Former Camden high coach Clarence Turner dies at 81

Camden High's Clarence Turner celebrating his 700th career win in 2004.
Camden High's Clarence Turner celebrating his 700th career win in 2004. (CHARLES FOX / Staff)
Posted: October 22, 2013

Milt Wagner said Clarence Turner's reputation spread across the country in the same way the old coach's teams covered the basketball court with pressure defense.

Wagner said people on the West Coast, down South, and in big cities such as New York and Chicago knew of Mr. Turner and his fabled program at Camden High School.

"All over the country, people still ask me about Coach Turner," said Wagner, a former star basketball player at Camden who is now an assistant coach at Auburn University. "They all know about Camden High School and Clarence Turner."

Mr. Turner, the colorful, charismatic coach during the greatest era in Camden basketball history, died on Sunday.

Mr. Turner, 81, died of complications from Alzheimer's disease, according to his son, Eric.

Mr. Turner was living in Chicago with his wife, Sharon, who has family in the area. Mr. Turner's body will be flown back to Camden this week for the funeral, although details still were pending as of Sunday night, according to his daughter, Lisa, his other surviving child.

"We lost a legend," former Camden star Arthur Barclay said.

Said former Camden coach Cetsh Byrd, a Camden graduate who led the program from 2010 through last season: "He was the heartbeat of the city."

Mr. Turner won 775 games and seven state titles in a career that ran from 1971 through 2008, save for four seasons from 1999-2002 when he was out of coaching.

Under Mr. Turner, Camden became a national power in the sport, setting a standard in South Jersey for big-game excitement and tournament sucess.

"When I was a kid, I wanted to play for Coach Turner more than I wanted to play for [legendary NBA coach] Phil Jackson," said Dajuan Wagner, Milt Wagner's son and the athlete who is generally regarded as the best player in Camden history. "I couldn't wait to play for him. He was such a motivator. We would run through a brick wall for him."

In addition to Milt and Dajuan Wagner, who was the sixth pick in the 2002 NBA draft, Mr. Turner coached some of the best players in state history, including future NFL stars such as Derrick Ramsey and Art Still - who were powerful interior players for Mr. Turner's first state championship team in 1974 - as well as Billy Culbertson, Kevin Walls, Louis Banks and Vic Carstarphen, among many others.

Under Mr. Turner, Camden won state titles in 1974, 1978, 1979, 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1987. His 1986 team was 30-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today.

"There wasn't a finer program than Camden High basketball," said current Camden coach John Valore, who spent 35 years as the coach at Cherry Hill East. "When you played Camden and you saw those crowds,it made you feel good about high school basketball."

In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Turner's teams dominated South Jersey basketball, drawing huge crowds to games that often felt like professional sporting events because of the caliber of play and excitement level in the gymnasiums.

Mr. Turner's teams were renowned for their mental toughness and clutch performances, especially in big games. His teams attracted a wide following, from within Camden and across South Jersey.

"His teams set the standard in our state in the 1970s and '80s," legendary St. Anthony of Jersey City coach Bob Hurley said. "We were bitter rivals. Bitter rivals. But by the time he retired, we had a respectful friendship. He was an outstanding coach."

Mr. Turner clashed at times with some opposing coaches and administrators and sometimes was highly critical of referees.

He battled for years with officials from the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which suspended his team from participating in the 1991 tournament and suspended him from coaching for the 1999 and 2000 seasons - both times as a result of violence that occurred at Camden tournament games.

"He was a lightning rod," said Carstarphen, who played on the 1986 and 1987 state championship teams and later starred for Temple. "But coach didn't care. He protected us as players. He took the bullets for us.

"He filled us with so much confidence. He made us believe we were the best."


panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

www.inquirer.com/jerseysidesports

|
|
|
|
|