DAJUAN WAGNER ON COMEBACK TRAIL
By DICK JERARDI The Philadelphia News
Dajuan Wagner was "The Messiah." He scored 100 in a high-school game. He averaged 42.5 points as a senior at Camden High. He scored 3,462 points in high school, the most in New Jersey history. He scored 25 points in the McDonald's All-American Game at Duke.It was never a question of whether Wagner would score, but how much. Nobody could stop him. He just did what he wanted when he wanted.
Then, his body began to fail him. He had stomach pain. He was fatigued. He lost weight. He lost his appetite.
All that was happening while he spent a year in college at Memphis and 3 years in the NBA. He tried all kinds of treatment. Nothing worked for long. It just kept getting worse.
He was eventually diagnosed with colitis, inflammation of the colon or large intestine. Last October, he underwent major surgery at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
"He was very, very sick when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers [in 2005]," said Dr. Joel Bauer, who performed the surgery. "We did an operation on him and basically he's recovered phenomenally."
Last week, Wagner had 65 points on Wednesday in the Cherry Hill League, including 15 threes. The next night, he had 67 points at Drexel in the Rankin/Anderson League. Now, 132 on consecutive nights will get your attention.
"He's regained a lot of his strength," Bauer said. "The guy's built like an animal. He looks more like a defensive back than a point guard or shooting guard. The last time I saw him, he looked fabulous. From my point of view, from the gastrointestinal surgery, he's made a complete recovery."
Wagner plays for Team Camden in Cherry Hill. Former Temple star Mike Vreeswyk, 39, plays for Team Philly. After losing 25 pounds, Vreeswyk said: "I've been playing as good as I've ever played."
So, apparently, is Wagner. Only his best is better than almost everybody who has ever played in this area.
"He's unbelievable," said Vreeswyk, the designated bomber for the Owls team that rose to No. 1 in 1988. "It was amazing what he was doing on the floor. We have a pretty good team. We started sending two guys at him. He was either going around two guys or over two guys, shooting from just deeper. He must have shot 80 percent for the game, probably more. He was getting to the basket at will.
"He just single-handedly beat us. The cherry on the cake was that he hit a three-pointer with like 3 seconds left to win the game. He's in shape. He doesn't say a word on the court. I was on the court and I was kind of amazed at what he was doing."
They "held" him to 35, only because Wagner did not shoot unless it was necessary. Last he looked, Vreeswyk was the second- or third-leading scorer in the league.
"He didn't miss much," Vreeswyk said. "No question he can play in the NBA again."
When he left the NBA, it was a question if Wagner would be able to do anything again.
"The symptoms for [colitis] are diarrhea, bleeding, tremendous weight loss and weakness," Bauer said. "It can get worse than that, but that's what he had. Even a normal person, not somebody with the physical-activity level that he has, can be decimated from this. You lose 30, 40 pounds. You have no energy. You're anemic. It's terrible."
Trying to play in the NBA with that?
"You can't even work at a normal job," Bauer said. "I couldn't do my job with this. It's impossible."
Wagner was scheduled to play at Drexel around 8:30 last night. He arrived around 9. No problem. The game wasn't ready to start anyway. And it wasn't going to start until Wagner got there.
Dr. Dave Scheiner, who runs the league, said the game would begin after Wagner answered a few questions.
"It just feels good to be playing," Wagner said. "When you've been doing something your whole life and they take it away from you... I'm just happy I'm playing.''
Drexel's gym had cooled down to about 110 degrees by game time. There was no air moving. It was somewhere between oppressive and Hades.
Wagner had 25 after 15 minutes. He broke four ankles on the same hesitation dribble and then finished off a lefthanded and one. He was shooting step backs from Market Street. Today, he is more skilled than anybody on the Sixers except Allen Iverson.
"I've never played in anything like this," Wagner said during a timeout while standing in front of a fan that was mostly window dressing. But he kept playing.
This was Wagner's third game in three nights.
"I need it,'' he said.
