When Eugene McDowell was born, he was afflicted with soft leg bones and the doctors outfitted him with a cumbersome set of braces that went from his feet to his hips. McDowell's parents were told their son would probably never walk without the braces.

But by the time McDowell was 6, he was running in the braces. At 15, he was the talk of the neighborhood with his impressive array of basketball shots. By the time he was a senior at Dixie County High School in Cross City, Fla., he was 6 feet 8, 220 pounds and regarded as one of the best players in the state.

"I'm proud of him because he had to work," said his father, James McDowell. "Once, I never thought I'd see him run. So, you know it'll be a real thrill to see him play in this game."

McDowell will play for the U.S. team in the Capital Classic at Capital Centre tonight at 8 o'clock. His team will try to end a three-game losing streak to the Capital All-Stars in this, the eighth, and possibly last, Classic. Last year, the various high school federations asked for the NCAA's help in regulating the athletes' exposure because of potential abuses in the recruiting arena. The NCAA now says that all-star games may feature only teams from adjoining states, and the Classic may now be abolished. The NCAA sanctioned tonight's game because plans had already been completed.

McDowell, whose pigeon-toed runnings style resembles that of Bob Hayes, the former Olympic gold-medal sprinter and Dallas Cowboy flanker, is glad for the opportunity to show people what he can do.

"It was the first time I'd flown and the first time I've been here," said McDowell, who will attend Florida in the fall. "Strange feeling on a plane; you can't hear anything. I know I'm having a good time. And the game should be fun, too. Of course, we would like to win but all of the guys are here to enjoy themselves."

Judging by his intensity and concentration on teamwork during the practices, U.S. Coach Ray Mullis is looking for a victory.

"The biggest problem coaching all-stars is getting them to play together," said Mullis, who coaches Cardinal Gibbons High School in Baltimore. "They've never seen one another before and it usually takes a while to understand what they're doing. But everyone here is a great player in his state and they have really worked well together. In games like these, it's hard to tell what will happen. I do know I have a height advantage and that should help us."

To combat the U.S. team's height --two 7-footers and four others 6-8 or taller -- Joe Gallagher, Capital All-Stars coach, will start only one guard, Joe Howard; three forwards, Anthony Jones, Adrian Branch and William Martin, and 7-foot center Patrick Ewing. Martin and Ewing have verbally committed to attend Georgetown in the fall.

The most intriguing matchup will be Ewing against 7-1 Greg Dreiling of Wichita. Dreiling, who can palm a ball with his thumb and any one of his four fingers, said, "It'll be an interesting challenge for me to play against the No. 1 center in the nation.

"It'll be a fun game but at the same time everyone will want to do well," said Dreiling, "including me."

If either team has a distinct advantage, it's the U.S. because of its starting guards, Buzz Peterson of Asheville, N.C., and Aubrey Sherrod of Wichita. Both 6-4, they excel at handling the ball, penetrating, shooting and defending. Coming off the bench will be North Carolina-bound Michael Jordan, a 6-5 Walter Davis clone, and Nigel Miguel of Sherman Oaks, Calif.

On the Capital team, Carroll's Howard is only 5-9 while Blair's Lorenzo Gill and St. John's Karl Racine stand just over 6 feet. Bowie's 6-2 Brian Ellerbe and 6-5 Jeff Adkins of Martinsville, Va., who has announced he will attend Maryland, will probably be the first two guards off the bench.

Maryland-found Branch, at 6-8, will help Howard handle the ball in the back court when necessary. The other Capital players are Dunbar's 6-7 forward, Sylvester Charles, who will back up Ewing at center, De Matha's Bob Ferry and Flint Hill's Carlos Yates.

With four 10-minute quarters and both teams concentrating an offense, the Classic promises to be a high-scoring affair.

The preliminary game, matching the Suburban All-Stars against the District All-Stars, will begin at 6 p.m. A spokesman for the Classic said more than 10,000 tickets had been sold as of Wednesday night. Remaining tickets may be purchased at Capital Centre and outlets.