Phil Anastasia: New Camden coach has help from old stars in trying to revive program

Former Camden basketball superstar Dajuan Wagner (right) works with seniors Thomas Harper (left) and Ajwan Leaming.
Former Camden basketball superstar Dajuan Wagner (right) works with seniors Thomas Harper (left) and Ajwan Leaming. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 16, 2011

When Camden's players gather for a post-practice huddle, the Panthers must avoid the painted circle at the center of South Jersey's most fabled court.

That's hallowed ground, according to new coach Cetshwayo Byrd.

"I told them, 'You can't go in there yet,' " Byrd said.

The past hangs heavy in the air in Clarence Turner Gymnasium, named for the coach who won seven state titles and more than 700 games and turned Camden basketball into a national power. The old tiled walls are decorated with plaques that commemorate all those 2,000-point scorers, all those championship teams.

But on Tuesday at 6 p.m. - the magic hour for Camden basketball for years and years - the Panthers' glorious tradition wasn't just marked by names and numbers framed on the wall, or years painted on the shiny hardwood.

It was present. It was alive, engaged, committed - two of the school's most famous former stars determined to do more than just sit in the stands and bemoan the unsettled state of the once-great program.

"The last couple of years have been hard," said Dajuan "Juanny" Wagner, perhaps Camden's most celebrated player and the state's all-time leading scorer with 3,462 career points. "We've got to turn it around."

Wagner's longtime friend and former teammate at Camden and the University of Memphis, Arthur Barclay, feels the same way.

"It's been rough," Barclay said. "We know how important Camden High basketball is to this city."

Wagner and Barclay are links to the last great era in Camden basketball. They were teammates on the 2000 team that won the Group 3 state title as well as the Tournament of Champions title.

No public-school program could maintain those heights. But Camden's slide back to the pack took a swift, stunning plummet last season as the Panthers lost their first nine games - including setbacks by 25, 34, 36, and 33 points - and were 3-17 before winning five of their last six.

Now the Panthers are playing for their third coach in a calendar year and aiming to bring the program back to respectability.

"Last year was heartbreaking," senior forward Thomas Harper said. "Just knowing what this program holds, it was ridiculous. We have to try to get back to what Camden is all about."

Harper said the presence of former players such as Wagner and Barclay at practice, and in the stands during games, is an inspiration for the players.

"We look up to them so much," Harper said. "We know what they did here."

Few programs, in any sport, create the kind of interest and expectations as Camden basketball. The Panthers' rich history - the first of those state championships commemorated on that painted floor was in 1945 - and connection to the community transcends sport.

"This city needs Camden basketball to come back," said the 29-year-old Barclay, who is deeply involved in Camden through his position as director of education at the Genesis School of Business as well as with volunteer projects.

"That's the next mayor," Byrd said of Barclay.

Byrd is a 1988 Camden graduate. He didn't play basketball in high school, focusing on football and baseball, but was a regular in pickup games at the YMCA with classmates Victor Carstaphen and Denny Brown - stars of state championship teams in 1986 and 1987.

Byrd went to Lehigh to play football, tore up a knee, and transferred to Rutgers-Camden. He scored 1,330 points on the basketball court for the Pioneers.

He's a Camden guy, through and through, even though he's been teaching at Pennsauken for nine years. His parents still live in the Centerville section of the city.

"Everybody tells me we have to bring it back," Byrd said of the challenge of his first year as Camden's basketball coach. "They don't just want it back. They say they need it back."

Of Wagner and Barclay, Byrd said: "That's special support right there."

Wagner can't make another shot and Barclay can't grab another rebound for Camden. And they can't transfer their special skills to today's players, either.

But their presence on a nightly basis as volunteer coaches means a lot. It's one thing to say you care about a program, its tradition, its legacy - and about the current players.

It's another thing to show it, by arriving in the gym at 6 o'clock every night, by demonstrating the proper way to curl around a screen, or box out a defender.

It's great that the past fills the air in the old gym, and hangs on the wall, and reflects off the painted floor. But it's even better that the past grabs a basketball and takes the court.

"I'm not a coach," the 28-year-old Wagner said. "It was so much easier for me to play than to coach. But if I can help with the young guys, give them some of my knowledge, I'm happy to do it.

"There's no place I'd rather be than in the gym."


Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports

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