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New era begins at Camden

For years and years, John Valore walked up the steps and into the famous old gymnasium at Camden High School.

Coach John Valore with Camden players.  (David M Warren/Staff Photographer)
Coach John Valore with Camden players. (David M Warren/Staff Photographer)Read more

For years and years, John Valore walked up the steps and into the famous old gymnasium at Camden High School.

He always turned right and headed to the visitors locker room.

Now, he turns left and makes his way to the home locker room.

"I think about it quite a lot," Valore said of the situation that sums up a season of change in South Jersey boys' basketball. "It's different, that's for sure."

A little more than a month after the death of legendary former Camden coach Clarence Turner - whose name is affixed to the brick wall outside and painted on the hardwood floor inside the gym where Valore directs his new team - another season is set to begin amid signs of significant upheaval.

Some of the other tremors:

Jim Crawford retired in the fall after 35 seasons as Camden Catholic coach. Crawford, whose teams won 713 games, was replaced by his son Matt.

Transfers in: Pitman added Deptford transfer Tyler Wisniewski, Schalick added Sacred Heart transfers Mike Holloway and Tyler Lundsford, Pemberton added 6-7 Jean Lebrun from Haiti, and Camden Catholic added 6-9 Demola Onifade from Nigeria.

Transfers out: Medford Tech, the defending South Jersey Group 2 champion, lost senior Eli Cain and junior Myles Powell; Rancocas Valley lost junior Ned Ogoemesim; and Bishop Eustace lost senior guard Dvonne Trumbo.

Injuries: Lenape lost its top returning player, senior forward Cameron Green (knee); Cherry Hill West lost a 1,000-point scorer in senior guard Rodney Williams (leg); Rancocas Valley lost its top defender, junior guard Shaun Bradley (knee); and Camden Catholic lost Onifade (shoulder) - all indefinitely.

But nothing symbolizes the upheaval in South Jersey basketball more than the sight of Valore on the Camden sideline.

Valore, 69, coached Cherry Hill East from 1976 to 2011. He won 549 games and became the face of the program at the suburban school in the affluent community. Why, the playing surface there is known as "John Valore Court."

But after a season at Cumberland, Valore was hired to replace former Camden coach Cetshwayo Byrd, who was suspended for the 2013-14 season by the school system's central administration for allowing a filmmaker to create a documentary about the 2011-12 team without the board of education's approval.

Byrd's removal created a firestorm of controversy around a team that has long ignited the passions of Camden City residents as well as others with connections to the fabled program that has won nine state titles and produced some of the most famous athletes and squads in South Jersey sports history.

"I know there's going to be a lot of people coaching basketball in the stands," Valore said. "I know there's going to be a lot of people questioning everything that I do.

"But I've been around a long time. I can withstand the pressure, the stress."

Valore has the support of some legendary former Camden players. Vic Carstarphen, who played on two Group 4 state-championship teams in the late 1980s and also helped Temple to a pair of Elite 8 appearances in the NCAA tournament, is Valore's top assistant.

Former Camden star Arthur Barclay, a newly elected city councilman who helped Camden to the 2000 Tournament of Champions title and played under current Kentucky coach John Calipari at Memphis, is a volunteer assistant.

And perhaps Camden's best player of all time, 2001 graduate Dajuan Wagner - New Jersey's all-time leading scorer in boys' basketball with 3,462 points - is a regular at practices.

Valore also has made a positive impression on the current Camden players.

"He's brought responsibility and accountability," Camden senior forward Jamil Maddred said.

Said Camden senior guard Tavaris Headen: "He's brought a lot of discipline. He stays on us hard."

Valore loves fastbreak offense, three-point shots, and zone defense.

His practices feature a lot of shooting from distance, with coaches urging players to continue to push the basketball up the floor.

"He doesn't take anything away from us," junior guard Will McCants said.

Said sophomore guard Brad Hawkins: "We're becoming a better shooting team. We shoot so much, we get better every day."

This Camden team lacks height. Valore said the Panthers likely will have three or four guards and one or two forwards on the floor most of the time.

The 5-foot-9 Headen is a clever lefthander who was a first-team All-South Jersey selection last season.

The 6-1 Hawkins, 6-3 sophomore Jamal Holloway, and 6-0 junior Rasool Hinson also are returning starters from a team that won the South Jersey Group 3 title.

"I think we're going all the way," Hawkins said.

Expectations always are high around the Camden program. That's nothing new.

And the Panthers, as usual, have a loaded schedule, with tough home-and-home games with Olympic National rivals Paul VI, Camden Catholic, Bishop Eustace, and Woodrow Wilson, as well as games with national power St. Anthony of Jersey City and state powers Atlantic City and Pitman.

But what's different this season is the man in charge on the sideline. Valore is Camden's first non-African-American boys' basketball coach since Tony Alfano retired in 1970.

"Playing Camden used to be our most enjoyable games of the year," Valore said of battles with Turner-led teams. "Camden was Group 4 back in those days. Sometimes, we would play them three times a year.

"I loved those games. It was great competition, great for South Jersey basketball."

After an offseason of tumult, nothing is likely to seem more surreal to some observers than John Valore emerging from the home locker at Camden and sitting on the bench from where Clarence Turner ruled the South Jersey scene.

"It's a nice challenge for me," Valore said. "It's a nice position for me to be in at this stage of my career."