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The power surge in Madison Square Garden begins when 25-year-old Knicks forward Marcus Camby pulls off his warmup jersey. When he jogs to the scorer's table, the executives halt their business discussions, the diehards pound their chests and the little kids screech in anticipation of what Camby will do when he steps onto the court.
On good nights he treats the crowd to an electric slam off a loose rebound or a breathtaking weakside rejection. On bad ones Camby's in foul trouble early, drawing one call for going over the back, another for reaching in. Either way, fans will return to see Camby try to make something happen. Sports Business Daily published a list of the 20 best-selling NBA jerseys in the first half of this season; Camby's number 23 was more popular than Karl Malone's jersey or Eddie Jones's.
"I can feel the buzz," Camby says of the stir he creates at the Garden. "It's a lot better than last year, when the boo-birds were out. I wasn't even getting into the games, and they were still screaming at me, 'We want Oak! We want Oak!' Man, that was tough."
The buzz last season centered on Camby as a pawn in a power struggle between former general manager Ernie Grunfeld and coach Jeff Van Gundy. Grunfeld had traded popular power forward Charles Oakley to the Raptors for Camby despite the reservations of his coach. Van Gundy stubbornly benched the slender 6' 11" forward, who in his two seasons in Toronto had been branded an immature kid who wouldn't play hurt. Van Gundy contends that it was impossible to develop an immediate feel for a new player after a prolonged lockout and a shortened preseason.
Camby's vindication came in the playoffs, when his energy fueled New York's improbable journey to the Finals—and saved Van Gundy's job. This season Camby is averaging 26.7 minutes, up 6.2 from last year, and there's no longer any question of his importance in the rotation: He's a favorite for the Sixth Man Award.
Ask Camby if he's Van Gundy's guy now, and he laughs and says, "I don't think I'm one of his core guys, guys who've been here, like Larry Johnson, Allan [ Houston] and Pat [ Ewing]. But I think he's my guy. When his job was in jeopardy, I could have gone in the tank against Miami in the first round, and we wouldn't even be sitting here. But I played hard for him. I understand his philosophy now, and he respects me more."
It helps their relationship that Camby doesn't demand shots, which Van Gundy must delicately distribute among Ewing, Houston and Latrell Sprewell. The Knicks are a collection of complex factions. Camby's boys are Sprewell, forward John Wallace and guard Rick Brunson. The clean-living Houston and point guard Charlie Ward have been nicknamed the Christian Coalition, while Ewing, the proud old warrior, stands alone, his friends having been traded, his skills eroding, his stature on the team diminished. He doesn't talk much these days, and team officials wonder how it will end.
"Pat's used to being the Guy in this city says Camby, who has taken some of Ewing's minutes. "But I can't worry too much about him. He's still going to come in and get his number called. Hey, I don't get any plays called for me. I get my baskets off hustle plays. The one thing I do feel bad about is the injuries Pat's had. The Achilles [tendon tear] has set him back two to three years. His wrist is still messed up. He's playing through a lot of pain."
Even though New York was tied with Miami atop the Atlantic Division at 26-16 through Sunday, there are concerns. The Knicks were 10-8 against the top eight teams in each conference and 10-12 on the road. Sprewell, who demanded a starting role, is filling the small forward slot though he's better suited to play the two guard, Houston's position. The strain of being 190 pounds and trying to hold off threes such as 250-pound Juwan Howard is taking its toll on Sprewell, and Van Gundy frets about his wearing down.