By Phil Anastasia
One way to tell that times have changed in South Jersey basketball is to note that Medford Tech is playing in Sunday's Group 2 state championship game.
Yes, Medford Tech.
Another way is to note that Camden and Atlantic City are rooting for each other.
"I'm pulling for them," Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said of Camden.
Camden coach Cetshwayo Byrd goes another step in his praise for Atlantic City. He wants the Panthers to aspire to be like the Vikings.
"He's got those guys playing defense," Byrd said of Allen. "He doesn't care if he wins, 3-2. That's what I'm trying to install in my guys."
Medford Tech's first-ever appearance in the state finals is ample evidence that it's 2013.
Camden and Atlantic City's admiration for each other is proof-positive that it's not 1997 anymore.
Or 1987 or 1977 or 1967 or even 1947 -- when Camden was two years removed from its first Group 4 state title and Atlantic City was a year away from an appearance in the Group 4 state finals.
"Lot of history," between the programs, Byrd noted.
Allen rightly dismisses the notion that Camden and Atlantic City were a kind of "twin towers" of South Jersey basketball for years and years. He knows the Vikings' tradition can't compare to the Panthers' rich history.
"One tower, maybe," Allen said.
It's true. Camden has won 11 state titles and made the finals 10 other times. Much of the Panthers' success used to come at the expense of the Vikings -- old-time Atlantic City fans probably still cringe at the memory of all those post-season losses at the hands of Clarence Turner's Camden teams.
Still, this was a real rivalry. There were times in the 1970s when they used to meet in the old South League League's title game at Bishop Eustace's fieldhouse and in the state tournament, too.
And one of Atlantic City's rare post-season victories over Camden came on a wild afternoon in 1997 -- the day of the infamous, "We Lose, We Fight, Bleeper-bleeping right," chant -- when police released a tear-gas-like substance to break up a parking-lot brawl and the stuff wafted into the gym with 0:04 on the clock and more than a few folks were overcome by fumes.
Good times? Not exactly. But there was a passion about the competition between the teams and schools and cities that pushed players from both sides to perform at their best, and created a rising tide that raised the rest of South Jersey basketball, too.
The twist in 2013 is that Atlantic City, which can win its second straight Group 4 state title and third since 2005 Sunday against Linden, has become the model program -- the new Camden.
And Camden, which will seeking its first state title since 2000 in the Group 3 title game against Newark East Side, is the program in hot pursuit of prominence -- the new Atlantic City.
And odder still, but perhaps the best sign of the times of all: They'll be rooting for each other.
Contact Phil Anastasia at email@example.com. Follow @PhilAnastasia on Twitter.