The education of Marcus Camby

Photo by Sam Fornenich/Getty ImagesBy Jules Boykoff, Contributing Writer

Marcus Camby plays center for the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team. A 14-year NBA veteran who has played for the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, New York Knicks, and Toronto Raptors, Camby is renowned for his hard work and defensive capabilities, earning the league’s defensive player of the year award in 2006-2007. Camby is also highly regarded for his work off the court. He founded the Cambyland Foundation, which focuses on educational opportunities for youth, and has been honored widely for his community service work. As the Blazers prepare for the new season, Camby sat down with Street Roots at the Blazers practice facility in Tualatin to talk about education, history, and the work he does in the community.

Jules Boykoff: You’ve done a lot of volunteer work and philanthropy around education. And your profile says you would like to someday become an elementary school principal. How have you come to care so much about education? Have your own experiences as a student affected your views on education?

Marcus Camby: I think so. You know I was an education major at the University of Massachusetts and part of my curriculum was substitute teaching, going into elementary schools. I substitute taught in Math, English, and Science, so I always took a liking to the younger generation. The old cliché is that “the children are our future” and I’m just trying to better as many kids’ lives as possible while I’m still blessed to be able to do it. Growing up as a kid, one of my heroes was my high school principal. I liked how he was well liked by everyone in the student body. I liked how he carried himself. And I liked how he cared. So he was somebody I have tried to pattern myself after. He really got me into education.

J.B.: Speaking of schools, a recent count found that there are more than 1,000 students in Portland Public Schools who are homeless.The Trail Blazers and sports in general have been called symbols of hope for many people experiencing homelessness and poverty. Would you like to say anything directly to the homeless community in Portland?

M.C.: I would say keep your head up, keep pushing yourself to better yourself, and anything’s possible. A majority of players in the NBA, I wouldn’t say we were homeless, but we didn’t have what we have now, and we were just lucky enough and blessed enough to come to have the blessings we have been receiving. But I can definitely relate. I grew up and it was tough. I grew up in the projects. It was gang-infested, drug-infested, and I was one of the very few to make it out of there, but I was able to keep my head right, keep my body clean, and got myself on the right path. So, just because you see us as NBA players, we weren’t that far away from where you guys are at or where you guys are trying to go to right now. So, overall, I would just try to tell people to stay positive and try to keep clean.

J.B.: Since joining the NBA you’ve started the Cambyland Foundation. What does this foundation do and why do you do it?

M.C.: Like I said, I’m a big advocate of the kids and it’s always geared toward the kids and it’s also geared toward the homeless. Just to touch on the homeless part, when I was in Denver for six years, I partnered with Volunteers of America and on Thanksgiving Day I bought 1,000 meals for the homeless. And my wife and my kids and I went and served Thanksgiving meals and Christmas meals to the needy. It was therapeutic for me to give back and also therapeutic in that I can teach my younger kids the thought about giving back. My family and I have been blessed with so much that sometimes we need to take a step back and look at the outside world and see what’s going on around us. So, my kids get a kick out of it — they love it. They actually look forward to it and can’t wait for Thanksgiving to do it again, to go down there and serve people and my wife is looking forward to doing it again, too. And it’s a great time for me. I feel that everyone should at the least have a nice hot meal on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas. Those are some of the things I do.

And with the kids situation, I’ve developed a program called “Marcus’ Mentors.” Part of that program is that I get high school kids to come back and tutor elementary school kids and upon completion of the program they get money towards a college scholarship. Since I started the program in Denver I’ve had 15 to 18 kids go on to college through my program. It’s all based on giving back. The older kids, the high school kids, giving back to the elementary school kids. And during the Christmas season I have Christmas drives where I partner with the Boys & Girls Club where I have a big, fancy limousine go pick up some kids from the Boys & Girls Club, and I give them gift cards for the mall to go shopping. But the thing is, you can’t spend the money on yourself. You have to spend the money on your family, your loved ones, your friends. The idea is to instill in these kids the thought about giving back. It’s something I’ve been doing since I’ve been in the league, something I enjoy doing.

J.B.: I was also reading about how you went to South Africa to do some coaching in 2005.

