Straight and Narrow

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The building in which Marcus Camby lived as a child is abandoned now, its steel door welded shut, the lower windows covered with plywood. Camby learned to play basketball around the back, on a court with milk crates hooked to clothesline poles. He called it the crate league.

"Marcus wasn't even the leading scorer," says Louis Sanchez, who played with Camby and still lives nearby. "Alfy was, but he's locked up now."

Bellevue Square, the housing project where Camby lived, has a real basketball court, but his mother didn't allow him to play on it until he was older. Janice Camby had lived in the project since she was 4. It was, and is, one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city.

"I had no choice. I would play in the back and my mom would look out the window at me, and I would be out there night in and night out," said Camby, the Massachusetts center who is arguably the best college player in the country. "And when I got big enough and tall enough, she let me go to the big courts, but she still made me be in at a certain time."

Camby was tall enough before he was old enough. He was the only one who could dunk in the crate league. "It was like he was tall, then all of a sudden, he was up there," says Carnell Kendall, a former crate-league player who still lives in Bellevue.

The group would wait at the neighborhood dairy until the milkman's run was over, then pilfer the empty crates. They would heat up a knife on the stove and cut out the bottoms. They called their teams the Lakers and the Pistons. "Remember we used to throw those alley-oops?" Sanchez smiles. "I could swear I was Dr. J."

Now, children here swear they are Marcus Camby. And he hasn't forgotten them. He keeps coming home to Bellevue, hoping his success will inspire them to chase their dreams instead of nightmares.

If Camby forgoes his senior year at Massachusetts and turns professional after the NCAA tournament, he could be the top pick in the draft and he will earn millions. He will be 22 later this month.

"I told Marcus, you don't owe me nothing, McDonald's pays me," said Steve Johnson, a father figure to Camby who lives at Bellevue and works as a maintenance man at the restaurant. "Just be successful in life and come back."

Camby knows his real father--whom he declines to talk about--but was raised solely by his mother. When he was 12, his mother moved the family, which includes two younger daughters, to a new public-housing apartment about a 10-minute walk from Bellevue Square. But Camby still hung out at the project.

Janice moved to the duplex because she believed it would be more peaceful. "There is a graveyard across the street, and the dead are quiet," she said.

But the Cambys' new home was still in the north end of the city, and soon the drug dealers and gangs ended up on their street too. Janice Camby had always had Marcus bused to predominantly white suburban schools, but in high school, he began performing poorly academically and sometimes even missed basketball practices. Educators at Conard High were unable to motivate Camby, whom they say had the intellectual ability to succeed in the school.

But Camby says he felt out of place. He didn't even go out for the basketball team as a sophomore. Five games into his junior season, he transferred to Hartford Public High. He sat out the rest of the year because of transfer rules, then in his senior year led Hartford to a 27-0 record and its first state championship in 31 years.

"The school I was at [Conard] really wasn't big in basketball, and so I thought if I went to a city school I would get more publicity and it would help me to get a scholarship," Camby said.

"Plus, when I used to be bused out, I would come home and be with my friends from public school and they would talk about how much fun they had and this and that and I'm thinking, 'Man, I want to be with them.' "

He still does.

"Every chance I get I want to relax and be with my friends back home, just hang out and have fun," said Camby, who lives on the Massachusetts campus, about 45 minutes from Hartford. "I also want to have a positive influence on the kids. I want to show them that I am a representative of them, that I grew up around there and it doesn't matter who they are, they have a chance to do something great with their life. "

*

In the field at Bellevue Square, north of the basketball court and adjacent to the swing sets, Camby and his friends used to play a game called "Catch Me, Kill Me." It is still played there, only for real.

Next to the court is a memorial of artificial flowers, empty wine bottles and a fifth of cognac. It is a tribute to Jackson Rodriguez, a friend of Camby's who was shot and killed there.

It has been there for more than a year. "Everybody in the whole project knew Jackson. He wasn't no troublemaker, he was involved in a gang and people think that all them gang members are bad, but he was a little quiet type who just wanted to be part of something," Sanchez said. "Jackson was just at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Janice Camby, who worked as an in-home duty nurse and temporary office clerk, says she didn't like the things that went on in the project and talked to her kids often about the good things in life, the good way of life. "I guess it paid off," she says. "Marcus knows what he wants out of life, and he had to weigh his pros and cons and so far, it has been good in his favor."

Sanchez says the older guys saw how cautious Janice Camby was with her son, and they honored that. "There were a lot of guys who played basketball better than Marcus--you have to admit that Marcus was kind of uncoordinated when he was about 12--but it was like there was this little glow you'd see in Marcus, in himself and the way he carried himself," Sanchez said.

"His mom tried to raise him right, and as little kids running around here, he didn't want trouble. We used to call him, 'Oh, you a punk, you a punk,' because he didn't want a fight. But a lot of people wouldn't let him fight--scuffle maybe, but then we broke it up. We looked out for him. Now that we grew up, man, we know it was the right way to do it."

When Camby was about 15, he met Johnson, a father of five who lived on the fourth floor of Building 61 in Bellevue, the same building where Camby had lived. Camby started playing basketball with Johnson's son and hung out at his house, which Camby called the penthouse. He still hangs out at Johnson's house, watching sports, listening to music, singing, doing anything he wants to do, as long as it's positive, Johnson said.

"I remember the night Hartford won the championship, I was asleep and got up to go to the bathroom about midnight and here was Marcus in the living room sitting with the net from the court over his head, just watching TV," Johnson said. "He was all by himself."

