GLOBE FEATURE: Moving Tribute For Camby
Sept. 10, 2010
By Marty Dobrow, Globe Correspondent | September 10, 2010
AMHERST -- It wasn't merely the best of times. It wasn't just the worst.
Certainly both were true about Marcus Camby's basketball career at the University of Massachusetts in the mid-1990s -- true in a Dickensian way -- but it was more than that.
It was the most compelling of times. There was UMass, not far removed from 11 consecutive losing seasons (and 29 straight losses at one point) becoming a national force: No. 1 ranking, a 26-0 record to start the 1995-96 season, an unforgettable run to the Final Four.
There was John Calipari, the wunderkind coach from Moon Township, Pa. He was prickly and passionate and endlessly colorful. He was the caffeinated coach, once diving on the court to model the hustle he demanded (and splitting his pants in the process). He often described his job as "teaching life skills,'' a phrase that rankled his many critics and inspired his many disciples. Whichever side of the fence you were on, there was no denying Calipari's singular ability to get young men to play out of their minds, to extend their "work capacity,'' to sell people on his trademark -- and trademarked -- philosophy of "refuse to lose.'' He became the national coach of the year.
And there was Camby, the doe-eyed kid from the projects of Hartford with the most elegant and lethal game UMass had seen since Julius Erving. A 6-foot-11-inch player with guard skills, he was a shot-blocking menace, a skilled passer, a game-changer. Off the court he seemed to be a gentle soul. He was an education major who described his student teaching time in South Hadley as his favorite part of the day. He insisted that his post-playing goal was to become a school principal. This wasn't your standard-fare ambition for a national player of the year.
It was the most disillusioning of times. There was Camby's tearful confession in early June 1996 to the Hartford Courant about accepting money and gifts from agents while he was at UMass, a clear violation of NCAA rules. There was Calipari's announcement just two days later that he was leaving UMass to become the head coach of the New Jersey Nets. And there was the seedy aftermath. A Sports Illustrated story reported that the illegal gifts included jewelry, rental cars, and prostitutes. The NCAA demanded a return of the Final Four trophy. The school also had to refund more than $150,000 in tournament television revenue. And for using an ineligible player (since Camby was technically a pro), the Minutemen's appearance in the 1995-96 NCAA Tournament and its run to the Final Four was officially "vacated.'' In the fashion of George Orwell's 1984, the school's proudest athletic moment was placed in a memory hole -- as if it had never really happened.
Tonight, perhaps, the past will finally be reclaimed. John Calipari will be back in the house for a ceremony inducting Marcus DeWayne Camby into the UMass Athletic Hall of Fame.
"He deserves it,'' said Calipari, now the coach at the University of Kentucky. "We were a top 25 [team] before he got there. He took us to the next level. We became No. 1 in the country.''
"It's a great feeling,'' said Camby, who is now playing for the Portland Trail Blazers, his fifth NBA team. "I'm excited to be recognized for my contributions.''
Some view the induction as a sellout by the school (a recent headline in the Springfield Republican referred to Camby's induction into the "UMass Hall of Shame''). Others see it as a long overdue tribute, a chance to honor one of the school's greatest athletes, and a player who has generally conducted himself with dignity and generosity through a 14-year career in the NBA.
"Marcus is just a huge part of the athletic history here at UMass,'' said athletic director John McCutcheon, who did not work at the school during Camby's playing days. "We're not trying to cover up and forget the bad things that happened. But we want to remember that some really good things happened as well. We just think it's time to recognize what he did mean to the program.''
"Anybody who knows Marcus knows what he's about, his inner character,'' said UMass coach Derek Kellogg, who played with Camby for two years under Calipari. "They realize he's a great ambassador for UMass men's basketball and the university in general.''
`He was preyed upon'
One of the proudest people on hand for tonight's ceremony will be Bill Bayno, Calipari's long-ago assistant coach who recruited Camby and has maintained a close relationship with him. In fact, Bayno is now an assistant coach with the Trail Blazers. Camby jokingly refers to Bayno as "my white Dad.''
