Two minutes before the opening tip of the megahyped summit between Massachusetts's Marcus Camby and Wake Forest's Tim Duncan last week in Amherst, Mass., Minutemen coach John Calipari walked up to Duncan and said, "Why don't you and Marcus just play one-on-one and we'll watch, and then afterward we'll all go grab a pizza?"
Calipari couldn't resist the sarcasm after reading in the local newspapers all week that this meeting of the two premier college centers would be comparable to the legendary wars between Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes, Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing, the colonials and the redcoats. To be sure, Duncan came into the game as everybody's All-America (SI, Nov. 27), and Camby was rated as the next best big man in the land, a status he solidified with a brilliant both-ends-of-the-floor performance in UMass's 92-82 defeat of then No. 1-ranked Kentucky on Nov. 28. But the hype started getting to Calipari as the game approached. By the time he had watched a dozen plugs on ESPN the night before the big matchup, he had even been moved to phone at 11 p.m. to check on Camby's emotional state, only to discover that it was too late—Camby had already bought into the frenzy. When the phone rang, Camby was staring at an index card tacked to the wall over the extra-large bed in his dorm room. Scribbled in black Magic Marker were the words DECEMBER 6. TIM DUNCAN. #1 PLAYER IN COLLEGE. "You couldn't go anywhere in my room without seeing it," said Camby after the game. "I put it up there as added motivation because he's got it and I want it."
Though Massachusetts's 60-46 defeat of Wake Forest didn't absolutely settle who has the best-of-the-big-men title, it constituted a victory for Camby, since nobody believed when the 1995-96 season began that the title was even up for grabs. Camby, a junior, scored 17 points and held Duncan, also a junior, to a measly nine, and all of a sudden both surnames were being mentioned in the same bated breath of the 15 NBA scouts who were on hand for the center summit. "This summer I think most teams would have had Camby slotted to go anywhere from 6 to 10 in the draft," said Vancouver Grizzly director of scouting Larry Riley. "But after just a few games this season his name is on the lips of every NBA scout. If both guys declare for the draft this spring, I believe Camby has put himself in a position to challenge Duncan for the Number 1 pick."
Said Calipari, "I think all the people around the country watching Marcus so far this season are scratching their heads and saying to themselves, Who the heck is this guy?"
Well, who is Marcus Camby? Camby will tell you that labeling him a basketball player doesn't do him justice. He'll insist that the real Camby showed up about eight hours before the Wake Forest game at nearby South Hadley Middle School, where he somehow folded his wispy 6'11" frame into a chair built to fit a fifth-grader. As part of his classwork as an education major he tutors special-education students twice a week. So there he was, before the biggest game of his young season, helping a group of kids with their long division and rewarding those who came up with the solutions to particularly difficult problems by giving them his autograph, which sure beats the daylights out of a gold star. "That's the real me," said Camby. "I don't need the spotlight to be happy. Last week I met a kid whose father had died not too long ago. The kid was depressed and wasn't working very hard, but I helped to get him studying again for the first time in weeks." Camby's dream is to become a school principal when his basketball career is over.
Until this season Camby wanted to be anything but the principal on the basketball court. During his first two years at UMass, Camby was overshadowed by fierce forward Lou Roe, who now plays for the Detroit Pistons. He spoke rarely and gained a reputation for squeezable softness. A slightly sprained pinkie meant two days of missed practice. Calipari tried everything short of a hotfoot to get a rise out of Camby. "That first year the conditioning was pure misery for him," Calipari says. "He'd be running sprints with the other guys, and all of a sudden he'd drop to the floor like he'd been shot in the back. He wasn't used to dealing with adversity, because everything had always come so easy to him. I had to literally drag him, push him, prod him along while he kept telling me, 'Coach, I can't do it.' "
Camby's game matured through two seasons, but his attitude wavered until the Minutemen were eliminated in last season's East Regional final by Oklahoma State. Bryant (Big Country) Reeves, the Cowboys' 290-pound center, had manhandled Camby in the post, limiting him to just 2-of-10 shooting from the floor before Camby fouled out midway through the second half. Camby then considered fleeing to the NBA rather than face another year in Calipari's boot camp. "If you're not going to work hard, go steal their money," Calipari told Camby after the season. "Take it and go."
Camby decided to reenlist. He worked out nearly every day this summer at the YMCA in his hometown, Hartford, with his close friend, Missouri guard Kendrick Moore. He concentrated on ball handling and developing a turnaround jumper, and his confidence increased exponentially. After one afternoon session, flush with his swelling self-esteem, he visited a local tattoo parlor and acquired a red-and-green etching on his left shoulder, a basketball swishing through a net with an inscription underneath that reads, MR. CAMBY.
"When I got to school this fall, I knew that everybody would be looking to me to be The Man," Camby says. "I'm really a laid-back guy, so to be a leader, I knew I'd be forcing it a little. I asked myself all kinds of things: Am I ready to fill Lou Roe's shoes? Am I ready to meet all the high expectations? A lot of questions had to be answered."
It didn't take long. In that season-opening defeat of Kentucky, which was the third time in three years that the Minutemen had upset the nation's top-ranked team in November, Camby had 32 points, nine rebounds, five blocks and a newfound swagger. As Massachusetts huddled in the final minute with the game in hand, Camby looked Calipari in the eye and said, "Coach, don't act like this wasn't supposed to happen."