By the time Marcus Camby was finally washed up, looking more weed-lidded and arthritic than ever, Tyson Chandler had taken his place. They’re the two great minor big men of their time—Seijun Suzuki, not Kurosawa; Harry Nilsson, not Stevie—and stylistic cousins with careers spaced five years apart. Camby was drafted second overall in 1996; Chandler went in the same spot in 2001. Both were extraordinary athletes, but neither could stay healthy initially, always nursing a tweaked ankle or a strained calf. They travelled around the league and through their late 20s, disappointed every coach and general manager who placed faith in them. Camby and Chandler weren’t bad players at all, but they failed to deliver on their pedigree. They were supposed to be Patrick Ewing and David Robinson and ended up creating their own niche. They weren’t heroes, and they didn’t get famous. They became more specific than that.
Camby did his best work on mid-aughts Denver Nuggets squads that were among the most charmingly lunatic collections of talent in league history. In 2006-07, with a 22-year-old Carmelo Anthony beginning to self-actualize, the front office flipped a still-cooking Andre Miller and some first-rounders to Philadelphia for Allen Iverson, who had at that point in his career lost a half-step, but not his propensity for religious scoring explosions. J.R. Smith and Earl Boykins chipped in buckets and hilarious overconfidence from the bench. George Karl was in charge, which meant bracing pace and little defensive accountability.
Camby was this Nuggets’ squad’s sanity, a cool head doing hard work in the margins, cleaning up after botched passing lane gambles and contentedly getting his points on cuts, put-backs, and the odd mid-range jumper. He led the league in blocks, averaged a double-double, and won Defensive Player of the Year. He played one more season in Denver, then was traded away right before they went from interesting to dangerous. Carmelo blossomed and the Nuggets made the Western Conference Finals in 2009. Camby spent that year with the Clippers, his contributions wasted on the worst team in the league. He was sour about this, felt he’d been run out of Denver unfairly. Los Angeles was his Elba. He escaped, but it was the start of his ending.
Chandler was more fortunate. Just as he was peaking, so were the 2011 Mavericks. He gave a roster stocked with finesse players a backbone. He checked the big men Dirk Nowitzki couldn’t handle and blotted out guards who blew past Jason Terry and J.J. Barea. On offense, he was Camby-like in his unselfishness, but a little more polished. He understood the pick-and-roll almost as well as Jason Kidd did. He knew when to sprint to the rim, when to take his time, and how to measure his steps. He dunked pocket passes and lobs and didn’t mind playing the decoy, using his movement to draw defenders away from the Mavs’ numerous spot-up shooters.
In the NBA Finals, he bothered LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at the rim, pushed Chris Bosh out of the paint completely, and demoralized the Heat on the glass, tipping as many offensive rebounds to teammates as he hauled down himself. It’s a special thing when a player finds his moment, when all that’s required of him and all that he has to give are perfectly aligned. Perhaps it was for the best that Chandler left for New York after the most impactful season of his career. He couldn’t possibly have replicated it.
Chandler’s time with the Knicks was fruitful too, if more obscure, and during his cameo-length return to Dallas, he was even a little more efficient than the first time around. But the Mavs were smart to let him go for a second time. Chandler’s Suns tenure has been marked by decline. He doesn’t play a starter’s minutes anymore, and he’s a whit less authoritative around the basket. A creakiness has crept into his once-fleet gait. In other words, he’s a 34-year-old center. He’ll get by on know-how for a while yet, but retirement isn’t far off.
Chandler and Camby shared a locker room for one season. This was three years ago. Camby was basically finished and wore street clothes for most games. Chandler made his only All-Star team. Time comes for us all, and more swiftly than we expect: Chandler will soon be as hobbled and ancient as Camby was back then, but there isn’t anyone to replace Chandler the way he replaced his forerunner. It’s a particular, contradictory game the two of them possess: graceful, yet solid; cool, yet fierce; limited, but expansive within those limits. DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside aren’t subtle enough. Anthony Davis is too much of a star and Rudy Gobert is too much a freak. Nik Vucevic is empty calories. Al Horford is kind of a dork.
It’s not unusual for athletes, especially all-timers, to talk to each other. Kobe’s career was an extended monologue addressed to Jordan. Magic and Bird’s gabbing drowned out the rest of the league for a decade. But it’s rare for two players to inform each other in the way Marcus Camby and Tyson Chandler have, playing so similarly, slightly below the radar, following only slightly divergent paths. Camby plotted Chandler’s late-blooming developmental arc, and Chandler has in turn lengthened Camby’s shadow, evoking Camby’s prime as Camby played bit parts in Portland and Houston, evoking late Camby even now, years after his retirement. Through Chandler, we understand what Camby might have been had he ever found the right team, and Camby is Chandler with nearly identical skills but a little less luck, a grim reminder of what circumstance can do to a player.
One or both of them have been in the league for twenty years now, and they’re peculiar to the era they’ve helped define, in their understated ways. This is the conclusion of something that wasn’t quite a phenomenon: they just don’t make them precisely like Tyson Chandler or Marcus Camby anymore, and as Chandler enters his twilight, his conversation with Camby is trailing off. After he’s gone, he’ll leave no heir. All that will be left to render him more legible will be the silence he leaves behind.