No blocking out Marcus Camby

The NBA is a test of manhood. It's a league where "power forwards" throw down "slam dunks," where frontcourt players are called "big men," where the preferred defense is "man to man." The most-prized virtue in the league is toughness.

So it's only fair to point out that New York Knicks big man and 17-year NBA veteran Marcus Camby has a skeleton in his closet. There is no gentle way of saying this: He is a huge fan of "The Young and the Restless."

Camby got hooked as a kid growing up in Hartford, first in the projects in Bellevue Square, then in the north end in a tiny townhouse opposite a graveyard. He'd come home from school and see his grandmother Ruby ("my second mom") on the couch, glued to a small television. "She would be there watching her soap operas," Camby recalled this week with a laugh, "'The Young and the Restless,' which I'm a big addict of to this day because of her."

As a boy, Camby lived in a female world. His father was nowhere in sight. He grew up in a home he shared with his grandmother, his mom (Janice), and his two sisters, Mia and Monica. Perhaps alone among players in NBA history, he learned the game from a female coach. For many years, Hartford Recreation chief Jackie Bethea gave him lessons in tough love and boxing out.

All these years later, it's no different. Camby and his wife Eva, a former kindergarten teacher, have two children, both daughters. There is 10-year-old Milan and 5-year-old Maya -- the "miracle baby" who was born three months premature and weighed just 1 pound, 5 ounces.

"They are my life," Camby said earlier this month after a Knicks-San Antonio Spurs game at Madison Square Garden. "Those are my girls. I love them dearly."

They were all on hand that night -- his mom and his sisters, his wife and his daughters -- to see Camby's first start in a season slowed by foot injuries. They watched the lights dim, the sparks fly from the scoreboard, the lithe dancers prance wearing little buttons of red light. They heard the music blare, and PA announcer Mike Walczewski bellow, "a 6-11 forward from Massachusetts … Mar-cus Cam-by!!!"

And there he was, the years melting away, skipping onto the court, chest and forearm bumping with the boys, his long fingers pointing to the rafters. Camby's female rooting contingent especially reveled in the third quarter, when he came up with one of his signature blocked shots, swooping down the lane and redirecting a Tim Duncan shot into the stands as part of an emphatic 100-83 win.

The same crew will be back in force this Saturday at the Mullins Center to see No. 21 retired at the University of Massachusetts. That might not be "the world's most famous arena" but it was, back in Marcus Camby's day, the setting for quite a riveting soap opera.

"People who follow UMass basketball talk about the glory years, the Cal and Camby years," said Derek Kellogg, the Minutemen's head coach and a teammate of Camby's for two seasons under John Calipari. "That was the pinnacle of UMass history."

Calipari's building job at UMass is well documented -- once termed "the greatest building job in college basketball history" by Rick Pitino, coach of top-ranked Louisville and a long-ago UMass point guard. Calipari inherited a woebegone program that had endured 10 straight losing seasons, once somehow losing 29 consecutive games. In his first five seasons he brought the Minutemen from Hoop Hades to the high ground of a two-time NCAA tournament team. Then came the rare air of Marcus Camby.

"It turned into something probably more than any of us imagined, and it all happened because he chose to go there," said Calipari, now coach of the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats. "We were top 25, but it's a lot different being top 25 and being No. 1 and playing in the Final Four. That's totally different. That's a different level."

Unprecedented heights, shocking crash

It was half a lifetime ago when Camby arrived at UMass in 1993. He was a gangly kid, "6-11, maybe 190 with lead in his pockets," former teammate Lou Roe recalled. There was an almost tangible innocence about the doe-eyed Camby. He walked around campus in his high school letter jacket and peppered his interviews with the phrase "take it in stride."

Roe knew that Camby was in for a rude introduction to the rigors of college ball, something he had experienced himself a couple of years earlier.

"We had that coach, Calipari, who always put the pressure on players to bring out the best in you," Roe said. "And that pressure was constant, like an IV drip. … It's like he sees what you can't visualize. A lot of players at that time are not able to put that key in and unlock that part of their game, where he's able to do that for you. And a lot of times it's not fun. It's not comfortable at all."

