LOUDONVILLE — The dunk was ferocious, a combination of athleticism and hustle working together to produce a poster-worthy moment when Siena men’s basketball senior Manny Camper completed a one-handed jam, while being fouled, against Manhattan late last month.
It came in a fan-free UHY Center on Siena’s campus, or else a large roar would’ve accompanied the highlight from the Saints’ senior co-captain. With restrictions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic keeping Camper from hearing the cheers he deserved from the crowd, the teammates he leads picked up the slack, with each on-court Saint running up to Camper in excitement while the team’s bench area shouted their appreciation.
The slam made it onto that night’s “SportsCenter Top 10,” the latest — but far from the last — piece of recognition that the 6-foot-7, 216-pound Camper has received during the fourth season of a college career that has seen the Chestertown, Maryland, native start as the forgotten member of a recruiting class and develop into one of the more memorable Saints in program history, a player with as strong a candidacy as anyone this season to be named MAAC Player of the Year.
It was a breath-taking highlight.
But the play Camper made the next day was the one that demonstrated why he’s become the heartbeat of a group of Saints that enter this year’s MAAC tournament as the top seed for the second consecutive season.
Siena faced Manhattan again that night, and only seven scholarship Saints were available to play. Siena trailed 27-21 at halftime and wasn’t sharp; Camper, himself, committed three turnovers in the game’s opening 90 seconds. Camper, though, willed Siena back into a game it eventually won, scoring a career-high 25 points and grabbing nine rebounds on a night he made 12 of 14 free throws.
With less than five minutes to play, Siena held a four-point lead Camper had given them with a pair of made free throws. A Manhattan player headed to the basket, and Siena junior Jalen Pickett — the reigning MAAC Player of the Year who had much of his season affected by a hamstring injury that limited his effectiveness — swatted the shot out toward half court.
Camper was under the basket when the block occurred, and bolted for the ball with a Manhattan player doing the same from each side of him. It was his 74th minute of action in a span of less than 26 hours, but Camper surged to win that foot race, then chugged toward the basket to make sure he got fouled so he could put the Saints up six points with the free throws.
“Those are the winning plays that he makes,” Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello said, “and what rallies our team around him.”
Pickett is Siena’s most-talented player, and Camper said after Friday night’s regular-season finale against Canisius that the Saints will “go as far as [Pickett] takes us” in the MAAC tournament, which starts for Siena with a quarterfinal game Wednesday in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
And that’s probably true. Pickett, now back healthy and coming off his best game of the season as the Saints head into their postseason, is that good.
Tough and ready
But this Siena team, and this Siena season, belongs to Camper, the senior who became a star because he first worked so hard to become a role player.
“Toughness. I think that’s the biggest thing Manny brings to our group,” Pickett said. “Toughness, and being ready every single day. Manny comes and he works every day in practice, and he pushes everybody to be better.”
Camper has pushed himself that way his whole life, and it seems impossible to find anyone from that life who has ever had any issue with the 21-year-old who everyone seems to call by a different affectionate nickname. So, besides any part of his given name, Manuel Martinez Camper Jr. will answer to “Manny,” “Man-Man,” “Little Man,” “Big Bro,” “Big Shot Manny” and probably a few other monikers from the people who all gush about the kid who has made the small community that raised him so proud.
“The kid just has a heart of gold. He’s a picture-perfect kid,” said Sobaye Scott, who coached Camper at Kent County High School and named the player a team captain when he was a 14-year-old freshman. “A kid of that caliber comes once in a lifetime. You just knew that kid was always going to handle his business and look out for others.”
“He’s as close to a perfect young man as you can get,” said Pat McClary, who coached high school and youth basketball for decades, and put Camper through drills several days each week, for several years, as the teenager developed into the first male basketball player from Kent County High School to earn a Division I scholarship.
Chestertown, Camper’s hometown, is small. Only a little more than 5,000 people live there. When Camper graduated from high school in 2017, he was one of 133 to earn a diploma that year from Kent County High School.
