By Phil Anastasia
Mike Stargell coaches in a gymnasium named after his predecessor.
His players run beneath banners and plaques that commemorate the most-famous basketball program in South Jersey.
Stargell and the members of the Camden High School basketball team are looking to the future, but the past is everywhere: Tradition is ingrained in those old, tiled walls in Clarence Turner Gymnasium.
“Camden High basketball has one of the strongest traditions I’ve ever seen,” Stargell said. “If I go anywhere, nationwide, and mention Camden High basketball, people take notice.”
Stargell wasn’t complaining. He was celebrating.
He knows he has “big shoes to fill” as the new Camden coach, as the relative unknown who has replaced Turner, as the man in charge of the most-fabled program in South Jersey.
But to Stargell, Camden’s rich history is a help, not a hindrance. His players know the standard that has been set for them. He knows it, too.
“I’ve been around this program for a long time,” Stargell said. “I know Camden High School basketball. I’m not trying to set a new direction. I’m just trying to continue what Coach Turner established here.
“He’s the reason I have this job. This opportunity arose for me because of him.”
Turner retired in July after a wildly successful and occasionally controversial run at Camden. He won more games (771), sectional titles (21) and state titles (seven) than any coach in South Jersey history.
Turner had been Camden’s coach since 1971, save for four seasons from 1999 to 2002. During that time, the Panthers were coached by Glen Jackson, now the principal at Winslow Township High School.
Jackson has a unique perspective on the challenges facing Stargell.
“First of all, there’s no replacing Coach Turner,” Jackson said. “He’s a legend. He set the standard. I remember when I was a player there [in the mid-1980s], Coach always said we weren’t getting jackets for winning a South Jersey title. We only got jackets for winning a state title.
“That’s the expectation level at Camden. It’s a challenge. But it’s also exciting to be a part of it.”
Stargell, a history teacher at Camden as well as a member of the Pennsauken Board of Education, has been Turner’s top assistant for the last few seasons, and has worked on and off with the program for the last 12 to 15 years.
But his association with Camden High School basketball goes back to the early 1970s, when he was a player at Rutgers-Camden. His coach was Pony Wilson. One of his roommates was Ray Pace, a future draft pick by the Boston Celtics.
“We used to run at Rutgers’ gym with Darryl Lee and Derrick Ramsey and those guys,” Stargell said, referring to key members of Turner’s first state-championship team in 1973. “I played a lot of summer league with those guys and lots of other guys who were involved with Camden High basketball.
“Glenn Sunkett was around. Donyell Hayes. Lots of guys. I played for [future Woodrow Wilson coach] Bill Smothers, who was an assistant to Pony Wilson at Rutgers-Camden.
“That’s when I first started to have a relationship with Coach Turner.”
Stargell has high hopes for Camden. This year’s team will feature senior forward Aaron Walton, who led South Jersey in scoring last season with a 25.9 average. Walton left the school in the summer to enroll at Life Center in Burlington, but has since returned to Camden.
“He’s looking great,” Stargell said of Walton.
Junior guard Vincent Walls, a deadly outside shooter, probably is the Panthers’ No. 2 offensive option. He’s the son of former Camden star Kevin Walls.
The team also has promising young players in sophomore point guard Takquail Bailey and sophomore swingman Hubert Simmons.
“I expect a lot out of these kids,” Stargell said. “I expect a lot out of them on the floor and I expect a lot out of them off the floor as far as how they handle themselves.”
Stargell said he’s determined to develop a basketball program that features vibrant freshmen and junior-varsity teams. He’s especially excited about this year’s freshman class.
“They already are taller than the varsity,” Stargell said.
That’s the future. But at Camden, there’s no escaping the past.
Stargell is just Camden’s fourth coach since 1945. He follows Tony Alfano (1945-70), Turner (1971-98 and 2003-08) and Jackson (1999-2002).
Those other three guys won state titles. The walls of the old gym are covered with special mentions of the 2,000-point scorers, the state-championship teams, the undefeated teams, the teams that were ranked No. 1 in the nation.
History is everywhere, from the rafters to the shiny hardwood and down the steps and around the lockers to that window-less little team room that has launched some of South Jersey’s most memorable squads.
Mike Stargell and his players are looking confidently to the future. They believe the past will help them get there.