M.C.: Yeah, my wife and I had a chance to go to Africa and mainly do a basketball clinic, but it was community work also, which I was definitely keen on. Just seeing how the world is, not just the United States. I mean, we think we have it bad here in the United States but when you go to these Third World countries, when you go to these different townships like we did in South Africa, you can see what’s really going on. Especially with Africa, with the HIV and AIDS rates up so high, and just to see the spirit on these people’s faces, even though they’re so sick, but you can’t tell because of how they carry themselves and their demeanor. It was a great trip. And I also had a chance to go to Spain last month where I had a camp and talked about health awareness. The NBA does a great job with doing that and I was pretty much just honored to be able to go.

J.B.: Who are other players in the NBA who you admire for their work off the court and in the community?

M.C.: The one who really got me going even before I got into the league was Dikembe Mutombo. He’s from Africa (Congo) and you see him building hospitals and going back home to Africa and donating. It’s easy to donate money or to write a check but to actually be there physically and actually really help out and show your face and go to these different places and talk to these kids, I think that goes a much longer way than to simply write a check.

J.B.: So, was Mutombo a mentor of yours?

M.C.: Yes. He was a guy who I tried to pattern my foundation after. He’s become an NBA ambassador, and everybody in the NBA who has a foundation attributes a lot to Dikembe because we see how hard he’s been working since day one.

J.B.: Does anyone else around the league jump out to you as doing really important community work as well?

M.C.: A lot of the NBA guys have foundations, but a lot of it probably flies under the radar. Like myself, which is fine for me — I don’t do it for the recognition or the publicity. I do it because that’s who I am and that’s what I want to do. I would say about 90-95 percent of NBA players have foundations, and many go unnoticed. So we are going out there and doing our part pitching in.

J.B.: I just overheard you mention to someone that your favorite historical figure is Martin Luther King Jr.?

MC: Yes, yes, yes.

J.B.: Why is that?

M.C.: Everything that he stood for, like the Civil Rights Movement. And how he got assassinated. He’s the reason why a lot of minorities are where we’re at today. Not just playing basketball, but also in the field of medicine, in the field of law, and all that attributes to what he stood for.

J.B.: Who else do you look to from history as models and for inspiration?

M.C.: Of course Rosa Parks. She was very influential in what she did to contribute to our race and to everyone else. Those are my two favorites.

J.B.: There is a lot of support for the Blazers from local indigenous communities. For example, at Warm Springs Indian Reservation, many people are big Blazers’ fans. Basketball is big there. And then in Portland, there’s a disproportionate number of Native Americans who are homeless or in poverty. If you could speak directly to Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, what would you say?

M.C.: I would definitely like to invite them to Blazer games and I would like to talk to them to get to know their background. I would just want to get more familiar with them, their background, and their upbringing. I’m big on that. I don’t discriminate. I love anyone, whether (they are) of another race or another color. I’m all about learning. I’m all about educating myself and the education of my kids.

J.B.: What’s your favorite film and why?

M.C.: “Shawshank Redemption” is my favorite movie. Every time it comes on, I watch it. My wife is like, “You watching that movie again?” And I can cite from word to word to word to word. I’m a big Morgan Freeman fan. I like his movies a lot. The whole jail and prison scene — I’m big on that also. Whenever the movie comes on I just gravitate to it.

J.B.: What about your favorite book?

M.C.: My favorite book is “Of Mice and Men” (by John Steinbeck). It’s a book I can read over and over again. It’s the message and the characters in it. If you see the movie, it doesn’t do you no justice until you read the book. Every time, I can just see Slim and Curley and those guys, the characters in it. That book is always going to be stuck in my head.

J.B.: If you were the mayor of Portland, what would you do? What would be your priorities?

M.C.: If I were the mayor, my first step would be definitely to get into these elementary schools and instill in these kids the importance of education, the importance of walking that straight line and staying focused. I understand that times are changing, and now there’s a lot of stuff going on in the outside world with drugs and gangs and it’s easy to get steered this way or that way, and it’s easy to succumb to peer pressure. But just instilling in them that through hard work and dedication, anything’s possible.

Jules Boykoff played professional soccer for the Portland Pride and represented the US Olympic Team in international competition. He teaches political science at Pacific University.

Photo courtesy of the Portland Trail Blazers.


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