Xavier Jones is a close friend and distant cousin of Camper. They graduated together, and Jones recalls how Camper gained local fame for his athletic exploits and adoration for how he treated people. Chestertown, Jones said, “is very, very small,” the type of place that “when you go to the stores, you might see the same person five times.”
And they’d see Camper, and want an autograph or picture.
“He was never cocky about that,” Jones said. “He was always humble.”
Kita Sorrell-Camper made sure of that. Camper primarily lived with his mother growing up, and spent weekends with his father. Sorrell-Camper pushed love and discipline with her younger son, and that “character counts” above everything else to the boy who grew into a young man selected as a finalist for this year’s men’s basketball Senior CLASS Award that selects its national winner based on contributions across “four areas: community, classroom, character and competition.”
Sorrell-Camper has watched with pride as Camper has added more skills to his basketball game each year. She’s more proud of the way he lives his life off the court.
“If something happened to me tomorrow,” Sorrell-Camper said, “my son could make it in this world.”
Making it into the world of Division I basketball, though, never was a given for Camper. He played at the smallest-school level in Maryland, and had multiple significant injuries in high school. One of those injuries, a broken collarbone, finally ended his football career; as his father tells it, the injury occurred when Camper was trying to break through a tackle and a second defender hit him . . . then, a third . . . and, finally, a fourth that drove Camper into the turf.
“He always wanted to be the best at whatever he did,” Manuel Camper Sr. said. “He had to be the one that outworked everyone in Chestertown. Then, when they played the other teams, he needed to be better than everyone else.”
Only Jimmy Patsos, though, offered Manny Camper a Division I men’s basketball scholarship. Patsos — who resigned from Siena in 2018 amid controversy and an investigation that eventually determined several Level II NCAA violations had been committed during his final years leading the program— loved the promise and versatility of Camper, and the coach earned the player’s long-term loyalty before Camper ever played a minute at Siena.
“He pulled the trigger, offering me, a guy with no offers from a small town,” Camper said. “So when Thanksgiving comes around, I’ll text him, ‘I’m thankful for you, thankful for the opportunity you gave me,’ and things like that, because, you know, free education — it took a burden off my mother, so I appreciate him for that.”
Camper needed surgery on his right knee the summer before his freshman year to repair a torn meniscus he suffered in high school. He barely played that season as the Saints won eight of 32 games, while the team’s other scholarship freshmen — Christian Bentley, Jordan Horn, Roman Penn and Prince Oduro — all played more than Camper . . . and, then, left Siena after Patsos’ dismissal.
“We found out how hard it was to win a [college] game. We took 24 losses to learn that,” said Penn, who has become a star at Drake since transferring from Siena. “We saw the lowest of lows. We knew how not to win a game.”
But only Camper had to stay — and he, to be clear, had to stay at Siena.
He already had developed a liking for the school, yes, but he also is a smart person.
Camper had scored 32 points in 109 minutes as a freshman
“I knew,” he said, “leaving wouldn’t really be an option for me.”
Making his time at Siena special
Siena athletic director John D’Argenio said Camper was someone who impressed people right away at Siena, off the court. He was a good student, polite and offered no drama during a period of Siena basketball when that had become the norm.
But . . .
“He came in as a freshman, and I’m not sure anybody thought he could play at this level,” D’Argenio said. “He had a bad knee. He didn’t really play a lot.”
D’Argenio has served as the school’s athletic director for nearly three decades, and worked in the school’s athletic department prior to that. He has, to put it mildly, watched a lot of Siena basketball.
“And I think Manny’s probably developed as a player more than anybody I’ve seen since I’ve been here at Siena, from Year 1 to Year 4,” D’Argenio said. “That’s what makes his four years here special — he did something good with each one of those years.”
As a sophomore, Camper became a starting guard for then-head coach Jamion Christian, a leader who gave Camper a chance to show he could make it as a Division I player and a person the player credits as the one who “turned the program around” with the emphasis he put on “connectivity” among its players, a quality — and saying — that Camper has continued to champion.
