Congratulations to Marcus Camby, one of the greatest I’ve ever coached

Editor’s note: On Saturday, the University of Massachusetts will retire Marcus Camby’s jersey before its game with George Washington. Camby is one of the greatest players to ever play under John Calipari and one of the best players in UMass history. In his third and final season at UMass, Camby averaged 20.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.9 blocks to earn the Naismith National Player of the Year award and lead the Minutemen to the 1996 Final Four. He was taken with the No. 2 pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. Camby’s No. 21 will be the fifth jersey UMass has ever retired. It will join the jerseys of Julius Erving, Trigger Burke, Al Skinner and Lou Roe in the rafters.

Over the years, every one of the players and their families that have made the decision to be coached by me and our staff and be a part of our family have played a part in the success of our programs and the good fortune that Ellen and our family have had.

But if you want to go back to one that probably had the biggest impact on a university, a basketball program, and a basketball coach and his family, you can go right back to Marcus Camby for me.

We were a top-25 program before Marcus made the decision to come to UMass. He was an unknown player from Hartford, Conn. People had heard about him, but they weren’t sure about him. He was a homebody. He was not going to leave home, so he was going to Connecticut, Providence or UMass. We were on him early enough that I think he felt good about us. He made a decision between us and Providence, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, it wasn’t all roses. The first year he could play about 19 minutes a game. That was it. Conditioning, strength, mental toughness, the ability to fight through pain and sustain effort, they weren’t all there his first year.

The second year he played around 23 minutes a game, and you have to understand I played him every minute I could play him. He subbed himself when he was exhausted. I can’t get my current team to do that, but Marcus Camby did. I used timeouts – not strategically – to give him a rest so he could stay in the games longer. Our team got better and better because he gave us a shot-blocking presence that set us apart from most teams in the country.

After his sophomore year, he had a decision to go pro or come back for another year. He looked at me and said, “Coach, I’m not ready for that.” I told him great, you can come back for a year and we’ll finish this up.

Marcus Camby won the 1996 Naismith National Player of the Year award. (photo courtesy of UMass Athletics)

By his third year, he became a dominating type of player. He had his nicks and bruises and bumps along the way, which kept him out of some games, but when he was on the floor, he was a dominating figure.

I can remember the game against Wake Forest in his third year when we played Tim Duncan. The game was all about Marcus and Tim. We all thought it was a one-on-one matchup and the rest of us were on the sidelines cheering. We ended up winning that game and he played well against Tim Duncan. I can remember the Kentucky game, the first game of the year, against the team that would eventually go on to win the national championship and beat us in the Final Four, which should have been the national championship game. But in the first game in Detroit, we were up 10 and I was going bonkers on the sidelines and he comes over to me and says, “Coach, would you please sit down and relax, we’ve got this.” And I looked him in the eye and I said, “OK,” and we won. That was the type of player Marcus was when he was on the floor.

Above all, he was a GREAT TEAMMATE. The only thing that would upset him was if another player on our team was selfish because Marcus was not. We had the kind of team that helped him as he helped them, and he knew it. We had guards in Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso, Donta Bright and Dana Dingle at the forward positions, and Tyrone Weeks as the bruiser. Everyone did their role and Marcus did his. He ended up doing his so well that he was named national player of the year in college basketball and became the No. 2 pick in the draft.

Without a doubt, the impact he had on the University of Massachusetts was the same kind of effect that Doug Flutie had on Boston College. Boston College, as a university, was kind of meandering around before Doug. According to people from Boston College and from the New England area, the whole direction of a great university was altered when Doug Flutie threw that Hail Mary pass. Marcus had the same type of effect on UMass.

Before Marcus set foot in Amhert, there was open enrollment at UMass. Basically, if you enrolled, you were accepted. Test scores for admission were not acceptable for a university like the University of Massachusetts. Since then, enrollment is up, test scores are up and the image of the university within New England is up to the point where average ACT test scores are now better than 1,200. The Commonwealth Honors College was created, where the best students from the state of Massachusetts, the ones that can go to any college in the country, now stay at UMass.

Am I saying it was all Marcus Camby? No. But what I am saying is he had the same type of great effect on the university that Doug Flutie had on Boston College.

As far as my family, he knows how indebted we are to him. There’s not a chance that goes by that I don’t tell him how much I appreciate what he did for me and my family. Today, if something good happens in my life, he will text me. Whether I see him face to face or we talk on the phone, he never ends the conversation without saying, “I love you, Coach.”

What a blessing it was to be able to coach a unique person who had a caring heart, an unbelievable attitude towards others, wasn’t afraid to defer to his friends, players and coaches, and had the ability to change the direction of a university, a basketball program, and a young coach and his family.

Congratulations to you, Marcus, for your number being retired. It is well-deserved.