Hoops hotbed Camden is ready for No
Nov 11, 2022
Michael A. FletcherESPN
- Michael Fletcher is a senior writer with ESPN’s enterprise and investigative team. Before that, he wrote for ESPN’s The Undefeated, focusing on politics, criminal justice and social issues. He spent 21 years at The Washington Post, where his beats included the national economy, the White House and race relations.
CAMDEN, N.J. — On a sunny Saturday just before the start of the school year, hundreds of people flock to Wiggins Waterfront Park for a block party. They turn out to pick up backpacks and school supplies given away by Nike and Subaru, to shoot hoops and eat free food, but mostly they come to celebrate a young man.
At 17, D.J. Wagner is only a senior at Camden High School. But photos of him peer down from a line of banners strung from lampposts along the redeveloped waterfront, and white T-shirts bear his name in purple and gold letters. There is no bigger name in this hoops loving city, where over the decades “Wagner” has become synonymous with championships.
Before D.J. there was Dajuan, and before Dajuan, there was Milt. Both played in McDonald’s All-American games before going on to college and eventually the pros. If D.J., ranked by ESPN as the No. 1 basketball prospect in the Class of 2023, follows his father and grandfather as expected, the Wagners would become the first family with three generations of players in both the elite high school contest and the NBA.
And they all started here in Camden, a city slowly rising from industrial decline and urban despair whose identity is wrapped around Camden High basketball. Through the decades, the school everyone here simply calls “The High” has won 12 state championships in boys basketball, the most of any public school in New Jersey, and been runners-up another 16 times.
“There is no Camden High basketball without the Wagners,” says Antoine Miller, a former teammate of Dajuan’s, who runs the Camden Elite AAU program. “Through three generations, they have all reached mountaintops that have pushed this city forward.”
Like they once celebrated his grandfather and father, the people of Camden have embraced D.J., and the block party is his way to give back. He came up with the idea and got buy-in from his sponsor Nike and city officials, says his mother Syreeta Brittingham, who hopes the party will become an annual event “to honor D.J.’s name.”
He jokes with teammates, poses for photos and signs autographs for fans young and old. After an introduction by the school board president, Wagner takes the microphone and thanks the crowd. “To see everybody in those shirts walking around out here, that means a lot to me,” he tells the audience. “We are just out here to have fun, to have a good day and enjoy our time.”
It’s evidence of a family legacy that he has both inherited and made his own. In an era when many elite ballplayers choose to attend sports-first private schools or jump from school to school in search of better competition and more shine, Wagner says he never thought of playing anywhere else. He grew up in a Camden suburb and enrolled as a nonresident student at the Camden Big Picture Learning Academy, a city magnet school whose students can compete on Camden High sports teams.
“I take a lot of pride in playing for Camden,” he says. “There is no better feeling in the world.”
But Wagner can’t stay in Camden forever. Like every top high school senior in the country, he will soon have to prove himself beyond the safe embrace of home. And Wagner’s decision of where to play next doesn’t just impact him. He carries a family name that brings pressure, built up over three generations, as well as the lofty expectations of a community that already salutes him as a star.
Wagner signed autographs and took selfies with neighbors and fans at the block party he threw to give back to his community. Photo by Michael A. Fletcher
FIRST, THERE WAS the grandfather.
Milt Wagner grew up in Camden and played in the city’s youth leagues. As a kid he revered Camden High stars led by coach Clarence Turner, who molded the Panthers into a powerhouse in the 1970s and ’80s. He was an eighth-grader competing for a middle school championship the first time he played a real game on the court at Camden High School. Coach Turner was there to watch. “That was big for me,” Milt, now 59, says. “That was a big thrill.”
Wagner came of age as a player at a time when his city was in a downward spiral, and even then, he could sense that Camden High basketball was a civic lifeline.
“I think because there is so much negativity talked about in Camden, the game became more important,” he says. “That is the bright light in our city that everybody gets behind.”
When he became a Panther, Wagner says, he realized just how much the city wrapped itself around the team. He returned the embrace.
“Once we got it started, I wasn’t just representing the Wagner name, I was representing our city,” Wagner says. “I wear Camden on my chest wherever I go. When I accomplish something, Camden is accomplishing something.”
