Fond memories are often shared about legendary figures even when they aren’t in the room, the type of tales that outlive the subject of the story.
It’s been more than 60 years since Ron “Itchy” Smith cemented his name as Camden royalty on the basketball court. Those who grew up hearing about his performance for one of the greatest high school basketball teams of all time are doing their part in keeping his legacy alive.
Smith was honored on Friday in Camden High School’s gymnasium with a jersey retirement and having a street named after him.
“He gave back to his community,” said interim mayor Vic Carstarphen, a former Camden High and Temple player. “He never wavered from the city of Camden. He had a store in Centerville for a very long time and he would always give wisdom to young men coming through that area.”
But Smith didn’t only give back to the community. He also paved a way for Camden basketball during his rise to prominence.
In three seasons, he scored 1,276 points. Keep in mind, there were no three-pointers. Also, Smith was known to get his teammates involved, and most of those games were blowouts so he was taken out early. His 1959 and 1960 teams went undefeated, winning 47 straight games and two consecutive state titles. Smith played collegiately at Tennessee State.
“Those teams started the basketball fervor in Camden,” said Camden alum and South Jersey basketball Hall of Famer Denny Brown.
“Had they picked high school players back then to go into the NBA, Itchy would have definitely been drafted,” said Delia Brown, a 1960 classmate of Smith.
That era sparked Camden’s basketball greatness. The South Jersey area has since produced names like Milt Wagner, Dajuan Wagner, Billy Thompson, Denny Brown, Carstarphen, Kevin Walls and many more.
Denny Brown and Carstarphen, who played on the 1986 and 1987 state title teams, remember how Smith’s name still resounded almost 30 years after his last Camden basket.
“He laid down the foundation for all of us to build on,” Carstarphen said.
“When you talk about folks that have seen everyone that has played at Camden High, he’s always revered as the GOAT,” Denny Brown said.
Even though Smith was one of the most notable alums, he didn’t seek the spotlight. He stayed in the background. Denny Brown doesn’t recall Smith being at many Camden games during his 1986-88 seasons.
If he wasn’t there, he definitely remained in the know. Smith was known as humble and mild-mannered. Denny Brown and Smith met in 2000, and he assumed Smith wouldn’t know who he was. He was wrong. Smith correctly identified him. He then wanted to talk about the stories he heard about Smith, but it wasn’t in Itchy’s nature to listen to great stories about himself.
“In an era today where you see all these prima donnas, you have a guy like Itchy back then who grew up and was raised to be humble,” Denny Brown said. “As great as he was, his humility was his greatest asset.”
Denny Brown is now the mayor’s chief aide and Dorri Brown is the mayor’s chief of staff. They helped orchestrate Friday’s salute to the Camden legend.
Smith’s speech became impaired when he suffered a stroke. His sister spoke for him along with others like Sonny Hill, Camden Sheriff Gilbert “Whip” Wilson, who is Smith’s cousin, and Camden High athletics director Mark Phillips. Hill honored Smith with a one-day contract to the 76ers at the ceremony.
“It was amazing,” Delia Brown said. “I wasn’t the only one who said he could have been in the NBA.”
Camden basketball’s hoops royalty list is deep. The latest example is 2022 top basketball prospect Dajuan Wagner Jr. The Wagner name often comes up when someone mentions the best players out of Camden and South Jersey, and rightfully so. Older generations are usually the ones to put Smith’s name into that conversation.
This year’s Camden basketball team wasn’t as familiar with Smith, but now current and future players will see Smith’s name when they pass through the road named after him or glance up at his retired No. 44 jersey.