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As Rick Brunson Leaves Camden, His Impact Will Never Be Questioned

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Rick Brunson, the former NBA player and assistant coach, spent the last three years as the head basketball coach of the Camden High School Panthers.

During his tenure, Brunson boasted a 73-4 record and ignited the Panthers’ resurgence on the national high school basketball scene.

That time is now over.

Brunson resigned and is finalizing a deal to become an assistant coach with the New York Knicks.

Regardless of his reasons for leaving, his departure is disappointing. Not because he left the wrong way, but because he was so right for Camden. The school district, Brunson’s assistants and his players all agree. While Brunson wasn’t from Camden, he embodied the city with his tenacity, toughness and acumen.

Two years ago, he almost walked away from the team before returning.

While Brunson’s future intentions were clear, it was my hope that he remained in Camden to cement his place in the rich history of Camden High School basketball.

Growing up, I heard about the famous players in the city’s history; players who attended both Camden High School and Woodrow Wilson High School.

But I was a kid and too young to attend games by myself.

That changed when I got to high school.

At Camden Catholic, I tasted the flavor of basketball in the city with my first trip to Camden High School to watch the famed Panthers play at my school. The old Camden High gym was at capacity as everyone came for the same reason I did: to see standout guard, Dajuan Wagner.

Wagner was amazing.

His dribble penetration was unstoppable. He was powerful yet agile and was a marksman from the three-point line. We lost but it didn’t matter. I just watched the best basketball player I had ever seen in person.

And he was only a sophomore.

Watching Wagner connected the stories I heard over time; all of the history of Camden high basketball the elders spoke about with reverence and awe.

From Ron “Itchy” Smith and Golden “Sonny” Sunkett to Kevin Walls, Billy Thompson, Greg Barr, Bill Culbertson, Victor Carstarphen (who is now Camden’s mayor), and Milt Wagner—Dajuan Wagner’s father. And they all played under legendary coach Clarence Turner.

Dajuan Wagner added to that legacy a state championship, a tournament of champions title (the only in Camden High history), scoring 100 points in a game and becoming New Jersey’s all-time leading scorer with 3,462 points. The elders who watched his father play would reluctantly admit that he was better than his dad.

Continue reading over at First and Pen.

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