Marcus Camby is in his second training camp with the Toronto Raptors and he couldn't be happier to get this season started.
On the court, he can focus on basketball and escape the problems that have dogged him since the Raptors made him the second overall selection in the 1996 NBA draft.
Camby, the 1996 college player of the year as a junior at the University of Massachusetts, admitted to violating NCAA rules that season by accepting money, merchandise and gifts from player agents. The school was stripped of its NCAA Final Four record and $151,000 in tournament revenue.
His rookie season with the Raptors was nearly wrecked by missing 19 games with back, knee and ankle injuries and a bout with the flu. Then there was the offseason arrest for marijuana possession. He had to do 16 hours of community service to avoid prosecution.
"It has been a long year," Camby said with a smile at Erie Community College, where the Raptors are practicing this week. "I feel like I aged nine years in the league already."
He can joke about it now because he says he has put all the bad memories behind him. All he wants is an opportunity to show he has changed his ways.
"I made some mistakes, but I did the right thing and admitted to them," said Camby, 23, who donated $75,000 to UMass' education department and $76,000 to the school's health services division this past summer. "I think it helped me out a lot because I have grown up a lot as a person."
Camby's new level of maturity seems to have carried over to basketball.
"Marcus is definitely not the same guy we saw a year ago," said Isiah Thomas, the Raptors' vice president and general manager. "I think he has a better understanding of what the NBA is about and what is expected of him on and off the court. He's learned a lot in the past year and we're looking for him to have a great season."
Despite the physical setbacks, Camby had a solid first season. He was named first-team All-Rookie after averaging more than two blocked shots per game to lead Toronto. He was also third on the team in scoring (14.8 points per game) and the second-best rebounder (6.3).
He became a bona fide Rookie of the Year candidate with a torrid month of March in which 10 times he scored 20 or more points -- including a team-record six in a row -- with Raptor season-highs of 36 and 37 points. He also set two career highs in rebounds, topping off at 16 against the Charlotte Hornets.
"I have nothing but praise for Marcus Camby," Raptors coach Darrell Walker said. "He's shown just a little of what kind of player he is capable of becoming. I was proud of the condition he arrived at training camp in and how hard he is working. We expect a lot out of him because we know he can do a lot of things."
Versatility is what the forward gives to the Raptors. At 6-foot-11 and 220 pounds, Camby is not strong enough to bang inside with the likes of Karl Malone or Shawn Kemp on a regular basis. But there are few players that size who can run the floor with Camby.
"Most big guys will try to overpower me, but I can take them out on the floor and use my quickness advantage," Camby said. "In the open floor, I can drive by them and score or create for my teammates."
Walker said Camby is more than just a good athlete. His skills as a scorer, passer and ballhandler are perfectly suited to the type of up-tempo offense the Raptors use. And as his talents as a shot blocker show, he is hardly a defensive liability.
"The guy played 60-some games and was 10th in the league in blocked shots," Walker marveled. "If he played more games, I'm sure he would have been at least in the top six or seven in blocks. That's pretty good for a rookie."
If there is one concern the Raptors have about Camby it's his health. Can the slender forward hold up to the pounding of an 82-game season.
"Marcus is thin. I don't think he's ever going to be the type of guy who can put on a lot of weight," Walker said. "He's lifting weights and doing the things to keep himself in good physical condition. Hopefully, he can stay injury-free this year."
Camby certainly has had his share of physical scares.
Prior to a game against the Sacramento Kings, he was hospitalized after losing feeling in both legs temporarily in a fall to the SkyDome court. A magnetic resonance imaging test revealed a "soft tissue strain" in his back that sidelined him for a week.
Doctors never figured out what caused his collapse just minutes before UMass' Jan. 14, 1996, game at St. Bonaventure. Camby spent a night in Olean General Hospital, the next three in the UMass Medical Center, and missed four games.
"Yeah, it was a scary moment," Camby said. "But the people at Olean General did a great job taking care of me. I owe them a lot for that. I try not to think about it any more. Like everything else, I'm putting it past me and trying to move on."