Camper started, but didn’t star as a sophomore. Another coaching change occurred after Camper’s second season at Siena, and he never considered leaving once he found out Maciariello was going to ascend from being an assistant with the program to being its head coach. Christian and Patsos saw Camper’s skills differently, and that helped grow Camper’s versatility; Maciariello and his coaching staff were able to capitalize on that, and unlock and utilize Camper as a two-way, ask-him-to-do-anything force that didn’t need an offensive play called for him in order to be successful.
“His confidence,” Siena assistant coach Antoni Wyche said, “comes from his work ethic.”
Hard work pays dividends
Camper starred as a junior, averaging 13.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game in earning a first-team all-conference selection. He declared for the NBA draft after the season, but maintained his playing eligibility and returned to Siena for his senior season. In this last year, he’s continued to grow his game — especially his ability to create off the dribble — despite the variety of challenges the pandemic has created, and led Siena to a share of the MAAC’s regular-season crown with team-leading per-game averages in scoring (14.6), rebounding (10) and minutes played (37.8).
“He made himself into a star,” said McClary, who remembers how Camper’s athleticism and enthusiasm were so far ahead of his basketball skills when they started training together a decade ago. “He wasn’t a star when he got there.”
Penn said he catches as many Siena games as his schedule allows, and a first mention of Camper’s name to the former Siena point guard is met with an excited “I’m just super happy for him because I know how much he’s worked for all this,” and a recognition that it worked out for Camper at Siena because Camper made sure it did with countless hours of training to improve his handle, shot and body.
“It’s all just a testament to how hard he’s worked,” Penn said.
Camper celebrated his senior night last Thursday, but could return for a fifth Siena season if he wants since the NCAA granted an extra year of playing eligibility to all players competing this season. He is on track to graduate in May with a degree in marketing, and he could use the extra year of playing eligibility elsewhere or decline it in favor of starting the professional career he’s made a lifelong goal of achieving.
To this point, though, Camper has produced something that’s become truly rare in Division I men’s basketball. He’s stayed at one school for four years, and developed from an afterthought into the top player on the league’s best team. Along the way, his off-the-court approval rating never required improvement.
“He,” Wyche said, “is everything that’s right about college athletics.”
“He’s a jewel,” said Scott, Camper’s high school coach. “He was a diamond in the rough, and now everyone sees it.”
With the nature of their schedules, Division I basketball players rarely get to go home — especially this year, given concerns related to the pandemic. When Camper gets back to Chestertown, though, he often spends time talking and working with youth and high school players, offering tips and inspiration from the kid who earned a Division I scholarship from the small town. He’s done that enough to have developed a well-crafted stump speech, but he doesn’t have one.
“It’s always something fresh,” Jones said. “It’s always new and it catches your attention.”
‘I was overwhelmed as a mom’
The impact that makes, often, is intangible. The appreciation, though, of Camper’s home community was on display last season, when Siena played at Rider during Camper’s breakout season. His mother posted on social media that the weekend game was taking place only a couple-hours drive away in case anyone wanted to see Camper play in person, and a dozen or so people responded they’d try to make it to the game.
The day of the game, approximately five times that many Camper fans showed up.
“I had no idea it was going to be that many people. It was amazing. It was crazy,” Sorrell-Camper said. “I was overwhelmed as a mom to see it.”
But people show up for Camper because he shows up for them. That’s more important off the court, but it shows up on the court with how Camper has pushed himself, and his teammates, through what’s, at the very least, been the most unique college basketball season of all time. Maciariello has credited Camper throughout the season for the leadership he has shown in keeping the Saints together during the pandemic-related pauses they experienced, for his unyielding determination not to allow this season to get off track.
Siena hasn’t made it to an NCAA tournament since 2010, an unfortunate streak that likely would have ended last season if the college basketball season wasn’t halted last March because of the pandemic. For the Siena program and its passionate fan base, it’s been more than a decade of waiting to return to the Big Dance that Fran McCaffery’s Siena teams partied at for three consecutive years.
Stars have come and gone for Siena during those years without making it to an NCAA tournament. Players, for sure, with much more natural basketball talent than Camper.
But nobody who wore Siena’s uniform during those years had more drive than Camper, the star who willed and worked his way into becoming one.
“And that,” Maciariello said, “is exactly who he is.”