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Retiring No. 21 brings UMass, Marcus Camby together again

The University of Massachusetts will retire former star Marcus Camby's No. 21 during halftime of Saturday's 4 p.m. game against George Washington.

The University of Massachusetts will retire former star Marcus Camby's No. 21 during halftime of Saturday's 4 p.m. game against George Washington. Purchase photo reprints »

It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of retiring Marcus Camby’s number at the University of Massachusetts seemed far-fetched.

But the ceremony that will raise his No. 21 to the Mullins Center rafters at halftime of Saturday’s 4 p.m. game against George Washington, is the next and perhaps last step of bringing the school and its most successful player back together.

Camby was as popular an athlete as there has ever been at UMass during his career. The Minutemen’s success in the early 1990s came during pedestrian years for the Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics and mostly lean ones for the Patriots. UMass’ unlikely rise to national prominence made the program a regional darling and national story.

Camby became the face of that success during his junior year when he earned National Player of the Year honors and led the Minutemen to the Final Four.

But after his improper dealings with an agent during his junior season landed the Minutemen on NCAA probation, UMass and Camby seemed to distance themselves from each other.

While Camby set off on a 17-year NBA career, his No. 21 was treated so unsacredly that the Minutemen gave it to Eric Williams, Alassane Kouyate and Trey Lang, three players who didn’t score as many points in their combined careers as Camby in any single season of his.

Camby’s connections to Amherst grew even thinner in 2001 when Bruiser Flint, an assistant coach during Camby’s UMass career who followed John Calipari as the program’s head coach, was fired. His departure left few people from Camby’s time on campus still connected to the program.

But when UMass hired Derek Kellogg, himself an important piece of the team’s mid-1990s success, as the head coach in 2008, the program began to reconnect with former players from that era, including Camby.

Lang, the last player to wear No. 21, switched his jersey to No. 13 in 2009 and UMass quietly made No. 21 unavailable laying the groundwork for Camby’s number to join 32 (Julius Erving & Trigger Burke), 30 (Al Skinner) and 15 (former teammate Lou Roe) in the Mullins Center rafters.

After 1996, Camby, a Hartford, Conn. native whose professional career had stints in Toronto, New York (twice), Denver, Los Angeles (Clippers), Portland and Houston, didn’t return to UMass until 2010 when he was inducted into the UMass Hall of Fame.

“It feels good to be home,” he said with a wide smile at his induction. “This is a long time coming.”

The school made certain he wouldn’t be gone as long again this time. In November, the athletic department made the honor official. Camby, who is back for his second stint with the New York Knicks, will head to UMass Saturday morning. The Knicks beat Detroit in London Thursday but Camby did not play. He made the trip but was sidelined with a foot injury.

Kellogg, who’ll be with his team in the locker room during most of the halftime event, was glad Camby’s number was going up.

“It deserves to be up there with Trigger and Lou and Al Skinner and the Doc. To put Camby up there is a good tribute,” Kellogg said. “When people talk about UMass basketball even today, they go back to the Calipari era when Camby was the focal point. ... I’m not sure that there’s been a player in a long time that’s had as much impact on a program.”

Calipari, now the coach at Kentucky, echoed Kellogg’s sentiments. Calipari posted his thoughts on Camby at CoachCal.com in a post headlined “Congratulations to Marcus Camby, One of the Best I’ve Ever Coached.”

Some excerpts from it:

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.

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.

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.

Roe, Camby’s teammate for two seasons and currently a staff assistant with UMass, was glad he’d be there to see his friend join him among the retired numbers.

“To see his growth and development to the professional that he is, it’s a great honor. I’m glad I’m here to see it happen. We haven’t had a chance to see each other too much,” said Roe, whose mostly overseas professional career ended last year. “It’ll be nice to see him. We built everlasting relationships together. At the end of the day we have to revel in our accomplishments, not just in basketball, but in life and family.”

At halftime, Kellogg will speak for a few moments before accompanying his team to the locker room. There will be a video tribute to Camby with highlights and a message from Calipari. UMass associate athletic director Tim Kenney said there will be “special guests” at the event. The first 3,000 fans that enter the Mullins Center will be given replicas of the retired number banner.

The current Minutemen are two young to remember Camby as a college player, but were very aware of his NBA career.

Cady Lalanne actually asked for No. 21, which he’d worn in high school, when he got to UMass, but was understanding when he found out why it wasn’t available.

“Marcus Camby had it and he had an amazing career here. I can understand why,” Lalanne said. “He’s one of my favorite players. It’ll be a good experience to see him here. ... His defense, blocking shots and rebounding is stuff I need to work on. I would love to talk to him. With him being a big man and me being a big man, he could tell me what he did to help him reach that level so I could try to reach the same thing.”

Brooklyn, N.Y., native Chaz Williams is a Nets fan now, but was a Knicks fan during Camby’s previous stint in New York from 1998 to 2002.

“He was pretty tough playing for the Knicks back in the day. He was a very hard-nosed basketballer. He made New York basketball very popular again. It was fun to watch,” the junior point guard said. “It’ll be pretty fun to have a few words with him and have him here to see us play.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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