It's Time to Ponder a Camby Era
By Mike Wise, The New York Times, 11/10/1999

He was gone for 46 seconds. A sprained ankle kept Marcus Camby, the former vanishing No. 2 draft pick, on the Knicks' bench for under a minute on Monday night against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Presumably, the wafer-thin, doe-eyed center was done for the game after landing on Danny Manning's foot and falling to the floor in agony. Watching at courtside was Michael Jordan, who forfeited his own body for the team on many nights. "He's sitting right there," Camby said of Jordan.

"They put him up on the Jumbotron. Everyone is going crazy."

Camby came off the bench after his ankle was retaped and helped energize a Knick comeback in the fourth quarter. In overtime, there he was, flying down the lane with Úlan and grace, contorting his 7-foot frame until the ball passed through the net and the Knicks had won after trailing by 9 points with six minutes left.

Camby waved his arms and motioned the crowd to stand and roar with him. Madison Square Garden was apoplectic.

Crazy, no? The Patrick Ewing era still has a 2001 expiration date, and this 25-year-old kid can't wait to propel this franchise to a title.

Didn't Camby skip an exhibition game last season with a blister on his foot? Didn't he ask out against Miami because of fatigue after playing five minutes? Didn't Camby sit out a game as a Toronto Raptor with a common cold.

Camby was once perceived as the embodiment of a young star without a career road map, an all-American caught up in the sleaziness of Division I college athletics. Never mind that he reimbursed UMass $150,000 in lost tournament revenue because he took money and gifts from a prospective agent. No one wanted to hear about Camby's accountability for his misadventures. The assumption was, he was already living large and would never get it.

There is no handicap for youth and immaturity in professional sports; Tiger Woods, at age 20, was skewered for telling crude jokes in a national magazine profile.

Imagine if someone printed your jokes and misdeeds at 20. Would they reflect who you are now?

We want these kids to grow up so fast, we won't cut them the slack given to every other kid living in his parents' house.

When asked about the Chinese character tattoos on his right arm last June, Camby was honest and said he fell in love with Asian culture as a child by "watching a lot of kung-fu movies."

Last season, during the Knicks' improbable playoff run, the new-found maturity and professionalism exhibited by Camby probably saved jobs -- and not just Jeff Van Gundy's. With the Knicks close to blowing up, Camby took his medicine on the bench, never complained and became the X-factor in the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana, helping vault the Knicks into the finals. Without those playoff games in May and June would Dave Checketts still be working at Penn Plaza?

This season, Camby has this feel-good aura that transcends ability. His boyish exuberance is contagious to his teammates the way Magic Johnson's was to the Lakers.

While Ewing sits by his locker cubicle with headphones on before each game -- a case study in stoicism -- Camby's 7-foot frame is sprawled across a rug. But unlike Ewing, Camby is quick to acknowledge a teammate from across the room, to lift up his earphones and listen. An approachable Big Fella?

"I'm just out there having fun," he said after getting 23 points, 13 rebounds and 6 blocked shots against the Bucks. "This is what I envisioned when I first came here, to come out here and play hard."

He's performing under the spotlight in the world's largest media market, in front of the most vocal and capricious fans in the league. He's working for the most demanding corporate entity in American sports. A bottom-line company that needs victories to fill its coffers.

On Monday night Camby shook off a painful ankle under the watchful eye of Jordan. Asked what he thought about the state of the post-Michael N.B.A., how these youngsters were making out, Jordan nodded and smiled. "It's doing fine," he said.

After, in the Bucks' locker room, Jordan approached the young forward Tim Thomas. "Where were you tonight?" Jordan asked Thomas, who was dressed in civilian clothes.

"My ankle; it's sprained," Thomas said.

"A sprained ankle?" Jordan said, smacking his palm against his forehead. "Man, I once scored 53 points on a sprained ankle. I don't want to hear about a sprained ankle. Go out and get yourself some Air Jordans and play some basketball."

Another Gen-X kid nursing a little owie.

Marcus Camby no longer relates.


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