Wagner and his team blew a big lead in the fourth quarter, wilting in basketball hell and lost the game, 122-114. Wagner finished with 57.
"An off night," said Scheiner, aka Dr. Foot.
Wagner remembers having stomach problems as far back as 12th grade.
Back then, Wagner had a touch of baby fat. Not now. He is cut. And he got there the hard way.
"It was hard because I started off from scratch," Wagner said.
The surgeon removed his colon and, according to Wagner, "made me a new one." It works way better than the old one.
"That was the worst," Wagner said of his illness. "I don't think it can get any worse than that. You've got to go through stuff in life.''
Said John Calipari, his college coach at Memphis: "His stomach was bad here. At certain times in the morning, he really was almost cramped up. You always wonder why isn't he eating right. So he had some of it here.
"We were just like, 'Rub some dirt in it, you'll be all right.' You know how it is. We're like, 'Come on, you're soft.' What it was is the kid was probably in pain that would double you and me over. We just didn't know."
Really, nobody knew.
In his lone season at Memphis, Wagner averaged 21.2 points, had 32 against Temple in the NIT semifinals and was the NIT MVP as Memphis won the championship.
"When he was with us, he was squinting all the time," Calipari said. "I'm like, 'What is this squinting about?' We find out later he needed contacts. All those years, he's scoring 70, 80 points and he can't even see the basket. What is that about?"
The 6-2 Wagner can see these days. He can also function. And he can still ball. He is a shooting guard in the classic sense. He will shoot 'em up. And he will make enough.
"I've called three [NBA] clubs right now to tell them to send somebody down there," Calipari said. "If he's back to that, there are teams out there that love guards that can score. They're not worried about defense. They're worried about points on the board. Well, he'll do that. There's no question he'll do it."
Wagner did it for a time in the NBA, but his condition really gave him no chance to succeed.
Cleveland took him with the sixth pick in the 2002 NBA draft. He missed his first 14 games with what was called a bladder infection. He missed the last 20 games with a torn meniscus in his right knee. In the games he played, he averaged 13.4 points. He had a seven-game stretch when he averaged 24.1 points. He could do it, if he had the chance to do it.
The next season, with LeBron James now on the team, he was out for the first 2 months after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. He averaged just 6.5 points. He played only 11 games the next season, averaging 4.0 points. Cleveland did not pick up his option. He was out of the league last season.
He got $7.4 million in guaranteed money from his rookie contract, but this was "The Messiah." This ending simply would not do.
So Wagner is on his way back. His Camden teammate and best friend Arthur Barclay recently gave Calipari a report.
"I had a call from Arthur Barclay and he said, 'I watched him and my mouth was hanging open. It's like the old days. He's back and he's better than he was,' " Calipari said. "The thing I've always said about Dajuan Wagner, he has an unbelievable heart, just a wonderful heart, just like his dad."
Milt Wagner is on Calipari's staff at Memphis. Like his son, he was a star at Camden. He won a national title at Louisville and an NBA title with the Lakers. Their games are different. Their toughness is not.
"The greatest thing is, the kid never lost his confidence," Calipari said. "To be able to say, 'I'm going to make another run at this,' instead of blaming and being mad. It's because the kid's got a great heart... 'This has happened to me. I'm going to deal with it. And I'm going to make this work.' "
Drexel coach Bruiser Flint has seen Wagner a few times this summer in the Rankin/Anderson League.
"His body looks great," Flint said. "It looks tight. I think he's the same. There's not much defense in the league. They don't guard anybody but you know the difference between him and the other guys that's playing. There's a significant difference."
And it does not take a basketball savant to notice the talent. Or the will.
"I kept fighting," Wagner said. "If I were a lot of people, I would have quit, but I ain't no quitter. I'll be back."
Wagner figures he will get into a couple of NBA camps. If not there, he has feelers from overseas, including one from Maccabi Tel Aviv.
After all he has been through, the best news for Dajuan Wagner is this: He turned 23 on Feb. 4.