance around the rim than the Pacers put up.
"Sprewell and Houston were getting all the way to the basket,
but with our defensive pressure, we don't allow that," says
Elie. "If one of our guys gets beat, we expect our big guys to
be there to close it up. We're just as athletic as the Knicks
are."

That may well be true, which is why logic still dictates the
Spurs will prevail. But as Camby can tell you, sometimes logic
is overrated. A month ago did it seem logical that he would rise
off the bench and lead the Knicks to their first NBA Finals in
five years? New York will find a way to win, in seven.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Glass act Camby was dominant on the boards against the lumbering Pacers. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: MANNY MILLAN Man in motion Camby--taking a feed from Houston--consistently found seams in the defense, while his own D deflated Travis Best and the Pacers in the Knicks' Game 6 win. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Lickety-split The slashing style of Houston may be a handful for the slower Spurs as it was for Dale Davis (32) and Smits.

Final Insults

The Knicks have advanced further than any other No. 8 seed in
NBA history, but they're far from the worst club to get to the
Finals. Seven teams reached the championship round with a
regular-season record more dismal than New York's 27-23 (.540),
and one of them, the 1977-78 Washington Bullets, even won the
title. Here are the NBA finalists with the worst winning
percentages.

--David Sabino

SEASON TEAM REGULAR SEASON W-L, PCT. FINALS RESULT

1958-59 Lakers 33-39, .458 Swept by Celtics
1956-57 Hawks 34-38, .472 Lost to Celtics 4-3
1980-81 Rockets 40-42, .488 Lost to Celtics 4-2
1975-76 Suns 42-40, .512 Lost to Celtics 4-2
1970-71 Bullets 42-40, .512 Swept by Bucks
1955-56 Pistons 37-35, .514 Lost to Warriors 4-1
1977-78 Bullets 44-38, .537 Beat SuperSonics 4-3

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)