Coach Turner made his mark in Camden

Posted: October 22, 2013

Small men aren't polarizing figures.

You have to stand tall to move other people to extremes, to be a hero to some and a villain to others.

No coach in South Jersey basketball ever stood taller than Clarence Turner, who died Sunday at the age of 81.

No coach - no figure in South Jersey sports history, really - ever moved more people to more divergent opinions than the man who took Camden High School basketball to national prominence.

Some people hated Turner's approach.

Others loved his methods.

"He was a lightning rod," said former Camden star Vic Carstarphen, who played on Turner's last state championship team in 1987 and later helped Temple to a pair of final-eight appearances in the NCAA tournament. "He drew the ire of a lot of people.

"But Coach didn't care. He said what he thought needed to be said and did what he thought needed to be done. You can't imagine how much that meant to us as young people playing for him and for the entire city of Camden."

Carstarphen believes that Camden High School was a better school and Camden was a better city when the old coach was prowling the sideline, barking orders to players and loudly letting the officials know his opinion of their decisions.

He might be right. And it's astounding that a basketball coach can have that kind of influence on his school and his city.

But that's how strong Turner's influence was on those teams, that school, and that city. He made Camden's players believe they were the best in the country. He made the people who filled the stands to root for the Panthers and who lived on the hard streets of the old city stand a little taller and walk a little prouder.

"He made us throw our chests out," Carstarphen said. "Those were formative years for us as young people, and here was this guy telling us that we were just as good as anybody else, better than anybody else, in spite of what we were hearing about our city."

That was Turner's genius as a coach. He wasn't an X's and O's guy. His teams played a simple style: The Panthers pressed full court on defense; their big guys stayed under the basket on offense; their best players handled the ball and took most of the shots.

But it was the confidence that Turner instilled in his teams that made Camden so special - although having high school all-Americans such as Milt Wagner, Billy Thompson, Kevin Walls, and Dajuan Wagner, plus dozens of other terrific players, helped as well.

"We would run through a wall for him," said former Camden star Arthur Barclay, who played at the University of Memphis. "He had us believing we could do anything."

South Jersey basketball was a better sport when Turner's Camden teams were at the height of their powers in the 1970s and 1980s. The Panthers attracted fans and media attention with their sensational play, tenacious style, and sartorial splendor - they used to take the court with five guys in white warm-ups, five in purple warm-ups, and five in gold warm-ups.

They were renowned for their big-game performance and tournament success - Turner's teams won seven state titles from 1974 to 1987 - and other teams were forced to raise their own play to compete against them.

Camden in those days was a national power. The Panthers would travel the country, playing tournaments in California, Florida, and Puerto Rico in an era before AAU travel play and ESPN-televised showcase games.

Legendary St. Anthony of Jersey City coach Bob Hurley said Sunday that Camden "set the standard" in New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s.

Turner was a charismatic, colorful coach. He also was a complicated man who could be charming and churlish, generous and stubborn.

He sometimes clashed with opposing coaches and administrators. Some folks thought his teams ran up the score against weaker opponents. He fought protracted battles with officials from the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which suspended his team from tournament play in 1991 and banned Turner from coaching in 1999 and 2000.

To many, Turner was Camden's uncompromising champion, a man who built a basketball program that raised the spirits of an entire city.

There are others who see Turner's legacy in less glowing terms.

But only a man of remarkable stature, energy, passion, determination, and accomplishment could inspire such a difference of opinion.

Only a man who stood as tall as Clarence Turner could straddle such a wide divide.


panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

Inquirer.com/jerseysidesports

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