Tuesday, Jan. 16, was a quiet day in Camden, N.J., a neglected
city of 80,000 souls immediately over the Benjamin Franklin
Bridge from Philadelphia. On that day Camden police recorded only
two domestic disputes, two auto thefts, one aggravated assault
with a bottle, another with a shotgun and one drug arrest for
possession with intent to distribute within 1,000 feet of a
school. The day's only real news came out of the creaking gym at
Camden High: Dajuan Wagner, a senior guard considered by many to
be the best schoolboy basketball player in the country, scored
100 points in a game. He could have scored more, but he spent the
final four minutes standing beside the team's scrubs and student
fans, kids who might never leave Camden.
"A hundred is a magic number," says the 6'3" man-child, who will
turn 18 on Feb. 4. "But scoring 100 was never a goal."
In the days after Wagner's 100-point performance--which came in a
157-67 shellacking of a conference opponent, Gloucester Township
Tech--sportswriters and radio babblers, locally and nationally,
sermonized about the death of sportsmanship. (That same Tuesday
night Cedric Hensley, a 6'4" junior swingman from the Heritage
Christian Academy in Cleveland, Texas, scored 101 points in a
178-28 win over The Banff School, whose squad included 10
freshmen, none taller than 6 feet.) Some commentators flayed the
Camden coach, Glen Jackson, for having his team, ranked third in
the country by USA Today, press all 32 minutes of the game.
Psychologists were trotted out to pontificate about the damage
done to the kids on the losing side. There was only one problem.
The losers from Gloucester, they were just fine.
"We were all laughing about it, except Coach," says Brandon
Sunkett, a Gloucester Tech starter. "You know Dajuan's gonna
score; what you don't know is how. So you might as well enjoy
In Camden basketball is part of the culture, and at certain
playgrounds--9th and Ferry, Whitman Park, 8th and Central--Wagner
has been a legend since grade school. He is an offensive machine,
able to score off the dribble or from NBA three-point range. He's
bigger than the rappers, bigger than the dealers, bigger than the
preachers. He's Juanny, and all through Camden his exploits are
known. "This is a city where people are trying to survive," says
Ray Massi, a Camden police captain. "Somebody like Dajuan comes
along, you've got to celebrate him. We know the kids who get in
trouble in this city. He's not one of them."
Except on one occasion. On Dec. 8 Wagner and two other Camden
High students allegedly beat up a fourth student in a school
hallway. All three boys were charged with juvenile delinquency
and suspended for five days. The victim required four stitches
over his eye, but no weapons were involved. A pretrial conference
is scheduled for next week to determine whether punitive action
will be taken.
Before Wagner even arrived at the police station that day, a
small cadre of lawyers had gathered there on his behalf. That's
what happens when you're the best high school basketball player
in the country. The night of his 100-point game, a family friend
arranged for Wagner to have dinner with two Super Bowl
participants, Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens and Jessie
Armstead of the New York Giants. Wagner has often hung with
Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers.
The kid is connected. His father, Milt (Ice) Wagner, was a
celebrated guard at Camden High 20 years ago, famous for
prodigious scoring without breaking a sweat. In 1986 he won an
NCAA title with Louisville, and in 1988 he won an NBA
championship with the Los Angeles Lakers. The old man--he's 37
now--played two years in the NBA, nine overseas and three more in
various U.S. pro leagues before retiring last year.
Milt never married Dajuan's mother, Lisa Paulk, but he wasn't a
mail-it-in father, either. Last season an old acquaintance of
Milt's, John Calipari, was working as an assistant coach for the
Sixers, and the Wagners, father and son, frequently attended
practices. "I'd watch," says Dajuan. "That's how you learn."
Calipari attended many Camden High home games, mesmerized by
Wagner but also intrigued by a Panthers forward, 6'8" Arthur
Barclay, who grew up in the same house as Dajuan. Arthur and
Dajuan think of themselves as brothers, although they are not
blood relatives, and Wagner has been saying for years that he
would play his college ball wherever his brother went. Calipari,
who became tight with the family, took Dajuan at his word.
In December 1999 Calipari began talks with Memphis about coaching
there. In mid-March of last year, he took the job. About a month
later he offered Milt, who was looking to get into coaching, a
job as an administrative assistant with the team. At nearly the
same time, Barclay announced he would attend Memphis. Two months
later, near the end of his junior year, Dajuan ended all
recruiting suspense before it really began, announcing that he
would be heading to Memphis, too. It was all very cozy.
Legal, too: When Calipari was with the Sixers, NCAA recruiting
rules did not apply to him. "The more gracious coaches are
saying, 'You got a good one,'" Calipari says. "The others say,
'You hired the father to get the kid.' Truth is, Milt could get a
job anywhere, Arthur was underrecruited and Dajuan might be in
the NBA in a year. But I'm gonna teach him how to play defense
It's unlikely that Milt truly could get work anywhere, because
most schools require a coach to have a bachelor's degree, and
Milt doesn't have one. However, he's working for Calipari and
taking classes toward his degree. Barclay might have been
underrecruited because he didn't qualify academically, but he's a
freshman at Memphis, paying his own way for his first year. As
for Dajuan, his legend grows with every game.
Two nights after the 100-point game, the Panthers were home
again. Four minutes into the game--after Wagner had scored on a
driving layup, a three-pointer and a dunk--the fans were on their
feet, including Dajuan's mother. As a junior at Camden High she
ran track, but by her senior year, 1982-83, she was pregnant with
Dajuan and her running days were over. Last Thursday she was back
in her old gym, keeping her son's stats on pink paper and keeping
him honest, too. At one point she yelled, "That was your
turnover, Juanny!" In a quiet moment, though, she said to another
spectator, "I got a job, I got a house, I'm not going to send him
to the NBA so he can support me. What I need him to get is an
Wagner scored 54 points. The Panthers, who were 11-0 at week's
end, beat Highland High 84-73. Afterward a local columnist, who
had questioned the sporting value of Wagner's 100-point game,
found himself surrounded by Paulk and a half-dozen fuming fans,
all fussing at him for his criticism.
Dajuan was away from the fray, in a hallway, surrounded by ogling
kids. "My father taught me to respect the game," he was saying
softly. He's going places, and everybody knows it. "If you
respect the game," Dajuan continued, "everything else will be all
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS SCORING MACHINE In a follow-up to his 100-point game, Wagner scored a mere 54 as the Panthers rolled to an 11-point win.