Troubled Times for Cavaliers’ Wagner
Dajuan Wagner often wonders how so many things went wrong at once.
An ankle injury delayed the start of his third season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That setback, however, seems far less complicated than the problems confronting him in his hometown of Camden, a city hit by drugs and poverty and where he became a basketball star.
His stepfather is on trial in a big federal drug case. A longtime friend is awaiting trial on murder charges. Wagner looms in the background of both cases. Then there’s his 17-year-old sister, who fell from a school bus and fractured her skull.
“A lot of this stuff has been hard to get out of my head,” Wagner said. “All I can do is hope that it makes me stronger.”
Wagner became the pride of this city and one of the nation’s biggest names in high school basketball when he led Camden High’s Panthers to a state title as a junior. In 2001, he became New Jersey’s career scoring leader in high school. He also became the first high school player in more than 20 years to score 100 points in a game -- and, according to some, a hopeless showboat.
Wagner spent one season at the University of Memphis, where he led his team to the NIT championship before leaving for the NBA.
But the 21-year-old guard keeps coming back to Camden, which sits just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia and was recently ranked the country’s most dangerous city.
Wagner, a potential witness in his stepfather’s drug trial, spent several days waiting outside a federal courtroom in Camden this fall. Inside the courtroom, witnesses spoke of how Wagner could be a target of violence in his hometown.
Wagner and his mother, witnesses told a jury, were said to be the targets of a kidnapping plot ordered by a jailed drug dealer in early 2002. Federal prosecutors said the plot never existed, but it became a key issue in the drug trial of Leonard “Pooh” Paulk, who married Wagner’s mother, Lisa, in October 2000.
The government contends Paulk bought 20 semiautomatic weapons to protect a drug trade that he ran by hooking up suppliers and dealers and ordering murders and kidnappings. Paulk’s lawyer said his client needed the weapons to protect his stepson and wife.
Ultimately, Wagner was not called to testify in the case, which has gone to the jury.
Wagner is also connected to a murder case against his longtime friend, Lance Bean. Bean, whom federal authorities in Paulk’s trial characterized as a drug dealer, is charged with killing a man in Camden in April 2003.
Nine days later, Bean was arrested while climbing into a car that belonged to Wagner, who was not around Camden at the time. No trial has been scheduled for Bean.
A friend and former high school teammate of Wagner’s says he simply doesn’t have much to say about his difficulties.
“He’s cool. He’s sticking in there,” said James Pulliam, a construction worker who regularly travels to see Wagner. “He’s all right.” Shelton Neal said people like him who sometimes play basketball with Wagner tell him to get out of Camden. “He says he’s all right. He’s around family,” Neal said.
Wagner’s father, Milt, also from Camden, starred in college at Louisville and played for more than a decade as a professional, mostly overseas. Milt Wagner, now an assistant coach at Memphis, said he and his son still think of Camden as home.
“We have family there. My mother and father are still there. His mother and grandmother and cousins are still there,” Milt Wagner said. “You just have to be smart when you’re there.”
As for basketball, injuries kept him out of almost half his team’s games his first two seasons. In early October, he reported to training camp healthy. Then sister Dashandra Wagner fell out of the emergency door of a school bus. For weeks, she drifted in and out of consciousness.
Wagner missed practice to visit her but returned in time to be the top scorer in the team’s first public scrimmage. Then he sprained his ankle, forcing him to miss the start of the season again.
The Cavaliers worried about Wagner’s injuries as well as his ballhandling and shooting. They brought in veteran shooting guard Lucious Harris in the offseason.
“Nothing’s handed to you,” Cavaliers’ General Manager Jim Paxson said. “He has the talent. He has ability.”
The team declined to pick up an option on Wagner’s contract that would have paid him $3.4 million for the 2005-06 season. He’ll be free to sign with any team next summer.
His first game this season came Nov. 18. He played in four of Cleveland’s first 11 games, averaging 2.8 points and 0.8 assists in 8.3 minutes.
“It just feels good to be playing again,” he said after a recent game in Cleveland.
Milt Wagner says his son uses basketball to ease his mind.
“You turn to something that you love to do,” he said. “And basketball, that’s his love.”
Associated Press sports writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.