It’s hard to watch a Trail Blazers game in Maine.
This is one of the many truths Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson learned during their time with the Idaho Stampede.
The Portland rookies each had stints playing for the NBA Development League team earlier this season — finally getting minutes while being stripped of just about everything else.
Some days would consist of a six-hour bus ride from one Dakota to another. Others were defined by stays in luxury-challenged hotels.
But there was one constant throughout the pair’s plunge into the NBA’s holding cell: A daily call or text from Marcus Camby.
“Man, I can’t even describe it, he’s been huge, he’s been helping me every step of the way,” Johnson said of Camby. “I can’t explain what that did for me. You can get pretty down when you’re down there. I just love that dude, even if he was on another team, I’d consider him my brother.”
Stroll around Portland’s locker room and you’ll struggle to find a Blazer who was aware of Camby’s outreach. He didn’t publicize the contact, just claimed it was part of his character and that he “knew those guys probably felt alienated from the team and didn’t really understand what was going on.”
Blazers point guard Andre Miller said it reflects a shift in league culture, as veterans rarely used to interact with the younger players — at least not in a friendly fashion.
But there is another connection Portland’s first-year players share with Camby that goes beyond smartphones and emoticons — they’re all still in search of their first NBA championship.
Camby's just more acutely aware of it.
“The clock is definitely ticking,” said the 37-year-old Camby, now in his 15th season in the league. “And you got the lockout looming, there are a lot of factors. I try not to think about it, but these are the times where you really start to look over the course of your career and where you're at.”
The 6-foot-11 Camby may not have won a title yet, but he’s been awarded plenty. Among them is Defensive Player of the Year — an honor the NBA bestowed to him in 2007 after he led the league in blocks, a feat he’s accomplished three times. Before that, he was a junior at the University of Massachusetts winning all three of college basketball’s major Player of the Year awards.
And before that? Well, before that, he had just met Blazers assistant coach Bill Bayno.
At the time, Bayno was an assistant coach under John Calipari at UMass, and had just gotten a call from a woman who ran a YMCA in Hartford Connecticut.
“I got a 7-footer,” she told him.
Bayno was skeptical, but made the trip nonetheless. After watching Camby glide up and down the court a few times, he was on the phone with Calipari saying “this kid is going to be the No. 1 pick in the draft.”
What happened next really depends on how you interpret the cup’s fluid levels. The optimist would say that Camby, who stayed loyal to Bayno despite garnering national attention, parlayed one of the more illustrious NCAA careers of the last 20 years into a solid NBA tenure. The pessimist would argue that it triggered nearly two decades' worth of almosts and not-quites.
Camby would end up going No. 2 in the draft a few months after his Minutemen lost in the Final Four. Three years later, he would help lead eighth-seeded New York to the 1999 NBA Finals, only to fall to the Spurs in five games.
An undeniable defensive and rebounding presence who’s averaged 11.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks throughout his career, Camby has yet to don an All-Star jersey. And since that inspiring run with the Patrick Ewing-less Knicks 12 years ago, the center has not returned to basketball’s supreme stage.
“I think about that ‘99 team every day,” Camby said. “It just shows that, once you get into the playoffs, anything is possible.”
Calipari called Camby “one of the best teammates I ever coached,” adding that, to this day, Camby ends text conversations with the words “I love you Coach.” Johnson, meanwhile, said that when he first got to the league, he’d ask around as to who the helpful veterans were, always hearing Camby’s name come up.
But that doesn’t mean a background check comes up blemish free.
UMass’ Final Four run in 1996 was officially nullified after the NCAA found that Camby had accepted thousands of dollars from sports agents, prompting the university to return more than $150,000 in revenue from the NCAA Tournament. To Camby’s credit, he’s repeatedly expressed remorse for his actions and financially reimbursed his alma mater.
Now, he’s in search of something money can't buy.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson recently acclaimed Camby’s skill set, praising his “great mind for defense” and “knack for the game.”
But there’s still something missing.
Since the beginning of the season, any time talk of individual achievement came up — be it an All-Star bid or anything else — Camby shifted the conversation toward team success and his pursuit of a ring. And when discussing favorable playoff matchups, Camby consistently asserted that the first-round opponent was irrelevant, making clear that the ultimate goal is a title.
It’s the one thing that’s eluded him, the piece of fruit that, even at 6-11, Camby has never quite been able to reach.
Not that he can’t keep things in perspective.
“A lot of people don’t even get the chance to compete in the playoffs, let alone make it to the Finals, and I did that,” he said.
So it doesn’t keep him up at night?
“No,” Camby said. “My kids keep me up at night.”
Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or firstname.lastname@example.org