Growing up, Marcus Camby always looked up to Julius Erving.
Now, whenever he looks up to the Mullins Center rafters, he’ll see his name and number alongside his.
Camby, one of the greatest basketball players to ever put on a UMass uniform, was officially enshrined into the program’s lore on Saturday afternoon, as he became the fifth player in its history to get his number retired. His No. 21 now joins Erving’s No. 32, Al Skinner’s No. 30, Lou Roe’s No. 15 and George “Trigger” Burke (who wore 32 before Erving) in admiration forever.
“Never in my wildest dreams could I think something this special could happen to me, to have my jersey retired next to my childhood idol, Dr. J,” Camby said before a crowd of 7,143 at the Mullins Center during a halftime ceremony in Saturday’s game between UMass and George Washington.
He arrived to Amherst in the fall of 1993 thinking he would just get an education, but left in the spring of 1996 with much more.
In those three seasons, Camby took UMass to unprecedented heights that haven’t nearly been matched since. Once a perennial top 25 squad under then-coach John Calipari, the Minutemen became New England’s darlings, rising with every Camby dunk and soaring with every one of his signature blocks, all the way to No. 1 in the polls and a Final Four appearance.
None of it was possible without Camby, whose on-court credentials speak for themselves. After strong freshman and sophomore seasons, the 6-foot-11 power forward from Hartford, Conn., came back even better for his junior – and ultimately final – season at UMass, one that paved the way for this day to come.
The 1995-96 season was historic, one still revered for its greatness. With the help of teammates Donta Bright, Carmelo Travieso and Dana Dingle – all of whom were present for Saturday’s ceremony – Camby led the Minutemen to a remarkable 35-2 record and their first-ever Final Four appearance. He finished with averages of 20.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game and was named the 1996 National Player of the Year.
“Every program has someone who steps in and lights the fire. Doug Flutie did it at (Boston College), Marcus Camby did it at UMass,” Calipari said in a video tribute. Calipari, now the coach at Kentucky, was unavailable to make the ceremony because of the Wildcats’ game on Saturday night.
“He was the difference on the team,” Travieso said. “Marcus is the one that got us to that other level.
“If anybody turned this program around, it was Marcus.”
For all of the success, however, it wasn’t without controversy, something that didn’t go unnoticed Saturday.
Shortly after the Minutemen’s Final Four run, it was reported that Camby received illegal gifts and benefits from sports agents during his college career. UMass was stripped of its four victories in the 1996 NCAA tournament and ordered to repay its $151,617 share of the tournament’s purse.
Camby was later selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft by the Toronto Raptors, but he immediately accepted full responsibility of his actions and reportedly repaid the school for its financial losses.
Still, to this day, he is asked about the situation – one that has been used as a case against him to not have his jersey retired.
“Everything that went on, I’ve said 20 million times, I accepted full responsibility,” Camby said. “I chalk it up as growing up and becoming a man. That’s what I’ve become in all facets of life.”
“We played a game. Violations or no violations, Final Four or no Final Four, we actually played that game,” Travieso said. “Those things are irrelevant when it comes down to basketball. We played the game, we got that far, and he blocked those shots and he made that difference on the team.”
Now, 17 years later, it seems as though Camby has grown up. He has a wife and two daughters, who all joined him on Saturday, and he is in the midst of his 17th season in the NBA, now with the New York Knicks after stints with the Raptors, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets.
But for Camby, it all comes back to UMass. Through all of the years, he’s still held a special place for the school in his heart, and says he wouldn’t be the same person he is today without spending those three years in Amherst – ones that will now live on and never be forgotten in his jersey’s memory.
“God has blessed me with so much, not just athletic ability but also me becoming a man,” he said.
“I owe a lot to this university, a lot to the people that helped me along the way. … I am grateful and I feel very blessed.”
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.