The slender 6-foot-5 shooting guard led the Panthers to the 1979 New Jersey state championship before going on to star for the Louisville Cardinals, leading them to three Final Fours and the 1986 national championship. He won an NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1988 before playing overseas.
Milt Wagner played alongside Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Lakers’ 1988 championship team. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Next came the father.
Dajuan Wagner, 39, is the leading scorer in New Jersey high school history. As a freshman, he once scored 45 points in a game and as a senior he went for 100. The powerful 6-foot-2 guard led the Panthers to a state championship in 2000 and was the top scorer for the Memphis Tigers during his lone collegiate season. He was the No. 6 pick in the 2002 NBA draft, but injury and illness derailed his career. During the 2004-2005 season, he was hospitalized with ulcerative colitis. He underwent surgery to have a portion of his colon removed, and by 2006 he was out of the league.
His career over, Dajuan chose to go home. He moved back to Camden, reconnected with The High and began training his son in the family business. Of all his achievements, Dajuan counts winning the state championship at Camden High as his most memorable basketball moment. “I got drafted but winning the state championship for my city, that was the best,” Dajuan told SLAM Magazine in 2020.
And he made it a point to steep D.J. in that heritage. When Dajuan started helping the Panthers, D.J. joined him at practice. During games, he sat next to his father on the bench, cheering on the players, sharing in their victories and defeats and soaking in the city’s passion. Meanwhile, D.J. worked out under his father’s tutelage, learning some of the game’s subtleties, and becoming a standout wherever he played.
By the time he got to The High, the son was prepared to continue the Wagner tradition.
D.J., a sleek, 6-3 combo guard, led a stacked Panthers squad to a state championship last season, averaging over 19 points a game. He still has a teenager’s slim build, and what sets him apart is not necessarily his size or athleticism, recruiters say, but his savvy understanding of how to set the pace of a game. He also has outstanding footwork, speed and balance.
Wagner has said he plans to attend college before going pro. Kentucky, led by his father’s college coach John Calipari, and Louisville, where his grandfather played and was hired in May to head basketball player development and alumni relations, are widely seen as the front-runners.
Wherever he chooses, he has the potential to go further than both his dad and his grandfather, to become the biggest NBA star to come out of Camden yet.
“Going to the NBA is almost like hitting the lottery,” Miller says. “But it gives people here a sense of hope and pride that D.J. could potentially make it.”
Dajuan Wagner played in the 2001 McDonald’s All-American Game after leading Camden High to a state championship the year before. D.J. will likely become the third Wagner to play in the elite all-star game. Craig Jones/ALLSPORT
CAMDEN, WHICH SITS on nine square miles just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, was once renowned as a manufacturing hub, churning out products from Navy vessels and RCA Victor phonographs to Campbell’s soup. But most of Camden’s factories shut down long ago, choking off key routes to working-class prosperity and helping to trigger an exodus. The city’s population dwindled from 124,000 in 1950 to 72,000 in 2021, and one-third of its residents live in poverty. As recently as 1970, Camden was majority white, but the city is now 93% Black and Hispanic.
As Camden shrank and its tax base eroded, it became infamous for violent crime and blight. Today, many of its rowhouse neighborhoods are gap-toothed, marked by vacant homes and litter-strewn lots. Abandoned industrial sites dominate other parts of the city, and much of the downtown is eerily quiet, even during business hours.
But the city is trying to rebuild. Bucking a national trend, violent crime is down significantly in recent years and new jobs are emerging, particularly in health care. The city has demolished hundreds of vacant homes, and new buildings, including Camden’s first hotel in a half century and a training center for the Philadelphia 76ers, have risen along the waterfront.
Through the decline and rebirth, the Panthers’ dominance has been a constant and the team is woven through the fabric of the city. City political leaders, including Mayor Victor Carstarphen, the school board president and a former member of the city council and state legislature, once wore the Panthers’ purple and gold. Camden’s school superintendent is a former cheerleader at The High. People here call that more than coincidence.
Camden celebrated the Panthers’ state championship with a parade. Courtesy April Saul
“Do I think I’d be mayor if I hadn’t played?” chuckles Carstarphen, who spent six years coaching at The High before going into politics. “That’s a good question. I think it helped elevate my profile.”
