Marcus Camby is still around. He's set to spend at least one more year plying his trade in Houston, where he'll occasionally spell Dwight Howard and Omer Asik while making the veteran minimum, giving a few fouls and looking familiar to those of us who have watched the NBA over the past couple of decades while he drifted from city to city. It's difficult to pinpoint when Camby stopped being a pretty great center and started being a guy we associate with the past, but I remember having a fleetingly happy and sort of condescending thought when I caught sight of him -- Oh, right, Camby's still around! -- at some point during his year-and-a-half stint with the Blazers, where he rebounded and swatted a shot here and there alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. It felt good, for whatever reason, that he wasn't quite completely washed up.
It wouldn't surprise anyone if this were Camby's final season. He's still a useful rebounder and isn't a liability on defense, but he's starting to come apart like someone about to enter their 40's is wont to do. The erosion of his game has been mercifully slow, but Camby barely resembles the lithe, springy athlete he was when he entered the league in 1996. His almond-shaped eyes are now ringed by puffiness, and he moves as if he's trying to be economical with a body holding a near-consumed reserve of basketball movements. He only played 24 games for the Knicks last season. He won't be counted on for much in Houston; if Camby spends a year not quite healthy, sitting on the end of the bench in a suit, it's not the end of the world. He's not a factor when he steps on a basketball court anymore.
The unique thing about Camby is that he signifies lots of different things, depending on who you are. If you're from Ontario, you might have been disappointed when the Raptors took Camby over Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and then never had a chance to fully appreciate Camby before he was sent to the Knicks. You might have been going to school at a CUNY when he was backing up Patrick Ewing, on that Knicks team that made it to the Finals during the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season. Camby's there in your memory with those other bludgeon-ball Knicks of the Jeff Van Gundy era: Houston, Sprewell and Mason.
Or perhaps you best remember Camby's years in Denver, when he led the league in blocks for three straight seasons and was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2006-07, which means you also remember that Camby left town feeling that he had been blamed for the Nuggets' lack of playoff success. (In Camby's defense, he was what he was in the playoffs: a just-okay offensive player who defended well and hit the boards hard. The Nuggets' failures had a lot more to do with Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony jacking up way too many 18-footers.)
There is no good reason I associate Marcus Camby with the Clippers, and my no-good reason is that I have an affinity for Baron Davis, which apparently is strong enough to override my desire to watch competitive basketball games. I watched a great deal of the 2008-09 Clippers squad, and they were uniquely awful -- Davis had the gall to shoot a percentage that began with a three -- but that wasn't Camby's fault. He played his customary 60-ish games that season. He looked awesome for about three months and then got hurt. Even when Camby plays spectacularly, it's his own sort of spin on the spectacular, which is to say, he does what he does noticeably better than usual. He blocks one more shot and grabs four more rebounds. Maybe he gets that 14-footer working until it goes back to not working again. Marcus Camby had a nice year in that first year with the team; he crashed the boards and protected the rim and scored about as efficiently as he ever has. The Clippers went 19-and-63.
I didn't watch the Clippers the next year, nor did I catch many Blazers games after Camby was traded, for the fourth time in his career, in the middle of the 2009-10 season. I lost track of him, which is what NBA fans do with Camby, and then all of a sudden you see him sitting on the bench while you're making dinner during the back end of TNT's Thursday night doubleheader. Oh, right -- Marcus Camby's still around!
Camby won over fans in Portland, because that's another thing he does. This piece from Jason Quick portrays him as thoughtful and low-key, the exact sort of dude you would want to go fishing with, while he kicks around some stories about practicing against Allen Iverson or playing cards with Zach Randolph. It seems just, in a way, that the last year-and-a-half of Camby's post-prime, when he was still barely lithe and springy enough to do a pretty good impression of himself, was expended on a team that desperately needed a player exactly like Marcus Camby.
When you look at Camby's Basketball Reference page, it yawns: just one long, unbroken line of double-double-ish numbers that illuminate what might be one of the least context-dependent players of his generation. He was what he was, wherever he went. And because he never stuck in one place for too long, all our memories of Camby are truncated in one way or another. Chances are you think of him as a hodge-podge of jerseys and performances, and perhaps a name that pops up on a lot of rap tracks because it sounds cool and more or less rhymes with a lot of things.
I'm not sure if anyone can say they're intimately familiar with his career the way, say, a Mavs fan is with Dirk Nowitzki's, or even as a basketball junkie might be with Shaq's well-traveled NBA tenure. Shaq at least made noise wherever he was, and regardless of what team or players you were focusing on, you always knew what Shaq was up to because of headlines, highlights and talking-head shows. Camby was never quite a star, so he was allowed to drift relatively soundlessly through the league, with each fanbase that watched him go being kind of disappointed that he was leaving, then going back to not thinking about him on any kind of regular basis. When you're only friends with someone for three years and they move away, you don't call every weekend to check up on them.
The last time I really thought about Marcus Camby, the impetus wasn't actually anything Camby had done. In the spring of 2012, I was researching the NBA Draft and couldn't quite place Anthony Davis. I knew he was lithe and springy, but I was having trouble figuring out what he would look like within the context of the NBA. When I asked a friend about this, he brought up the idea of Marcus Camby 2.0. I lit up the way you do when something finally makes sense, and we talked for a while about how being Camby-like is a pretty great thing to be. Every time I watch Anthony Davis, I measure him against Camby; I compare and contrast the two in my head, based on the memories of Camby I have access to. Even when Camby isn't around, he's alive somewhere.