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Capital Classic Has Big Shoes to Fill

After Nike Pulled Its Sponsorship, All-Star Game's Luster Has Faded

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page D01

Over the past three years, fans attending the Capital Classic all-star game could expect a star-studded event that had become the highlight of the area's high school basketball calendar. The teams included players considered to be at the top of the nation's college recruiting class, as well as elite players who were headed straight to the NBA -- including LeBron James in 2003. The crowd included celebrities, and the players met legend Michael Jordan before tip-off.

This year's event will be different. The rosters for today's featured game include no McDonald's All-Americans, and the game will be held some 20 miles outside the city at George Mason University's Patriot Center. Jordan's Nike subsidiary, which had sponsored the game for three years, moved its event to New York's Madison Square Garden; Converse will supply shoes and uniforms at the Capital Classic.

Point guard Jarrett Jack, from Fort Washington, shows his stuff at the 2002 Capital Classic. Jack went on to star at Georgia Tech. (John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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Some fear the Capital Classic, Washington's elite national all-star game for the past 30 years, may be relegated to second-tier status as long as it lacks sponsorship from a major corporation.

"There's no question [tonight's Capital Classic] will be toned down," said Hall of Fame coach Morgan Wootten. "Nike commands a lot of the top players, and [the Capital Classic] isn't their game anymore. It's going to be like it was before Jordan was involved."

Said Sonny Vaccaro, a well-known athletic shoe promoter who organizes the Reebok Roundball Classic in Chicago: "There's still a place for it. But it sounds like it's in trouble."

For years, playing in the Capital Classic was a top priority for the nation's best high school seniors. The event was founded in 1974 by area sports marketing firm Sports America, and its alumni include Moses Malone, Patrick Ewing, Grant Hill and Jordan himself. But in the late 1990s, as top shoe companies such as Adidas and Nike began to push top players from AAU teams they sponsored to certain all-star games, the Classic's allure faded.

The game returned to prominence three years ago when Jordan, then an executive with the Washington Wizards, and Nike made a deal with Sports America to become title sponsors. The shoe giant changed the format -- scrapping the U.S. vs. capital area all-star game -- but brought in stars such as James, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. Nearly all of the top players in the Jordan game came up through programs or teams sponsored by Nike.

"This is the game I've looked forward to playing in my whole life," said Mamadi Diane, an All-Met from DeMatha who will play for the Capital All-Stars tonight. "When it was Jordan, most of the players were McDonald's All-Americans. Now, the caliber of players isn't as great as it was in the past. I'm excited, but not as excited as if it was still Jordan's game. That name just brings a whole lot to it, not taking anything away from Converse."

While sponsored by Jordan Brand, the Capital Classic played to celebrity-filled crowds at MCI Center in 2002 and 2003. But Jordan left the Wizards in May 2003 and the game was moved to Comcast Center for 2004. Jordan Brand's contract as title sponsor expired after last year's Capital Classic, and the company announced its New York game on Feb. 9 of this year.

"People knew that [Nike] was leaving the second Jordan left the Wizards," said a person close to the game and Nike who asked not to be identified because he did not want to hurt his relationship with the shoe giant. "When all that stuff happened, we knew that was it."

A Jordan Brand spokesman did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Jordan's exit left Sports America President Bob Geoghan with a difficult decision: continue a successful relationship with Jordan Brand and run the game in New York, or continue to organize the Capital Classic in D.C. -- without Nike's sponsorship.

Geoghan chose to go with Nike, but told a reporter he would not "let the Capital Classic die." Those close to Geoghan -- who declined to comment for this story through a spokesman -- say he didn't want to let down the local players and fans by simply canceling the game. So he arranged in March for Corrigan Sports Enterprises of Baltimore to organize this year's Capital Classic.

Corrigan Sports principal Lee Corrigan, whose company also organizes the Charm City Challenge all-star game in Baltimore, had little time to find a venue, piece together rosters and promote the event -- a challenge made more difficult without the deep pockets of a major title sponsor.

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