By Phil Anastasia
Clarence Turner coached Camden High basketball from 1971 through 2008, save for four seasons from 1999-2002.
Turner, who died Sunday at the age of 81, won 775 games, 22 South Jersey titles and seven state titles.
Which was his best team? What are his Top 10 teams?
It makes for some good arguments.
Here's a countdown of Turner's 10 best teams, in one man's opinion anyway:
Honorable mention: 1998 (21-7). This was Dajuan Wagner's freshman year. A lot of people around Camden basketball remain disappointed that Camden's greatest coach never really got the chance to coach Camden's greatest player. Wagner said Sunday that Turner had been grooming Wagner for stardom since around the second grade, when Wagner used to attend practice, go on road trips and occasionally get in the layup-line before games with the Panthers.
"He had me convinced when I was in fifth grade that I could have been playing in high school," Wagner said. "He was the reason I wanted to play for Camden High. Him and my dad (Milt Wagner)."
Turner only coached Wagner in the 1997-98 season. That team won the South Jersey Group 3 title, beating Middle Township at Eastern in a game that featured a sensational performance by the baby-faced Wagner.
But the Panthers lost in the state semifinals in the next round at Perth Amboy. There was a fight at the game, and the NJSIAA banned Turner from coaching for two years.
Glen Jackson replaced Turner and coached the Panthers for four years before Turner returned -- and three of those years were Wagner's sophomore, junior and senior seasons.
No disrespect to Jackson, who did a good job, but there are a lot of people who believe that Turner if had coached Wagner in those three seasons that the Panthers would have won three state titles -- instead of one in Wagner's junior season in 2000.
In that case, Turner would have had about 80 more wins on his career record and three more state titles.
(Note: Camden was ineligible for state tournament play in 1999 as a result of that incident in 1998. That 1999 season was Wagner's sophomore year and Arthur Barclay's junior year. Camden played just 17 games that season. Wagner averaged 35 as a sophomore. If Camden had played 13 more games, he would have scored 400 more points and his career total would have been nearly 4,000. Think about that).
Anyway, here's Turner's Top Ten Teams, in my estimation:
10. 1983 (25-2). This was Kevin Walls' junior season. The Panthers went 83-6 in Walls' sophomore, junior and senior seasons, and won Group 4 state crowns when the crafty left-hander was a sophomore and senior. This was the in-between team.
9. 1988 (27-4). This was Vic Carstarphen and Denny Brown's senior season. Those guys had been starters on teams that won Group 4 state titles in 1986 and 1987 and they came within a whisker of winning three in a row. No Camden team has ever done that. Camden lost that year by a point in the state finals to an Elizabeth team that had 7-foot-1 Luther Wright.
8. 1978 (29-1). This was Billy Culbertson's junior season. The Panthers won their second state title under Turner, capturing the Group 4 crown. This was when Camden basketball started to hit another gear. The next decade would be a golden age in Camden and South Jersey basketball history.
7. 1987 (28-3). This was Carstarphen and Brown's junior year. The Panthers won their second straight Group 4 state title. This was Turner's last state championship team. He won all seven state titles between 1974-87, a remarkable run of great players, great teams and great moments.
6. 1974 (28-1). This was Turner's first state title. The Panthers won the Group 3 crown with a team that featured future NFL stars Derrick Ramsey and Art Still as well as Darryl Lee and Charles Brent. Camden had been ineligible for the state tournament in 1973, so this team was carrying a bit of a grudge all season.
5. 1979 (25-4). This was Billy Culbertson's senior season and Milt Wagner's sophomore season. Wagner hit a huge shot against Middletown in the state semifinals. Culbertson, who would play at South Alabama and Pitt, was one of the best guards and leaders to ever wear a Camden uniform. He sometimes gets overlooked in lists of the best players in Camden history but he belongs with the all-time greats. The guy led the Panthers to back-to-back Group 4 state titles.
4. 1984 (31-0). This was Kevin Walls' senior year and Louis Banks' sophomore year. Walls averaged 44 per game. Nobody ever had a better mid-range game than Walls. He was the master of the 10-foot bank shot. But the silky smoothness of his game was draped over a steely competitive edge.
3. 1982 (27-4). This was Billy Thompson's senior year and Walls' sophomore year. A lot of people link Thompson with that famous 1981 team and remember the disappointment of that ending. But Thompson was a junior on that team. The next year, he was the consensus best player in the country. He played like it, too, in leading Camden to the state title.
2. 1981 (27-1). This probably was Turner's most talented team but I can't rate them ahead of the 1986 team. The 1981 team averaged an astounding 104 points a game. They were a national phenomenom. Five years later, three guys from that team -- Milt Wagner, Thompson and Walls -- would be in the top eight for a Louisville team that won the national title, beating Duke in Dallas. The 1981 team would regularly score in the 120s. Wagner went for 52 in a beat-down of nationally ranked DeMatha in the old Seagull Classic at Holy Spirit. I remember DeMatha coach Morgan Wooten raving about Wagner after that game. The thing about this team was that it lost its last game. It was a stunner, a 20-point loss to Neptune in the Group 4 state semifinal before 11,000 fans at Princeton.
1. 1986 (30-0). This was Louis Banks' senior year. Carstarphen, Brown and Donnie Walker were other key players for a dominating team that won a pair of battles with John Valore's best team at CH East -- the squad that had four 1,000-point scorers in the Temple-bound Katsikas brothers, Tom and Nick, as well as Marc Levy and Frankie Williams. Those games were unbelievable. This Camden team was ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today. Banks was the key. He was a 6-foot-6 swing forward who played as hard as anybody who ever represented Camden. I'm not sure I've ever covered a more competitive high school athlete than Louis Banks that season. The guy had an iron will.
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