From the window in Johnson's living room you can see the basketball court that he maintains. After he gets home from his overnight shift at McDonald's--where he has worked for 16 years--he gets the court ready for the neighborhood kids. He also runs a summer camp along with Jackie Bethea, another positive influence in Camby's life. Johnson does the work for free, but says his payment is seeing his kids do well.

"We have had other kids come out of here--Mike Adams [Washington Bullets and Philadelphia 76ers] and Marlon Starling the boxer," he said. "But for one thing, Marcus always comes back home, he is always around. I think a lot of people here who see a guy like that start thinking they can make it too--you can come out of here and be successful too, you know. But you have to have your own mind-set and you need somebody to back you at home, you need that father figure. . . .

"Janice did do a hell of a job, though. I have to give her a lot of credit."

Camby says he had little choice but to stay on a straight path.

"My mom was so cautious of me and my sisters that I didn't have a chance to enjoy--I can't say being a kid--but being in that lifestyle," Camby said. Because he knew education was so important to his mother, he used an incident his sophomore year at Massachusetts to get back on the path. A newspaper reported that Camby was one of four Massachusetts players on academic probation with less than a 2.0 grade-point average. Camby was embarrassed. His major is education, and he hopes to one day be a school principal. He knew he was setting a bad example for kids. A year later, he had raised his GPA to 3.2 and made the athletic director's honor roll. He tutors fellow students in computer science and geography. His mother treasures that.

"Mom means a lot to me and for her to raise me and my sisters like she does, she has been really terrific about everything," Camby said. "She goes to all my games and cheers for me and I can hear her.

"She yells, 'C'mon Marcus, got to play better.' "

*

Before his senior year in high school, Camby played so little that few colleges took notice of him. Massachusetts did, though, getting the jump on Connecticut. Camby remained loyal to Massachusetts Coach John Calipari.

Massachusetts helped arrange for Camby to attend a basketball camp in Irvine the summer before his senior year, and he played well. "After that I started getting calls and stuff," Camby said.

Camby's roommate at the camp was Edgar Padilla, and in the next room was Carmelo Travieso, who make up the Massachusetts starting backcourt. They started as freshmen together in a program they have helped turn into a powerhouse.

"We knew he [Camby] would be good, but he's more than we thought he was going to be," Calipari said.

In the first game this season, against Kentucky, Camby had 32 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots to help beat the then-No. 1 Wildcats. For the next nine weeks, Massachusetts went undefeated and was ranked No. 1 until losing to George Washington on Feb. 24.

Camby, the Atlantic 10 player of the year, finished the regular season averaging 21.1 points and eight rebounds. His 99 blocked shots give him the school record of 305, only the fourth player in NCAA history to reach 300 blocks in his junior year.

His totals, though, would have been even higher if not for a chilling incident Jan. 14, when Camby collapsed before a game at St. Bonaventure and lay unconscious for 10 minutes. He subsequently missed four games.

After myriad tests, doctors still don't know why Camby fainted, but they say they have ruled out a heart or neurological condition and drugs. Camby was afraid, but says he has had no recurring difficulty and has put the incident out of his mind. Not everyone has.

"The fact that none of them [doctors] can figure out what it was, I don't like that," says Ceylon Cicero, Camby's girlfriend of three years and a pre-med student at Morgan State in Baltimore. "It had to be something."

There was speculation that the fainting incident could hurt Camby's stock in the draft, but he has given NBA teams access to all of his medical records. He gets about 20 phone calls from agents and financial advisors daily, all of whom he turns over to Dave Glover, the school's academic advisor. "All types of people call, and when financial advisors call I say, 'Hey, I don't have any money, why are you calling me?' " Camby said, laughing. "I don't know if I'm ready or not for the NBA. I don't want to be a fraud. I don't want to be one of those guys who sign a big contract and sit on the bench for three years. I want to make an impact."

Calipari said he believes Camby should play his senior year at Massachusetts to give him more time to mature and put more muscle on his 6-foot-11 body. He weighs only 220 pounds. If he has a career-ending injury in college, he is insured for at least $5 million.

What position Camby will play in the NBA is debatable. Some believe that he will define a new position, because he is too slight to be a center, not strong enough to be a power forward and not small enough to be a small forward or point guard. "What he is, is a 6-3 guard who grew to 7 feet and retained the ballhandling and skills of a small player, combining it with a new height," Glover said. "What he is, is a basketball player."

One night Calipari and Camby went to see the San Antonio Spurs play the Houston Rockets--Hakeem Olajuwon is one of Camby's favorite players. Calipari got Camby some autographs, including a photograph signed by David Robinson. The inscription reads, "To Marcus: I've seen you play. You have most of what it takes. Do you have the drive?" Camby has it hanging in his room at home.

"It's kind of good when an NBA player sees you and they say what they think about you and stuff," Camby said. "I just have to get myself ready because it is not easy. It's a war and a big job out there, and when you are a rookie coming in, they are going to try to beat you up and do everything to stop you, so it will be challenging."

Camby knows he is nearing the time when he can repay his mother for her hard work and guidance. He said his family will be the first to benefit. "I want to get Mom a nice car, a nice place to live," Camby said with a smile.

If that happens, Janice Camby said, it will finally be time to move out of Hartford's north end.

"One daughter graduates from high school this year and another the next," she says.

"Then, I will try to relax."

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