Generations of fans cheering nationally ranked Camden High into playoffs

On January 21, 2020, freshman Panther D.J. Wagner, whose father and grandfather both played for Camden High and went on to the NBA, goes into action against Woodrow Wilson High School. (April Saul for WHYY)

On January 21, 2020, freshman Panther D.J. Wagner, whose father and grandfather both played for Camden High and went on to the NBA, goes into action against Woodrow Wilson High School. (April Saul for WHYY)

Nobody in her family will sit with Shemeika Hudson at Camden High sporting events, but she doesn’t mind.

“I yell at football games, I yell at track meets, I yell at basketball games,” she said. “My husband says I’m too loud, and my daughter asks, ‘How do you not lose your voice?’”

But CHS basketball power forward Lance Ware reassured her.

“Lance told me,” she recalled, “’You can sit anywhere you want, Miss Shemeika, we love to hear you cheer.’”

Panther fan Shemeika Hudson cheers Camden High on as they beat Shawnee High School. Hudson yells so loud that her husband and kids won’t sit with her. (April Saul for WHYY)

The Camden High Panthers — ranked the best public school team in New Jersey and one of the top 20 high school basketball squads in America — are entering the playoffs Tuesday after a 25-1 regular season, and their fans are cheering louder than ever.

At nearly every game, Charlie Miller, a 1979 CHS alum, stands behind the basket during warmups, hoisting a large poster board with a collage of inspirational words and pictures he’s created.

Fan Charlie Miller holds up a giant collage he made to encourage the Camden Panthers to win the school’s 12th state championship as players warm-up for a game against Paul VI High School. (April Saul for WHYY)

Miller also texts encouraging messages to players using nicknames he’s given them: TaQuan Woodley is Baby Shaq; Jerome Brewer is Baby Kobe. “I just love what I’m doing,” he said.

Sitting near the Camden High bench is former Panther Dajuan Wagner, who once scored 100 points in a game and is the leading scorer in New Jersey high school basketball history. This year, it’s the ascendance of his son, Panther D.J. Wagner — considered one of the best freshman players in the U.S. — that ensures the elder Wagner doesn’t miss a game.

Wagner is often accompanied by Bill Nickens, who played with Dajuan’s dad, former NBA star Milt Wagner, at Camden High in 1981. “Now the legacy continues!” said Nickens. “It’s Wagners’ ballroom, part three!”

Although not every fan is a Camden High alumnus, they are united in their dedication to Camden kids.

Panthers fans cheer for Camden High’s basketball team as they triumph over Timber Creek at Timber Creek High School. (April Saul for WHYY)

Miller, a school bus driver, has bought a basketball for a player and groceries for the teen’s family.  Shemeika Hudson and husband Matthew Hudson started a booster club to promote CHS athletes 2 ½ years ago, when her son Jajuan Hudson was running track and playing football. The couple, who met as college students in North Carolina, mentor many of the kids; they call her “Mom” and phone for advice.

“I’m a familiar face,” said Hudson,  “Someone to cheer them on, encourage them, boost their self-esteem.  My son has told me, for some of the boys, I have made a difference in their lives.”

When the Hudsons stayed involved after their son’s 2019 graduation, it seemed to surprise people.

“They say, ‘Why are you still here?’” she said. “Yes, he’s leaving, but my husband and I still live in Camden. Because it’s not about us, it’s about the kids.”

Panther fans cheer on Camden High as the basketball team defeats Lenape High School at Lenape. In the middle, pointing is Shemeika Hudson, who along with her husband started a booster club to promote CHS athletes. (April Saul for WHYY)

Traditions

Panthers fans have proud traditions.  They will tell you they “bleed purple and gold,” the school colors, and are known to shout, “You want the High, you got the High!” — though nobody knows exactly where that saying came from.

They also acknowledge that in a poor city, not every student-athlete has a parent available to show up, and that can make their presence even more important.

Carrie Perry Matthews was enchanted by Camden High — then an imposing, Gothic edifice nicknamed “The Castle on the Hill” — from an early age.  Matthews, a 1966 CHS alum, attended Whittier Elementary School, and from her desk, she said, “You could see the tip of the Castle.” Now retired military, she rarely misses a game, and earlier this season, she followed the Panthers to a tournament in Massachusetts.

Panthers fans and players–from left to right, Cornelius Robinson; D.J. Wagner; Jairaye Reyes; and Jerome Brewer enjoy a victory against crosstown rival Woodrow Wilson High School. (April Saul for WHYY)

“A lot of the kids have parents working two or three jobs,” she said, “and you play best when you have support. Being from Camden, you have to play that much better because the odds are against you.”

Matthews admits that witnessing D.J. Wagner’s arrival on the court this year, after having watched his father and grandfather play, made her feel “really old.”

“I said to myself: Wow, it’s been over 50 years that I’ve been attending these games!”

Panther fans root for Camden High as the team beats Roselle Catholic at Neumann University. (April Saul for WHYY)

Camden High fandom can create bonds. CHS alum Bo Simpson remembers the night that Charlie Miller, whom he didn’t know well, showed up at his door around 10 p.m. after an evening basketball game.

“My wife opened the door,” said Simpson, “and said, ‘It’s the sign guy!’ I went downstairs, and Charlie was all hyped up about the game just wanting to talk about it.”

Over the years, Matthews often attended Camden sporting events with fellow alums Willie Baker and Bo Simpson.

On Jan. 20, 2018, Simpson, also a class of ’66 graduate, was on his way to pick up Baker to attend a big basketball game that day: Camden High versus Westtown, a very tough Pennsylvania team, at the Kobe Bryant Classic tournament on the Main Line.

Simpson calls Baker “a great, great guy” who’d been too small to play basketball at CHS but had wound up as the team’s manager, and had once been given an award for being “Fan of the Year.”  The two men hadn’t been close in high school — Simpson was a year younger — but had become close after they started attending Camden sporting events together.

That day, Simpson stopped to retrieve his grandson first; when he arrived, the teen was in tears.

Apparently, Baker had been sitting by his front door waiting for Simpson when he had a heart attack and died, a phone in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Because Baker wore Panthers attire to all the games, Matthews and Simpson assume he died in his purple and gold.

At the tournament, Matthews arranged for a moment of silence in Baker’s honor. Underdogs that day, the Panthers rallied to beat Westtown at the buzzer and celebrated like they’d won a championship.

“It was,” said Simpson, “the best game we played all year.”

Panthers power forward Lance Ware dunks on the way to beating Bishop Eustace. Ware says of the fans: “They show love at every game no matter what; they give us energy and momentum.” (April Saul for WHYY)

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