Dajuan Wagner says he never frets over the misfortune that followed him once he left Camden High School as perhaps the best basketball player in New Jersey history.
From the stomach aches during his one year at the University of Memphis - omens of a life-threatening condition that would require radical surgery - to the bladder infection to the twice-torn knee cartilage to the inflamed liver and pancreas to the ankle ailments to the hip injury, Wagner sometimes seemed as cursed in his post-scholastic career as he was blessed during his prime time with the Panthers.
"I'm never bitter," Wagner said. "I'm good. There was nothing I could do about it.
"But I do think about it. I think about it a lot."
Lately, Wagner has done more than wonder about what might have happened had he stayed healthy. He has committed to an intensive workout program that he hopes will lead to a resurrection of his career at the age of 31.
A chiseled 200 pounds, the 6-foot-2 Wagner believes he has begun to regain the explosive athletic ability that was as much the source of his success in the sport as his jump shot, ballhandling and court sense.
After another training session on a recent afternoon at the Adrenaline Sports Performance facility in Cherry Hill, where he is part-owner, Wagner said he is determined to push himself to see if he can play again at the highest level of the sport - in the NBA.
Wagner last played in the NBA in November 2006.
"I want to see if I can do it," Wagner said. "I want to try. I still love to play. It's all I've ever known."
Camden city councilman Arthur Barclay, a teammate of Wagner's at Camden and Memphis, said his old friend's return to the court would be a thrill.
"I get chills just thinking about it," Barclay said.
It's tough to overstate Wagner's brilliance as a high school athlete and his impact on Camden, a city once described by a longtime politician as having "three religions: Christianity, Islam and basketball."
The son of former Camden star Milt Wagner - who won an NCAA title with Louisville in 1986 and was a member of the 1988 Los Angeles Lakers NBA title team - Dajuan Wagner was regarded as the city's "chosen one" before he was a teenager.
"I embraced that," Wagner said. "That made me better."
Wagner scored 737 points as a freshman. He averaged 35 points as a sophomore. He scored 47 in the state championship game as a junior, moving Newark Shabazz coach Lou Grimsley to declare, "That boy ought to be illegal."
As a senior in 2000-2001, Wagner was a rock star. He averaged 42 points and scored 100 in a game.
When Camden faced national power St. Anthony of Jersey City, legendary Friars coach Bob Hurley said his assistants and his wife spent halftime arguing over their favorite Wagner play from the first half.
"The things he would do were unbelievable," Barclay said. "I was there. I saw it. I believe he was one of the best high school players ever, anywhere."
Things started to go wrong for Wagner during his one-and-done season at Memphis. He was bothered by stomach aches and sometimes felt sapped of strength.
"He would be like, 'My stomach is killing me,' " said Barclay, then Wagner's roommate.
Wagner was selected No. 6 overall by Cleveland in the 2002 NBA draft. He missed his first 14 games with a bladder infection, a sign of bad things to come.
Later that season, he tore cartilage in his right knee. Then came a series of ailments, from dehydration to an inflamed liver and pancreas to a sprained ankle to another knee injury.
In three seasons with the Cavaliers, Wagner played in 102 of 246 games. He was released after the 2004-05 season.
Soon after that, Wagner learned that he had a severe case of colitis, an inflammation of the colon. He underwent surgery in October of 2005 to remove his colon and replace it with a pouch constructed from his small intestine.
Wagner battled back from that surgery, got himself in shape - or so he thought - and signed with Golden State in the summer of 2006. But after a strong preseason, he realized his body couldn't withstand the demands of life as an NBA player. He was released in November 2006.
He tried to play overseas, spending four months in the fall of 2007 with a team in Poland. But he said he landed hard on his hip, creating an infection that required another surgery.
"It was one thing after another," Barclay said.
Wagner returned to South Jersey in time for Christmas in 2007, his body ravaged, his career in ruins.
"I just needed to rest my body," Wagner said.
Wagner said there was a positive to his return home: He has been able to spend time with his son, Dajuan Jr., 9, as well as his daughter, Dayonni, 2, and stepson Kareem, 12.
Wagner also reconnected with South Jersey basketball. He has been a volunteer assistant at Camden and his workout facility often features some of the area's top players.
The other day, Trenton Catholic star Malachi Richardson, a Syracuse recruit, was working out at the complex along with Cherry Hill West senior Can Oztamur and Camden seniors Will McCants and Rasool Hinson, among others.
"We'll evaluate opportunities when Dajuan is ready," said Wagner's agent, Cherry Hill attorney Leon Rose. "But just watching what Dajuan has done with his gym and working with young people, it's been great to see."
Son becomes his fan
Wagner said his son, who is a fourth grader, is a standout running back for the 85-pound Monroe Braves youth team. He's a budding basketball star, too.
Lately, the younger Wagner has begun to express more interest in learning about his father and grandfather.
"He goes on the Internet and watches YouTube of me and my dad," Wagner said.
Wagner knows all about the pressures of being the son of a famous father. He said he is careful to protect his boy from the weight of high expectations.
But he also says that his son's burgeoning success in sports has been a big part of his motivation to try to make a comeback. He said his son wants to see him play for real, not just on video.
"He wants to see me do it," Wagner said. "People tell him all the time about me, just like they used to tell me about my dad."
Wagner does his strength and conditioning work with Chad Hallett, who is a part-owner of the Cherry Hill facility. "Last year, he couldn't even dunk," Hallett said. "Now he's doing windmills."
Wagner's basketball workouts have been supervised by Guy Ikpah, a former Williamstown athlete who played at Oklahoma State and with the Nigerian national team.
Ikpah said he has worked with "70 or 80" NBA players during his career as a personal trainer.
"He's the most gifted offensive player I've ever been around," Ikpah said of Wagner.
Even though NBA training camps have opened, Wagner is not in a hurry. He said he wants to push himself hard for the next month and then gauge his strength and conditioning.
"I want to see how I feel," Wagner said.
Wagner could play in Europe this winter or perhaps in China or Puerto Rico. He could test-drive his game in the NBA Development League.
Wagner said his comeback is "not life or death." He's fine financially after signing a $10.7 million rookie contract with Cleveland.
But he can't help but wonder if he still can excel in the game he believes he was born to play.
He also can't help but wonder if there is time to reconcile the confounding contradiction of his legacy: He is both New Jersey basketball's best-ever player and its ultimate "What If" story.
"I don't want to get to be 37 and think back and say, 'I wonder if I could have still played,' " Wagner said. "If I feel strong enough, if my body is right, I know I can do it. The basketball won't be a problem. I've done that my whole life."