Camden named a street outside the school after the team’s first big star, Ron “Itchy” Smith. The gymnasium bears the name of coach Turner, who led the Panthers to seven state championships, and the team plays on Dajuan Wagner Court. People of all ages pack the bleachers at home games and a large contingent of Panthers fans follows the team on the road. The familiar chant, “You want The High? You got The High!” has echoed at Panthers games for decades.
Last year, when Camden County needed help getting more people vaccinated against COVID-19, it called on D.J. to drum up support. “This is your shot,” he says in a video campaign.
“You’ve heard the cliché that basketball is a religion. But it is truly part of our fabric,” Carstarphen says. “Honestly, when our basketball program is going, you can see the difference in the community. Everyone’s excited, happy. It just kind of flows over.”
A BUZZ SURROUNDS the New Jersey Scholars in July at Peach Jam, the capstone of the Nike AAU basketball season. Coming into the tournament, the Scholars, which includes Wagner and three other Camden High players, is among the best on the summer circuit.
Lines forms outside the gymnasium long before they take the court. Fans look down from a walking track on a higher floor, intent on sizing Wagner up. His jump shot is off, but he still wows the crowd with his quick rushes up the court, stutter-step moves and his uncanny ability to snake through the lane.
For Wagner, who is just a couple weeks removed from winning a gold medal with the U.S. team at the FIBA U-17 World Cup in Spain, the attention appears to be no big deal. Between games, he laughs with his teammates, peeks in on the competition and cheers on Scholars squads playing in younger age divisions.
Nowhere is the Wagner legacy more palpable than Camden High School, where D.J. now plays on the court named after his father. Chris LaChall-USA TODAY NETWORK
He has stood at the top of his recruiting class since he started high school, but he carries himself with a quiet humility, even getting water for his teammates when he is on the bench. Unlike many of his peers, he posts sparingly on social media. “That is just my personality,” he says. “I am basically a shy person.”
Although D.J. grew up outside Camden in Gloucester County, many in the city always expected he would play for The High. “I wouldn’t have thought it would [have] ever been a doubt,” says Wasim Muhammad, who heads the school advisory board.
D.J. arrived on the Camden High squad in 2019 as it was going through a particularly frustrating stretch. The Panthers had not won a state championship since Dajuan led them to the crown in 2000. Compounding matters, they finished second in the state tournament eight times between 2001 and 2017.
D.J. became the linchpin in the effort to put The High back on top. The team brought in top players from five counties outside Camden to help him, including 7-foot center Aaron Bradshaw, who recently committed to Kentucky. The players either moved to the city or attended magnet schools as out-of-district students.
Wagner was a sensation from the start, helping to lead the Panthers to a 29-1 record in his freshman year. But the pandemic halted the school’s drive for a state championship. The team was undefeated in his sophomore year, but the state championship tournament was again cancelled due to the pandemic.
The Panthers finally broke through last season, winning the 2022 state championship. Wagner was named New Jersey’s high school basketball player of the year. The city threw a victory parade for the Panthers, as well as three other city teams that won championships in other sports.
The Panthers’ victory, however, came with a side of controversy. A report by New Jersey Advance Media alleged that Camden violated state rules by recruiting the out-of-district players and offering them low-cost tuition deals unavailable to other students. As a result, the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association launched an investigation that is ongoing, officials said. Camden officials have denied the allegations, saying the out-of-district enrollments were handled properly.
Allegations of cheating are not unusual in high school sports, even if they are infrequently upheld. But if it is proved that Camden broke the rules, the Panthers could face serious consequences. Earlier this fall, state athletic officials banned a New Jersey high school from this year’s football playoffs and placed it on a two-year probation for improperly recruiting a rival player. Two coaches also received suspensions.
Regardless of the investigation, Camden is ready for another championship, another season of glory for D.J. and the Wagner basketball legacy before he starts his climb up the basketball pyramid. They hope to see him on top someday, the biggest star Camden has produced in its long line of prodigies.
“This is a poor city; it was really, really bad at one time,” says Kevin Cooke, who attended The High in the 1980s. “But to see a kid like that doing something for himself and doing something for the community is a great thing. That is like all we got here: Camden High School basketball.”