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Camden High and star D.J. Wagner celebrate a new beginning and a familiar tradition | Mike Sielski

Wagner, the top junior in the country, scored 26 points. The Panthers, a top-five team in the country, won. It was a big and important night for a community held together by hoops.

Camden High School star D.J. Wagner battles for a loose ball against Roselle Catholic's Christian Pierre-Louis (center) and Jamarques Lawrence (right) during Camden's 67-64 victory Friday.
Camden High School star D.J. Wagner battles for a loose ball against Roselle Catholic's Christian Pierre-Louis (center) and Jamarques Lawrence (right) during Camden's 67-64 victory Friday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Behind the new gates that led to the new parking lot at the new Camden High School, a line of people dozens deep snaked from the building’s main entrance late Friday afternoon, all of them seeking tickets to a boys’ basketball game. Outside the gates, which were closed and locked because the lot was full, a car pulled up, and a female police officer ducked her head to talk to the driver, then signaled to a security guard.

“One of the referees,” the officer said. “You gotta let him in, honey, or we’re gonna create chaos.”

It was a big night, an important night, in Camden, for reasons that were at once old and familiar and fresh and unprecedented. The basketball game was the first in the gleaming, modern high school’s gleaming, modern gym — a $133-million construction project that began in 2017. It was the first of the season for the Panthers, considered one of the three or four best teams in the country this season, and for their star, junior guard D.J. Wagner, ranked by ESPN as the top junior in the 2023 recruiting class. It was a 67-64 Camden victory over Roselle Catholic (N.J.), featuring a fourth-quarter comeback fueled by junior point guard Cian Medley’s terrific all-around play, by a late three-pointer by Wagner, and by the kind of crowd that signifies just how much the sport means and has meant to the city’s community.

The gym, full to its brim with a few hundred people, the team’s 10 state-championship banners hanging on a wall behind one basket, soon became a cauldron of sound. School-board members, administrators, faculty members, students, cheerleaders, parents, alumni, and residents walked the sidelines, screamed at their sons to follow through on their free throws, stomped their feet and chanted: “YOU WANT THE HIGH? YOU’VE GOT THE HIGH!” ESPN U televised the game to the nation. Vic Carstarphen — a Camden High alumnus who scored 2,136 points in his high school career, a former standout guard at Temple, and the city’s mayor — sat courtside in the bleachers. The scene was both the start and the continuation of a fascinating story.

» READ MORE: New Camden High complex completed with a nod to its historic ‘castle on the hill’ past

“It’s our history,” Carstarphen said. “We bleed basketball — purple and gold, so many great players, so many great teams. We’re just a small city, a small city that produces a lot of talent, talent that’s known across the country. You say ‘Camden basketball,’ people wake up, and they know what you’re talking about. From Chicago to L.A. to New York, they know Camden basketball, and these kids right here, they’re just continuing that tradition.”

No player on the team, of course, is more closely associated with that tradition than Wagner. His grandfather, Milt, and father, Dajuan, were legends at the school. Milt won a state championship at Camden, then, in 1986, a national championship at Louisville. Dajuan scored 3,462 points in high school, had a promising NBA career cut short by ulcerative colitis in the early 2000s, and now can watch his son play while catching glimpses at a giant placard in the gym: DAJUAN WAGNER COURT. For an indication of how tightly those ties bind, Carstarphen still has a photograph, taken 36 years ago, of himself and Dajuan. The former was in high school. The latter was 2.

On Friday, Carstarphen and the elder Wagners saw D.J. labor through a streaky shooting night and take his share of literal lumps. Six-foot-5, wiry and languid and with a baby’s face, he scored 26 points, making 11 of his 25 shots from the field, leaving the game for the final 59 seconds of the third quarter with a bloody nose only to return at the start of the fourth quarter with gauze and tissue stuffed up his right nostril. “I don’t even remember,” he said. “Must have bumped into somebody.” Then, a cramp in his right calf consigned him to the bench until an athletic trainer could knead the pain out of Wagner’s leg. But neither his banged-up nose nor his sore leg stopped him from diving to the floor twice to try to grab a loose ball, a sight that had to please the college coaches and scouts on hand to see him and the game’s other prospects.

“That’s part of it, man,” Milt Wagner said. “He’s used to it. He’s got that pitbull mentality. That just made him go harder. The more physicality there was, the harder he came.”

Whether those coaches who were at Camden High on Friday — from Seton Hall, from Fairfield, from elsewhere — have any realistic chance of coaxing Wagner to their campuses seems remote. Already, he has taken unofficial visits to Villanova and Temple, and his family’s legacy at Camden High is not the only relevant history when it comes to his recruiting. Milt is a close friend of William “World Wide Wes” Wesley, perhaps the consummate mover-and-shaker in the hoops world, and Dajuan played one year of college ball at Memphis for John Calipari, who has been the head coach at Kentucky since 2009.

Given that context, D.J.’s talent, and the cultural norms of 21st-century teenage basketball, his decision to attend and play for his hometown high school is a quaint, almost old-fashioned development. He did not bolt for a tony academy or a place that is ostensibly a charter school but in actuality just an assembly line of athletes. And to be in that gym Friday night — to see it, to hear it, to feel it — was to understand why he didn’t.

“I definitely imagined it was going to be like this,” he said after the game. “In my eyes, we’ve got the best fans in the world, and they showed that tonight. The atmosphere was definitely crazy.”

» READ MORE: Dajuan Wagner’s son has the game to become the region’s next high school basketball superstar

The gym quieter and emptier now, he joined his teammates and their friends and family members, all of them mingling on the court that bears his father’s name, and his. Just another night for Camden basketball. Just the kind of night that no one there had experienced before.