In Camden, NJ, the city’s high school athletes offer hope for families and youth. After once holding the “Poorest City in America” title, suffering one of the highest murder rates in the country and having to shift police control from the city to the county, community members embrace youth-focused events. Despite doubts that its residents could come together without a break in the peace, events supported by Camden’s top high school athletics competitors appear to spotlight love and inspire goodness. Camden High School’s top basketball star, Dajuan Wagner Jr. offered a host of activities for the community. From book bag giveaways to bounce houses and ice cream, it was a fun-filled afternoon in the City of Camden as people from the community came out to support the nation’s top-ranked high school basketball player, a camden native who is also a 2022 Junior Olympic Gold Medal Champion.
With the support of top brand sponsors, Nike and Subaru, along with the Camden County Police Department, the city hosted a great event for children returning to school. A lot of time, effort and money were invested in making the event happen to show youth there is positive energy in the city, and that there are people who care about their education and success in life.
There were smiles everywhere at Wiggins’ Waterfront Park as Camden youth admired their new $90 book bags filled with the supplies needed for success in school. They played basketball variation games such as H-O-R-S-E and knockout while vendors enjoyed entrepreneurial opportunities. Businesses like Juice Capitol and locally created Hustle By Nature clothes reached new customers.
Dajuan Jr, affectionately called ‘D.J.’ by some, was there handing out backpacks and playing basketball with young fans alongside his parents, Syreeta and Dajuan Sr., and a supporting cast of coaches and fellow athletes — all there to give back to the community. “It means a lot to me. Seeing everybody wear the shirts, supporting me,” Wagner Jr. told the crowd, “I’d like to thank my mom, too. Without her, all of this wouldn’t have been possible.”
Mayor Vic Carstarphen presented D.J. with a trophy on behalf of the City of Camden, saluting his leadership and community involvement.
Wagner Jr. is a third-generation Camden high school basketball superstar. His father Wagner Sr. and grandfather, Milton Wagner, both reached the pinnacle of the game, playing professional basketball in the NBA and abroad. Wagner Jr. is projected to follow a similar path to the pros after having played a crucial role in gaining positive national exposure that basketball success brought to Camden.
Wagner Jr. recently traveled to Spain with USA’s U 17 (Under 17) Men’s basketball team and returned with a gold medal. He averaged 9 points, helping the U.S. win their sixth consecutive Men’s U17 title.
Camden also boasts home to the nation’s number 5 ranked high school basketball player, 7-foot-2-inch center, Aaron Bradshaw. Together, Bradshaw and Wagner Jr. led Camden High to a 2022 Group 2 state championship with a 93-52 blowout win over Newark Central. It was a historic year because not only did Camden high win their state title, but its local rival, Woodrow Wilson (now Eastside High School), also won its Group 3 state title giving the city across the river from Philadelphia a reason to celebrate last spring with a parade. During the fall backpack giveaway, Minister Wasim Muhammad, Camden School District Advisory Board President, reminisced about his days playing Camden High basketball and the small city’s big support of its sports teams.
“I was on the 1986 basketball team. We were the number one team. Basketball has allowed me to go on and receive a college education [and play] at the University of New Mexico. I understand what sports do for our young people, opening up doors and laying foundations for the communities and families that support it,” said Muhammad. The Camden-born Nation of Islam minister has lived through decades of the city’s ups and downs, and is passionate about educating and nurturing youth. “It means everything to me. We work hard to bring resources to the community to impact our youth and families,” Muhammad proclaimed. He is an advocate who is committed to bettering Camden’s public school system. The national recognition afforded the basketball team played a major part in the $130 million makeover of the school, giving the students a chance to experience advanced technology and a learning atmosphere that is easier to thrive in.
“The team brings more than just a sense of pride to the city,” said Jaleel Hatcher, a former Camden High basketball player. “It feels as though the sports teams here are the heart of the city. [Like] everybody has ties to the team whether [as] a former player, relative or friend of someone who played. It really brings the city of Camden together as a family.”
Hatcher believes winning teams offer inspiration to young people who look up to D.J. and his teammates. “The team hasn’t had this type of status in a long time, so that gives the youth something to look forward to in hopes of sticking to chasing their sports dreams, and not succumbing to the negative influences in the streets,” Hatcher said.
In an era where kids are exposed to so much that forces learning about life at a faster pace, seeing people who live and look like them doing good things, helps young people see themselves and their city in a positive and promising light.
Tyson Waters is a freelance reporter and storyteller based in Camden, New Jersey. He enjoys sports, fitness and music.