It certainly wasn't comfortable for Camby. He was inevitably lagging behind the pack on the dreaded "20-20" conditioning runs and getting tormented for his weakness in the weight room. Calipari was eager to unlock what Camby could be.

He was that rarest of jewels, the late-growth player, the center with wing span and guard skills. There was an elegance to his game. He was a shot-blocking menace, a great passer for a center, a player with no selfishness on the court. In modern hoop parlance, he could "score the ball," but he was a team guy through and through. Roe was struck by how humble he was and by how eagerly he soaked up the game. "He was a very, very good learner, a fast learner. You'd show him how to do something once, and then he'd go out and execute it for you."

But back then, frailty thy name was Camby. In just the third game of his career, Camby took the court for the first time at Madison Square Garden against top-ranked and defending national champion North Carolina (a team that included current Knicks teammate Rasheed Wallace). UMass fell behind 11-0. Behind a monstrous effort from Roe (28 points, 14 rebounds), the Minutemen roared back to force overtime. Sixteen seconds into the extra session, Camby crashed to the floor with a torn meniscus in his knee. After Camby was carried off the court, the Minutemen somehow pulled out the greatest win the program had ever achieved.

The die was cast for the Camby era -- a period that would be unprecedented for both victory and vulnerability. With No. 21 at UMass, the Minutemen would soar and plummet like never before.

Looking back, Camby readily acknowledges that the vulnerability wasn't just physical. There were psychic challenges, too. Usually he would win the inner battles: toughness over weakness, kindness over fractiousness, generosity over self-interest, but even at 6-11, he had some growing up to do.

His first two seasons were loaded with drama. Among other things, they included the John Chaney meltdown (in which the legendary Temple coach threatened to kill Calipari in a postgame news conference) and the grades scandal (in which the Boston Globe printed the unflattering GPAs of several UMass players -- including Camby).

On the court there were mostly scintillating victories, including another knockout of No. 1 (Arkansas) during Camby's sophomore season. The Minutemen became the No. 1 team in the nation after that, the first time any school from New England had attained that honor. There was also the pin-drop silence of another Camby collapse during his sophomore season, three minutes on mute at the Mullins Center interrupted only by one boy's plaintive cry of "Marcus!" He missed two weeks with a pulled hamstring. He missed another game that season after his grandmother, Ruby, died of pneumonia -- a loss that still stings him to this day.

That summer he returned to Hartford, got his first tattoo -- a ball, a hoop and "Mr. Camby" on his left triceps. Then he returned to campus and delivered a season for the ages.

Among double-edged experiences few teams in any sport could rival the 1995-96 UMass Minutemen. They once again knocked off No. 1, beating Kentucky in the season opener. They beat Wake Forest in a much-hyped game in which Camby outplayed Duncan. Before a game at St. Bonaventure, Camby fainted, and Calipari rode with him in the ambulance to the hospital in Olean, N.Y. He missed four games, but was cleared to return after extensive neurological tests.

An education major who said he one day wanted to be a principal, Camby helped UMass school team after team. By late February, the Minutemen were 26-0, making a run at the first undefeated season the sport had seen in 20 years (or since). They were national darlings. One morning, the center held the ball aloft surrounded by his teammates and said to the cameras, "Hi, I'm Marcus Camby of the undefeated and No. 1 ranked University of Massachusetts Minutemen. Good Morning America!"

After a loss to George Washington (during which Calipari was kicked out by officials), UMass regained its mojo. The Minutemen surged into the NCAA tournament, pushed all the way to the Final Four, then lost to eventual national champion Kentucky in a bitterly fought battle at the Meadowlands. Afterward, Camby, the National Player of the Year, walked around the court pensively, a blue towel over his head.

He announced his departure to the NBA with a news conference at the Mullins Center a few weeks later, saying, "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 all 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."

Then it all came crashing down. A few weeks later, the Hartford Courant broke a story that Camby had tearfully confessed to taking money and gifts from agents in clear violation of NCAA rules. That same week, Calipari left UMass for the head-coaching job of the New Jersey Nets. Also departing was the Final Four trophy, symbolic of the school's greatest athletic achievement, after the NCAA vacated UMass' appearance. The Minutemen made the tournament the next two seasons, both first-round exits, and haven't been back in the 14 years since.

