Milt Wagner played in three Final Fours and won the 1986 NCAA national championship with University of Louisville.
He played on the Los Angeles Lakers team that won the 1988 NBA championship.
Yet when he travels the basketball world, the game Wagner hears about as much as any he ever played happened at Holy Spirit High School.
On a December night at the 1980 Seagull Classic, Wagner scored 52 points to lead Camden to a win over DeMatha Catholic, a national power located just outside of Washington, D.C.
“That’s probably the top of my high school career,” Wagner said in a telephone interview from his home in Louisville on Monday. “People, everywhere I go, heard about that game, especially a lot of people out of D.C. People out of D.C. say they weren’t there, but they’ve heard the stories about it.”
The 2019 Seagull Classic will be held Friday-Sunday at Holy Spirit. The Classic existed in its first incarnation from 1972-1990 and was once of the nation’s best-known high school basketball tournaments.
The South Jersey Basketball Summit Organization revived the Seagull last year to benefit the organization’s scholarships, which it gives to South Jersey basketball players.
The Classic has instant name recognition in the state’s high school basketball community, and Wagner’s performance is a big reason why.
Holy Spirit’s gym was packed that night. DeMatha was No. 3 in the country, and Camden was ranked No. 5.
“It was a big-time game,” Wagner said. “You had two top-five teams going against each other. That’s going to draw attention.”
The game is also famous because of who was involved. Wagner, now 55, works in business development for Clark and Riggs, a Louisville printing company. His voice comes alive when he talks about that night.
Morgan Wooten coached DeMatha from 1956-2002, finishing with a career record of 1,274-92. That December night, as he sat on the DeMatha bench, he was thought of as one of the country’s best coaches be it pro, college or high school.
Coach Clarence Turner led Camden. Turner is recognized as one of the top coaches in state history. His teams were famed for their talent and mental toughness.
In addition to Wagner, two other future NBA players walked out for the opening tip. Camden also featured Billy Thompson, while DeMatha started Adrian Branch.
“Playing against the No. 3 team in the country, I knew I was going to be hyped, and our guys would be ready to go,” Wagner said. “We all looked forward to playing the best in the country. I wound up having the best game of my high school career.”
Wagner was hot from the start. Many who were there that night said he often took a step or two over half court and let the ball fly.
The Camden fans would chant “Wooooo” from the time the ball left his hands until it splashed through the net.
“You heard that all night,” Wagner said. “Woo, woo.”
DeMatha switched defenders. They double-teamed Wagner.
“Once I got hot,” he said, “it didn’t matter who they put on me.”
Wagner sank 16 of 32 shots from the field and 20 of 21 from the foul line. Camden won the game. The final score is forgotten. Wagner’s 52 points are not.
“I hit my first three or four jumpers in a row,” he said. “I knew I was hot. I knew it was going to be a good night for me. Coach just kept feeding me. My teammates kept feeding me. One thing about coach Turner now, he’s going to feed the hot hand.”
There was no 3-point line back then. How many would have Wagner scored if the 3-point line existed?
“It probably would have been about 70,” he said.
Twenty-one years after his performance against DeMatha, Wagner’s son, Dajuan, scored 100 points for Camden in a win over Camden County Vo-Tech. Dajuan sank 10 3-pointers in that contest. That fact is the point of some good-natured kidding between father and son.
“I always tell my son you had 100 with a 3-point line,” Wagner said with a laugh. “I had 52 against DeMatha with no 3-point line. Which game do you think was better? We always go at it.”
It’s nights like the one Milt Wagner had that keeps fans filling high school gyms.
It’s what will bring people to the new version of the Seagull Classic.
This weekend fans can see Kylee Watson, one of the nation’s top juniors, lead her Mainland Regional girls team against Gloucester Catholic and its Duke-recruit Azana Baines.
It also gives fans a chance to see some of the state’s top boys teams, most notably The Patrick School, Linden, Elizabeth and Wagner’s alma mater Camden.
We might all see something this weekend they’ll still be talking about 40 years from today.