Bayno has long maintained that Camby was unfairly singled out for criticism in the aftermath of the agent scandal.
"He was a young kid,'' Bayno said. "He had a lot of his friends getting involved with these agents. How many young kids put in that position wouldn't have given into the temptation? Especially growing up poor, with nothing, and you think, `I'm not going to get caught.' We all make mistakes. Nobody's perfect. But he did own up to it. The bottom line, anybody who knows Marcus, he's always been an absolute sweetheart of a kid.''
Calipari is characteristically blunt in his assessment of what happened to Camby: "He was preyed upon.''
Calipari points out that agents John Lounsbury and Wesley Spears worked hard to penetrate Camby's inner circle, approaching his friends and family members. He salutes Camby for publicly owning up to his mistake and even repaying UMass fully for the six-figure loss in NCAA television revenue. "He's the only player I know of that gave money back that was lost because of his actions,'' said Calipari.
According to Calipari, UMass had put in place a good screening process for limiting agent contact, but insisted that round-the-clock scrutiny of players is impossible. His one regret, he said, is not going after the agents in a more public way -- similar to the fashion put forth recently by college football coaches Urban Meyer of Florida and Nick Saban of Alabama. "I should have done what the football coaches did and attack the agents,'' Calipari said.
He acknowledged that the toxic mix of predatory agents and talented athletes still pollutes the world of college sports. Just this week, reports have been rampant that Saints running back Reggie Bush will have to turn over his 2005 Heisman Trophy, the latest damage to stem from his dealings with agents while playing at the University of Southern California. "The issues back then,'' said Calipari, "are still the issues today.''
Camby did not shy away from discussing the controversy in a phone interview this week. "Everything that happened was pretty much my fault,'' he said. "It was a tough time. Growing up, I didn't have much, and having people offer you things, I was pretty naive and I succumbed to the pressure. I was young. I was very immature. And I felt I made a very, very bad decision.''
His biggest regret, he said, is that his involvement with agents tarnished an otherwise magical ride for UMass. "To this day, I feel like I took away from all the stuff we accomplished on the basketball court,'' he said. "It's something I'm going to have to carry with me for the rest of my career and the rest of my life. It's something I definitely regret.''
Eager to give back
He has had a very productive NBA career. Over the 14 seasons, he is averaging a double-double (10.4 points, 10.0 rebounds). He is the 12th all-time shot blocker in NBA history, and he earned the league's Defensive Player of the Year in 2006-07. Over the years, he has made just shy of $100 million in salary.
Along the way, Camby has distinguished himself as one of the NBA's leading citizens. Through his Cambyland Foundation, he has provided college scholarships. He has worked with kids through a program called "Marcus's Mentors.'' He has been a visible presence on holidays in the cities where he plays ball, distributing Thanksgiving meals and taking underprivileged children on Christmas shopping sprees.
He says his long-ago ambition to be a school principal when his playing days are over has never changed. "I've always prided myself in giving back,'' he said, "not just financially, but with my time. God has blessed me and my family with so much. I feel like I can give back.''
In a sense, Camby's long NBA career began on April 29, 1996, at a press conference announcing his decision to forgo his senior season and enter the draft. Wearing a sparkling pendant that proclaimed his age and uniform number as 21, Camby said, "This last season was incredible. But it was not about winning games and advancing to the Final Four that made it special. It was the fun that we had together. I will never leave UMass in my heart. I will never leave this team. They will always be with me, and I will be with them.''
A few weeks later, it was revealed that the "21'' pendant was one of his gifts from an agent.
Camby would make a couple of quiet visits back to campus for a year or two to see friends, but he hasn't returned in more than a decade. There was a period of time when Camby and the school seemed to be consciously distancing themselves from each other. That ends tonight.
"Time heals a lot of things,'' said Kellogg. "He's a good person. He exemplifies what UMass should be.''
GET YOUR OFFICIAL