Miller: Rick Brunson’s Return Good for Camden Fans, Community


Rann Miller

By Rann Miller | Guest Blogger AC JosepH Media

I love basketball. I love the NBA, no doubt. But I really enjoy high school basketball; South Jersey basketball is the best (I am biased).

I am an alumnus of Camden Catholic High School. While I am from Camden, I have no ties to Camden High School other than knowing friends who graduated from there. But I am a fan of South Jersey basketball and I am a fan of greatness. The 2019-2020 Camden High School Panthers Basketball team were great. They were so great that the only thing that could stop the team from winning a state championship was something like a pandemic because no team in the state of New Jersey could … and it did.

As a fan of basketball greatness, I looked forward to potentially watching Camden High on the court this year with many of the same players, as well as coach and former NBA player Rick Brunson. So, you can imagine that I was sad to hear that Coach Brunson was resigning from the team. Coach Brunson is very theatrical on the sidelines during games; he puts on quite a performance. But if you get too caught up in watching him perform, you miss the beautiful performance of the team.

The team was 29-1 last year; the team was a well-oiled machine.

So, I was happy to hear that Coach Brunson rescinded his resignation. Not only would the team have the same coach for a second consecutive year for the first time in 3 years, but there is more greatness to look forward to with Brunson leading the Panthers. The players are super talented; there is D-1 talent on the team — maybe even NBA talent.

But make no mistake: Brunson is the driver of that Hemi engine. 

Brunson said per the Courier Post:

“It kept hitting me, those kids’ dreams are more important than yours. You’ve lived your life. You’ve lived a long life in terms of, basketball wise, you did a lot, so why not help them? … It brought me to call Camden back and say I think I made a mistake. I made a mistake. I was being, in my opinion, selfish. I wanted to go do something for me instead of doing something for them … I want to put my dreams on hold to make sure my kids who I started with reached their dreams.”

Again, I have no ties to Camden High or the team. I don’t personally know Rick Brunson. For what it’s worth, my parents, aunts, uncles and in-laws went to Woodrow Wilson. But I am a fan of basketball and I like to believe that I know greatness when I see it, and trust me: all of South Jersey knew it too.

As I mentioned earlier, I graduated from Camden Catholic High School many years ago and one of the only things that makes you feel older than you do when you receive your twenty-year class reunion save-the-date is having a younger member of your family walk the same halls you walked in high school. I received that save-the-date the same day I went to Tom Kenney Gymnasium to watch my younger cousin play a varsity basketball game against Camden High School.

It was also the first time I got the chance to watch Brunson and the Panthers.

The icing on the cake was watching DJ Wagner take the court. It brought to my mind the epic games his father had against Camden Catholic when I was in high school; including a 30-point performance in his last game against Camden Catholic, a game where folks broke into the locker rooms to see the game.

I felt old that day too.

Maybe LeBron James felt old when he posted the picture of him and his son juxtaposed with DaJuan and DJ Wagner, but I digress.

Nevertheless, these Panthers weren’t your grandfather’s Panthers. Shout out to Ron “Itchy” Smith (God rest his soul). They weren’t Dajuan Wagner’s Panthers either.

How did the game go you ask? It was a blow out. But that’s not what mattered. What mattered was the details; details that became in-game habits throughout the season.

I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a high school team rotate nine to ten players in games, throughout the season, with no drop off; scoring at will while playing elite-level defense. I know coach Rick Brunson said he patterns his coaching after John Cheney, but his team was reminiscent of Nolan Richardson‘s 40 minutes of hell.

The team was well-coached from top to bottom. The squad was disciplined, the squad could score in a multitude of ways and did I mention they played elite defense?

Rick Brunson pressed all the right buttons; every game. When he told his players to press, they pressed. When he said to attack, they attacked. With the knowledge of what his players could do, he would yell to his ball handler to dribble drive past an opposing defender and they did.

What fans saw was a coach yelling and screaming. I saw a man pressing buttons at will with knowledge of every detail; down to knowing the names of each referee.

The players carried out the game plan to near perfection each game. Lance Ware, Jerome Brewer, TaQuan Woodley, DJ Wagner, and the remaining players were the orchestra; playing a symphony of a season that was a work of art.

Brunson was the conductor.

Even better than all of that, the young men on the Camden High basketball team displayed the sportsmanship of championship players of any level. Some outside the city of Camden have shared negative comments about the city’s residents; specifically, the city’s youth. But those young men displayed the character you desire from any athlete. They showed toughness, respect and a commitment to excellence.

This team is emblematic of the people of Camden. Brunson deserves credit for that, in addition to the families of the players.

Too often, people only look back to the early to mid-twentieth century to discuss Camden; a time considered special to those families who once called the city home. However, the humanity and spirit of the residents didn’t leave with those who left the city for the suburbs. The spirit of hard work, perseverance, and faith remains throughout the communities of the city.

It is that very spirit that fuels entrepreneurs each day to open their restaurants, salons, barbershops and bodegas; or even open their carts on the streets to sell their products. It is that very spirit the fueled community activism that won the right for city residents to vote for the school district’s advisory board. It is that very spirit that fueled those young men on the basketball court.

It’s that very spirit that kept Rick Brunson in Camden.

The Coronavirus has changed the way we live. It’ll certainly change the way we consume high school basketball. But if you can get a chance to witness greatness in a high school gym, go watch “the High” play. You may not see me, but I’ll probably be there.

Bio: Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer, and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @UrbanEdDJ.  

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