Vic Carstarphen wasn't three steps into Donkey's Place when he was greeted by another Camden High School basketball fan.

"Hey,  Coach," the man said, rising from his stool in the iconic bar and restaurant on Haddon Avenue. "I'm going to be checking you guys out this year. I'll be right behind the bench."

In Camden, the whole city is behind the Panthers' bench.

Carstarphen knew that when he was a sensational player for Camden in the late 1980s.

He knew it when he spent the last five seasons as the top assistant to former Camden coach John Valore.

And he knows it now — maybe more than ever, because he seems to get reminders every day – since he's taken over perhaps the most pressure-packed coaching position in South Jersey, in any sport.

Vic Carstarphen was a star player at Camden, helping the Panthers to state titles in 1986 and 1987.
Raymond Holman/For the Inquirer
Vic Carstarphen was a star player at Camden, helping the Panthers to state titles in 1986 and 1987.

"I get it," Carstarphen said, sitting at a back table a few minutes later, between bites of one of the establishment's famous cheesesteaks. "I understand how much people around town identify with this program, how much they care about how we do.

"I've lived that. I know it as well as anybody."

Carstarphen understands the complicated dynamics around Camden basketball. He knows that, in one sense, there's just one standard for true success for the Panthers – another state championship banner to hang in the new gym scheduled to rise along with the rest of the new school complex at the site of the old castle on the hill in the city's Parkside section.

The Panthers have been "Chasing 12" – the motto has been embroidered into backpacks and other purple-and-gold regalia as a reminder of the ongoing search for the program's 12th state title – since DaJuan Wagner led the Panthers to No. 11 in 2000.

That will be 19 seasons ago when Carstarphen gathers the Panthers for their first official practice on the Monday before Thanksgiving.

Carstarphen's personal search goes back even further, since he still carries memories of his team's losing the Group 4 state final in his senior season in 1988, stuffed in an imaginary backpack that occasionally pinches his shoulders.

"I'm still chasing that game," Carstarphen said a couple of years ago of the one-point loss to Elizabeth.

A quintessential city point guard who could score, distribute, and defend, Carstarphen won state titles at Camden as a sophomore in 1986 – when the Panthers went 31-0 and were ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today – and again as a junior in 1987.

He also played on two Final Eight teams at Temple in the early 1990s.

Vic Carstarphen played for two Final Eight teams at Temple.
Raymond Holman/For the Inquirer
Vic Carstarphen played for two Final Eight teams at Temple.

But the hard reality of Camden basketball is that the guy in Donkey's Place and all those other folks sitting behind the bench – both literally and figuratively – tend to care more about the Panthers' prospects in 2018-19 and beyond than about the impressive aspects of Carstarphen's resume as a player.

He gets that, too.

"We lived that as players," said Denny Brown, a star along with Carstarphen on those Camden teams in the late 1980s. "We knew there was pressure as players. Vic knows there's pressure as a coach. He can handle it."

Cherry Hill West coach Aaron Burt, another top Camden player from that era as well as one of the country's top AAU coaches with Philadelphia-based Team Final, believes that Carstarphen has a special bond with the city.

"All of us that played there bleed purple and gold," Burt said. "But Vic, he's like Camden's son.

"He's one of the best players who ever played there. He's always been involved with kids in the city, trying to help out in any way he can. Now he's moving to the forefront."

Burt said Carstarphen is held in such high regard in Camden that "if Vic wins, the city will be behind him, and if Vic loses, the city will be behind him."

Carstarphen isn't likely to lose many games, although Camden will play a monster of a schedule again this season and the program's ultimate success is measured by one criterion: state championships.

In addition to home-and-home games with Olympic National rivals such as Camden Catholic, Paul VI, and Bishop Eustace – all of whom project as likely preseason Top 10 teams – Camden will play powerhouse programs such as Roselle Catholic, Patrick School, Wildwood Catholic, Imhotep Charter, and Newark Eastside, among others.

"Everybody wants to play us," Carstarphen said.

Vic Carstarphen (right) spent the last five seasons as an assistant coach to former Camden head coach John Valore (left).
Elizabeth Robertson/Staff photographer
Vic Carstarphen (right) spent the last five seasons as an assistant coach to former Camden head coach John Valore (left).

The Panthers return three veterans in senior guards Ethan Tarte and El Khana Hidalgo and junior swingman Lance Ware. The frontcourt should get a big boost from the arrival of two sophomore transfers in 6-7 Jerome Brewer from West Catholic and 6-6 TaQuan Woodley from Neumann-Goretti, both of whom are rated among the best players in the state in the class of 2021.

"I like these kids," Carstarphen said of the Panthers. "They're great kids. They're smart, tough, resilient.  That's how I want them to play."

Brown believes Carstarphen was born to coach and finally has found his calling as he approaches his 50th birthday.

"When he was a sports agent, he did well, but I used to say, 'Dude, what are you doing? You need to be coaching basketball,' " Brown said. "Vic's basketball IQ is off the charts. We're all put on this earth to do something. Vic was put on this earth to play point guard and coach basketball."

Carstarphen played for two of the most powerful coaching personalities at their respective levels of the sport in Camden's late Clarence Turner and Temple's John Chaney.

At times, Carstarphen said he still find himself recalling words of wisdom from his old coaches.

Someday, he hopes Camden kids might be inclined to do the same with regard to the Panthers' newest coach.

"I'm always thinking, 'That's what Coach Turner said,' or 'That's what Coach Chaney said,' " Carstarphen said. "All these years later, it still impacts me, thinking about the things they said.

"That's what I hope I'm able to do for these kids. That's the kind of impact I want to make, more so than wins or losses."