A long journey, then back home again

Marcus Camby's NBA journey has been a long one. He was the second pick of the 1996 draft by the Toronto Raptors. He has played for six NBA teams, and this season he signed a three-year contract for his second stint with the Knicks despite the fact he will turn 39 in March. He has added some bulk over the years, up to a reported 240 pounds, though some of that seemingly comes from additional tattoos, including prominent Chinese figures on his right arm to signify "striving" and "family." He is still gangly and still has a baby face, though now with a thin line of mustache. Though he has never made the NBA All-Star team and has never won a championship, he has been a very productive player. He is 12th all-time in NBA history in blocked shots and 39th in rebounds. He has averaged just less than a double-double for his career. In 2007, he was named the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year.

"He's had a great, long, wonderful NBA career," said Roe, who is back at UMass finishing up his degree and helping Kellogg out with the Minutemen after a long pro career of his own (mostly overseas).

Asked what he is most proud of in his playing career, Camby points to something that would have seemed unthinkable years ago: "My longevity."

Off the court, he has been one of the NBA's most charitable citizens. His Cambyland Foundation has done a host of good work, almost all of it in schools. Camby has received many honors for his work, including the NBA Community Assist Award. He has traveled as far away as South Africa with the NBA Cares program. He still talks about wanting to work in schools when his playing days are over.

Camby has faced his fair share of adversity in his family. In 2001, during his first go-round with the Knicks, he drove feverishly up from New York to Windsor, Conn., after a call from the police in the middle of the night. When he arrived at the house he had bought for his mom and sisters, they were being held hostage at knife point by a former boyfriend of his sister, Monica. A tense standoff ensued over the next several hours. The assailant ultimately received an 18-year sentence on charges ranging from kidnapping to sexual assault.

Then in 2007, he got a call that Eva was in labor -- something he couldn't believe since she was not even 24 weeks into her pregnancy. "It was definitely too soon," Camby said. "When I got there [my daughter] was in an incubator. She was the size of the palm of my hand." Not even a pound and a half, Maya would have to stay in the hospital until September. Now, though, Camby says, "She's great. She runs around with her older sister. She is full of life, full of energy."

After a period of some distance, Camby has tightened the bonds with his UMass family. He long ago repaid the $150,000 the university had to forfeit from NCAA tournament revenue. After Kellogg returned as head coach five years ago, Camby reconnected with the program. In September 2010, he was inducted into the UMass Athletics Hall of Fame.

Before the honor, he told me for a piece that appeared in The Boston Globe, "Everything that happened was pretty much my fault. It was a tough time. Growing up, I didn't have much, and having people offer you things, I was pretty naïve and I succumbed to the pressure. I was young. I was very immature. And I felt I made a very, very bad decision.

"To this day, I feel like I took away from all the stuff we accomplished on the basketball court. 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."

This week's honor has Camby feeling "honored and thankful." He will join only four other players in more than a century of UMass basketball history with retired numbers: the man he describes as his "childhood hero," Julius Erving; the man he credits as "the heart and soul of UMass basketball in the '90s," Lou Roe; Al Skinner; and George "Trigger" Burke.

It will be a big day at UMass. The Minutemen, at 11-4, are legitimate contenders to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. Lots of Camby's former teammates will be on hand to welcome him back, including, of course, Kellogg. The UMass coach says he is thrilled to honor Camby, someone who always "walked with a humble stick" and "represented himself and our program in a great manner."

Kentucky plays on Saturday, so Calipari can't be there, something he says he deeply regrets. "I'm really happy and proud of him," Calipari said. "I wish I could be there. It's well deserved."

No longer so young, no longer so restless, Mr. Camby is coming back with the girls and women in his family, at peace with himself.

"I'm way, way more mature than I was 20 years ago when I first went off to school," Camby said. "I didn't come from much. My barometer was from Hartford up to Amherst. That's pretty much all I knew."

His biggest change over the years is simple, he says: "Just being more of a man."

Marty Dobrow is a regular contributor to ESPNBoston.com.