For Milt Wagner, the feeling was familiar.
It also was different -- the same sense of pride tinged with the bittersweet realization of the passage of time.
Milt Wagner, a legendary Camden High basketball player who won an NCAA title at Louisville and an NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers, watched his son Dajuan Wagner take the court for the Panthers as a freshman in the late 1990s.
On Friday, Milt Wagner watched his grandson, D.J. Wagner, take the court, wearing his father’s old No. 21 jersey in Camden’s season-opener vs. Philadelphia Public League power Simon Gratz.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Milt Wagner said after Camden’s 72-52 victory before a capacity crowd at Woodrow Wilson High. “I get to see my grandson play. First I got to see my son play and then it’s like reincarnation all over again, watch him do the same thing. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
Milt Wagner, who lives in Louisville, praised his grandson’s performance in his Camden debut. D.J. Wagner scored 15 points, making a pair of three-pointers, as Camden beat a Gratz team that entered play with an 8-0 record.
“I think he did well,” Milt Wagner said of D.J. Wagner. “Under all the circumstances, all the hoopla, I think he played well. He kept his composure and did what he had to do.”
Milt Wagner scored 2,003 career points at Camden. He won a state title in 1979. He unfurled one of the most famous performances in Camden basketball history as a senior in 1981, scoring 52 against a DeMatha (Md.) Catholic team that was ranked No. 3 in the nation at the Seagull Classic at Holy Spirit.
“People still talk to me about that game," Milt Wagner said.
At 6-foot-5, Milt Wagner was a lanky guard with a smooth shooting stroke and an unflappable demeanor. He played before the three-point shot was added to the high school game or his career-point total would have been much higher.
D.J. Wagner stands 6-foot-1 but has a loose-limbed build and youthful features. Just 14, he probably isn’t finished growing.
“He’s built like me, probably shoots like me, but everything else he got from his dad,” Milt Wagner said.
Dajuan Wagner scored a state-record, 3,462 points in his Camden career. He played one season at the University of Memphis and was the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft in 2002. He averaged 13.4 points for Cleveland as a rookie before illness and injuries ended his professional career.
“Trust me, he got a lot of his dad,” Milt Wagner said of his grandson. “He basically shoots like me, maybe he’s built like me but he plays like his dad because he attacks that basket, either hand.”
Milt Wagner said the expectations that surround D.J. Wagner at the start of his high school career are similar to the excitement in the city when Dajuan Wagner took the court for the Panthers in the fall of 1997.
“It was just as big when Juannie came in,” Milt Wagner said. “Same hype. He (Dajuan) was a middle-school phenom and D.J. was the same.”
Milt Wagner said his conversations with his grandson don’t focus on any technical aspects of the sport.
“The basketball, his dad has that and the kid has a lot of natural tools,” Milt Wagner said. "I just tell him go out and play hard, be a good teammate, make everybody else around you better.
“I tell him that’s what determines great players. I think he’s really tries to put that effort out there to do that, make his guys around him better.”
Milt Wagner said he hoped to attend as many Camden games as possible this season. He said he is most proud of his grandson’s team-first approach to the game.
“That’s unbelievable,” Milt Wagner said. “That goes back the credit to his mom (Syreeta Brittingham) and dad, they raised him well. He’s a respectful kid. He wants everybody else to do well.”