Men's Basketball

 
Camby Is The Sultan Of Swat

The 6-foot-11 center has been rejecting NBA shots for 12 seasons.

The 6-foot-11 center has been rejecting NBA shots for 12 seasons.

Feb. 29, 2008

DENVER, Colo. - It was a rainy day, so the antsy kids took mom's clothesline, curved it into a hoop shape and attached it above the doorway. Little Marcus Camby -- a description rarely typed -- then challenged his sister to a game of one-on-one.

Mia, three years younger than Marcus, tried mightily to sneak a shot past her elementary school-aged brother -- but he smacked it toward the dining room.

"That was probably my first memory of shot-blocking," said Camby, the Nuggets' towering center. "She was the first victim -- of many."

From Mia to Yi Jianlian, Camby has been blocking shots for a quarter-century. He enters tonight's Nuggets-Clippers game with a swat frequency that rivals his childhood pace. He leads the NBA with 3.98 blocks per game -- most in the league since 1995-96 -- and in the past seven games has averaged 5.29.

"Marcus, to me, in many ways has been our best player," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "Without him, I don't know what type of team we'd be. He's been such a great factor defensively."

The 6-foot-11 center has been rejecting NBA shots for 12 seasons; his first NBA block victim was the Knicks' John Starks on Nov. 1, 1996. And since 2004-05, he never has finished lower than second in blocks.

So, how does he do it?

Preparation is key

The evolution of a Camby block begins on the training table, an hour before tipoff. There, while the big fella is attended to by trainers, assistant coach Tim Grgurich shows Camby video of that night's opponent on his laptop. One final glimpse, hoping to gain that split-second edge that could mean a block instead of a basket.

Camby thirsts to watch film and analyze a point guard's footwork or a shooting guard's shot fake.

Once he's on the court, he yearns to make an emphatic block early, "to set the tone." Often, his victims aren't the players he guards, but instead the brash penetrators who think they're too quick for the old guy.

Camby, who turns 34 next month, said positioning is key to his shot-blocking strategy. In the paint, he generally makes sure his man is within arm's distance. For one, he doesn't want to get beaten backdoor. And second, he doesn't want the perimeter ballhandler to know he's watching while he plays defense with a poker face.

 

 

When asked about his league-leading block total, Camby smiled and said: "I'd like to thank my teammates for getting beat." Though he is kidding, he does admit, "We're not the best defensive team in the league, so I always want to be held accountable." And when a Denver matador allows a dribbling bull to pass, Camby is Denver's last line of defense.

Such was the case in a recent home game against the San Antonio Spurs,

when Tony Parker slipped past Kenyon Martin for a clean look -- until Camby soared into the picture and swatted the ball to Wyoming. "I'm always lurking," Camby said. "It's all about timing."

He's wily, too. Novice shot blockers often are fooled by a baseline up-and-under layup. Makes sense. Ballhandler goes up, you go up. Ballhandler goes under and back up for a layup while you go down.

But the shrewd Camby doesn't fall for this. He watches a player's body control and will bait him into faking the "up." And then Camby greets him during the "under." In a big game against Utah, Matt Harpring thought he had a highlight-reel reverse layup. He made the highlights, all right.

When it comes to an opponent driving the lane, sometimes Camby will go into a crouch for camouflage, so he doesn't stand out to the roving eye of a ballhandler. This gives Camby a chance to bend his knees and brace himself for a perfectly timed stuff.

"I want to make sure I can get it at its highest peak," he said.

On one play during his 10-block game against Milwaukee in December, he patiently watched Yi drive past Allen Iverson, then whacked the layup attempt into the stands.

Little fanfare

It can be argued that shot-blocking doesn't get its due. Blocks don't sell sneakers. And they surely don't get you on the all-star team, or else Camby would have been in New Orleans, swatting Mardi Gras beads.

But a block can change the course of a game. It's a weapon. A rejection can alter the swagger of the shot-blocker -- and the blockee.

"It definitely gets the team going and it gives you a mental edge -- kind of like dunking on somebody," said Chicago's Joakim Noah, who blocked six shots in the 2006 NCAA championship, a title-game record. "That's definitely an intimidation factor."

Camby said there are times, early in games, when he'll smack a shot into the stands just to ignite his teammates and the home crowd. Yet, if the same scenario occurs in the fourth quarter, he will try to reroute the ball toward a teammate to ignite a fast break.

After Denver's game at Chicago last Friday, Noah sat at his locker. The rookie actually had a pretty good night -- 14 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks, including a rare embarrassment of Carmelo Anthony. But after looking at the stat sheet, he sighed:

"Marcus Camby had six blocks. It's unbelievable."

That night, Karl said: "I think you have to put M.C. in that category of all-time great shot-blockers, especially the last few years. I know there were greats -- Bill Walton, Bill Russell, guys like that. But in the next-tier guys, Marcus in the past couple years has been that impressive."

Benjamin Hochman: 303-954-1294 or bhochman@denverpost.com

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