Rick Brunson is the Gayle Sayers of Local HS Coaches

He won 94.81% of his games… Let that sink in… 94.81%…

Rick Brunson’s brief, but magnificent high school coaching career officially came to an end Thursday with the announcement that he was resigning his post. The former Temple Owl is finalizing a contract to become an assistant coach for the NY Knicks on Head Coach Tom Thibodeau’s staff. Brunson has extensive NBA experience having played nine years and served as an assistant coach under Thibodeau with the Bulls and Timberwolves.

Rick Brunson

Anyone that has watched the development of his son Jalen Brunson (NBA) and Camden High’s DJ Wagner understands that Brunson is gifted in the area of player development. Brunson and Wagner, while considerably different physically and athletically, share an intensely focused and business-like approach to the game. These guys come to win… every night.

Some nights the shots may not fall… Some games the offense is just not there… But their effort and determination to will their teams to win cannot be questioned… period. That can be largely attributed to the extensive time they have spent under Brunson’s tutelage.

Plainly stated, the man is an outstanding coach, player developer and he was the perfect person to assume the helm at Camden three years ago. Wagner’s enrollment at Camden unleashed a flurry of outsized expectations. His grandfather, Milt Wagner, and his father, DaJuan Wagner set the bar beyond the reach of mere mortals at Camden High. Beyond legends, these guys are, literally, basketball royalty in Camden. When they played at “Da High”, Camden was the epicenter of the scholastic basketball universe.

For the past two decades, the proud Panther program, while always competitive, was unable to return to the rarafied heights routinely attained under Milt and Juanny. The people of Camden desperately wanted their program to return to center stage. You could cut the anticipation with a knife when DJ was in the 7th and 8th grade.

Another Messiah was coming…

DJ Wagner

The selection of Brunson to conduct the orchestra was a perfect choice. Having been a highly recruited McDonald’s All-American, Brunson’s been there and done that. More recently, he walked his son through the recruiting gauntlet and help him evolve into and two-time National Champion, NCAA All-American and one of the finest young guards in the NBA.

Possessing a brusque public persona and a razor sharp wit, Brunson was ready, willing and able to become the focal point of the media’s attention while allowing the uber-talented young men in his program for concentrate on developing into college ready basketball players.

So where do we place Brunson’s run as a HS coach? For the past three years, he’s been almost unbeatable. He won 73 out of 77 games… DAMN!

He lost two games to regional high schools. In his first year at the helm, Roman Catholic beat him in one of the most exhilarating high school contests I’ve ever witnessed. Jalen Duren (NBA), Justice Williams (LSU) and Xzayvier Brown (uncommitted) led Roman to a comeback victory in a hot, overcrowded, boisterous gym in Cherry Hill. Camden also lost the final game in history of the NJ Tournament of Champions to Roselle Catholic this year.

That’s it… No other traditional high schools have been able conquer the mighty Panthers with Brunson at the helm. His other two losses came at the hands of nationally prominent basketball academies. National powerhouse Montverde and Calvary Christian were also able to knock off Camden earlier this year.

Other than that… Brunson lined ‘em up and knocked ‘em down in impressive fashion.

During his reign, Camden won 2 South Jersey Championships, a long-awaited and high anticipated State Championship and they were Tournament of Champions Runner Up. But perhaps, most impressively, Brunson helped restore a level of pride in and around the Camden basketball program that had been absent for 2 decades.

Lance Ware (Kentucky), Taquan Woodley (South Carolina/UMass), Jerome Brewer (Texas A&M-Commerce), Rasheer Fleming (St. Joseph’s), DJ Wagner (undecided), Aaron Bradshaw (undecided), Cian Medley (undecided), Cornelius “Boog” Robinson (undecided) and Dasear Haskins (undecided) developed into solid Division 1 basketball prospects under the watchful eye of Brunson.

Rick got shit done… #Respeck

Moreover, he hired my young friend Nelly Perry, a highly accomplished player in her own right as an assistant coach and gave her the freshman boys team and Camden High… This is just good stuff… The magnitude of such a hire will become obvious as more women are afforded an opportunity to coach on the boys/mens side.

Nelly Perry

So now that we have a beginning, a middle and an end of his scholastic coaching career, where do we place Brunson? How does he stack up against legends like Clarence Turner (Camden), Speedy Morris (Roman Catholic/Prep Charter/SJ Prep), Andre Noble (Imhotep Charter) and Carl Arrigale (Neumann-Goretti)?

For me, Brunson is the Gayle Sayers of local HS coaches. Although magnificent, he was on the scene for a very brief period of time. Think about it… Turner (Walter Payton) won over 700 games at Camden, Brunson won 73.

Like Sayers, Brunson flashed before the sporting public and his light radiated brighter than all others for a brief and highly productive 36 month period. Like Sayers at his best, Brunson was the best on the field while he was out there.

The crazy part, for me, is that his second team, led by Woodley, Brewer and Wagner was the best of his three great teams. Unfortunately, Covid cut their season short and we will never know how far they would have ventured.

His run was brief, but like grainy images of Sayers running around, through and away from helpless defenders, once you saw Brunson’s Panthers play you can never forget what you saw.

Camden High basketball, Camden’s basketball players and the spirit of Camden City are much better off today than they were the day Brunson started.

Job well done Mr. Brunson… #Respeck

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