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Another growth spurt

Camby's matured since UMass days

MARCUS CAMBYIn town with Clippers MARCUS CAMBYIn town with Clippers
By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / March 23, 2009
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With the 100th-year anniversary in mind, an old picture of Julius "Dr. J" Erving is shown in the top right corner of the University of Massachusetts 2008-09 men's basketball media guide. In the bottom right corner is the image of ex-Minuteman Lou Roe. And between them is a picture of Marcus Camby, who was the star during the best and worst of times for UMass hoops.

Camby led UMass to its only Final Four appearance in 1996. But a year later, the NCAA ruled the school had to forfeit its tournament victories because Camby accepted gifts from sports agents.

Twelve years after the NCAA wiped out the Minutemen's one shining moment, the Final Four banner still hangs in the Mullins Center rafters in Amherst and the school recognized Camby during its centennial celebration this season.

"It is tough to talk about it because of where I am now," said Camby, whose Clippers visit the Celtics tonight. "I was a boy then. I am a man now."

Camby became UMass's first national player of the year in 1996 after averaging 20.5 points and 8.2 rebounds during his junior season. The Minutemen defeated Central Florida, Stanford, Arkansas, and Georgetown en route to the '96 Final Four. The Wildcats of Kentucky ended the best season in UMass history with an 81-74 semifinal win.

With Camby and coach John Calipari leading the way, UMass was viewed as one of the nation's premier programs.

Camby brought further acclaim to the program by being selected second overall in the 1996 draft by Toronto.

"That's the greatest time in UMass basketball history," said Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg, a four-year letterwinner (1991-95). "I talk about it all the time. I talk to my players about it. At that time at UMass, we were talked about in the same breath with [the nation's top programs]."

Athletic director John McCutcheon, who came to UMass in 2004, said, "Marcus brought UMass to a national prominence that it had never been to before. He had the ability to create media interest and exposure. It put us on a higher level.

"Without him, could Coach Cal taking the team to the Final Four have been possible? We had other players and Coach Cal. But to a man they say that without Marcus it doesn't happen."

Yet in 1997, the NCAA imposed its penalties on Camby and the school; UMass also was forced to return the $151,000 it earned from the tournament and its Final Four trophy. Under NCAA rules, an athlete may not accept money, gifts, or any other benefit from an agent.

A remorseful Camby reportedly gave back $28,000 to one agent and reimbursed the school for the $151,000 by splitting the money between education and health services programs. Despite Camby's gesture, the NCAA didn't reinstate the wins.

"I was a kid from the inner city not used to having too much," said Camby, who is from Hartford. "I was a young kid making dumb decisions.

"Looking back, I would do things differently. But not having a father figure, not having much, it was hard for me.

"I always took full responsibility. I gave the money back. It was an unfortunate situation, but the NCAA can't take back the memories. They can't take that back. We still have our rings, our memories. Still have it on VCR tapes. They can't take back the memories."

UMass hasn't come close to similar success since.

The Minutemen were ousted in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 1997 and 1998 and haven't been back since. Two seasons ago, UMass was co-Atlantic 10 Conference champion, winning a league title for the first time since 1996.

UMass hired Kellogg as coach April 23, 2008, after he served eight seasons assisting Calipari at the University of Memphis. Since Kellogg landed the job, Camby has been one of his biggest supporters.

UMass finished 12-18 in Kellogg's first season, falling in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.

"When I got the job here, [Camby] was one of the first guys to text me," Kellogg said. "He always lets someone know where his heart lies. He always sends texts after games, especially after wins. I don't know who texts first, him or Coach Cal. He's never been a self-serving guy. I'm happy he's doing so well."

Said Camby about UMass hoops today, "We're just about one or two recruits away. It's going to take some time. It was just Derek Kellogg's first year. He knows how to run a program. He worked for one of the best coaches that I've played for."

Today, UMass is proud of being linked to Camby, for good reason.

The 2007 NBA Defensive Player of the Year has played for Toronto, New York, Denver, and now the Clippers and has led the league in blocks four times. The slender 6-foot-11-inch, 235-pounder is averaging 11.1 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks for the struggling Clippers (17-53) this season. Other than Erving, no UMass player has had a more distinguished NBA career.

He also has built a reputation as one of the more giving NBA players, most notably to youth education.

He has given numerous scholarships through his Cambyland Foundation.

Camby says he hasn't been back to UMass since 2000 but hopes to come back soon and be involved more. Kellogg and McCutcheon hope to see him in Amherst soon.

"His NBA career has been fantastic," Kellogg said. "He does what he does. Unbelievable energy. He runs the floor, blocks shots. He's an unbelievable talent. I hope he can one day win an NBA championship because he deserves it. He's a coach's dream the way he plays the game."

"A lot of fans remember [1996] with passion," said McCutcheon. "We want him to be a part of our program. He's a big part of it. But things happen. In hindsight, he wouldn't have done the same thing. But you move on and we're happy to build the relationship."

UMass showed its gratitude and forgiveness to Camby by mentioning him frequently at home games throughout the 2008-09 season when centennial highlights were shown.

He also was showcased in a five-minute video tribute that McCutcheon said was well received by the fans Feb. 8 when the all-1990s team was honored during a game against Saint Joseph's. Camby couldn't attend because the Clippers were in Charlotte that day.

"I talked to a lot of the guys," said Camby, who turned 35 yesterday. "They e-mailed me and said it was a good time. They sent pictures.

"I love my school. I'm a die-hard UMass alumnus."

Said McCutcheon, "Time moves on."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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