More than anything else, the lure of the McDonald's Capital Classic is names -- the much-recruited, almost legendary high school basketball stars who collectively and singly, have become a part of the lore of the sport in the Washington area. Years after the games, in bars and on playgrounds, the lineups are recited lovingly, almost in awe: Can you believe this team?
There was the 1974 U.S. team, in the Classic's first year, with Butch Lee, Rick Robey, Skip Wise and, most of all, Moses Malone, then a gangly 18-year-old from Petersburg, Va.; six months after playing in the Classic at Capital Centre, he was with the Utah Stars in the American Basketball Association. There was the 1977 U.S. team with Magic Johnson, Albert King, Gene Banks and Jeff Ruland. There was the 1979 team with Sam Bowie, Dominique Wilkins, Clark Kellogg and James Worthy that had seven members now playing in the National Basketball Association; an eighth, Isiah Thomas was chosen but couldn't make the game.
For many, the Capital Classic, which will be held for the 12th time Sunday at 2:30 p.m., is merely a continuation of 17-year-old glory; sometimes, as with Patrick Ewing and Ralph Sampson, an indication of the harsh, unblinking eye they would encounter in college and beyond. It is not always that way.
Kim Stewart, Craig Harris and Kevin Darmody played in the Classic. In high school, they were all-city, all-Met, all-state. But in most discussions of Classics past, their names will not be brought up. For them, playing in the Classic was both recognition and a move in the opposite direction: to coping with serious injury, to sitting on the bench while those considered peers moved easily into the upper strata and onto the covers of magazines, to wondering anxiously if this is, in fact, as good as it gets.
In 1974, Kim Stewart was one of the most highly sought-after high school players on the West Coast. A 6-foot-7 senior forward at Ballard High School in Seattle, he averaged 26 points and was contacted by more than 250 schools. He could shoot and rebound, and was known as an excellent passer for a big man, but saw himself as a small fish in a big pond.
"I used to pick up some of those high school magazines talking about people like Moses," he says, "and I wouldn't even think of being in that class."
Others disagreed. One day in school, his coach came up and said Stewart had been selected to play in the first McDonald's Capital Classic. He would get to go to Washington.
"My reaction was, 'I am in Washington,' " says Stewart, who has a low-key, self-deprecating wit. "I can't tell you how excited I was when I found out I'd be spending a week in Washington, D.C."
There were dinners and banquets, rounds of sightseeing and special tours of the monuments and the White House ("I got to see Nixon's dog."). Particularly, it was looking at such players as Malone Lee, Robey, Mike Phillips and James Lee with simple wonder.
"I thought to myself, 'There are some big boys out there, and I'm not sure I belong,' " Stewart says. "Moses, for instance, was really quiet and laid-back, but you knew he was a player. His rebounding -- he was so intense, you could be on his team and you still got out of the way.
"I felt kind of left on the outside. I just sat back all week in awe."
But he got to play about half the game, scoring seven points as the U.S. team won easily, 101-82. Then it was back to Seattle and to the University of Washington, where he played four steady, if unspectacular, years. In his senior year, he was averaging 15 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. He was told he would be a first- or second-round draft pick by the NBA. Then, with 10 games left in the season, a knee went out.
"We were playing at Marquette and three of their guys fell on my knee," he says. "It just totally blew. There was ligament damage you wouldn't believe."
Still, the Lakers drafted him in the sixth round. He diligently rehabilitated the knee to the point it was "85 percent ready" when he reported to camp. It was no use. He was cut.
He caught on with a team in Austria, averaging about 28 points a game, but came home after one year. He coached the junior varsity at Washington while getting a degree in kinesiology, then became coach at Ballard, his alma mater. He says good-naturedly, "I guess I wasn't ready to leave the jock life."
He regards the knee injury philosophically. "Even without the injury, I'm not sure I would have made the NBA because maybe I wasn't good enough or quick enough," he says. There's that nagging thought, though: "I'll never know if I would've had a chance, because of the knee."
At 5 feet 9, Craig Harris was the smallest player in the 1977 Classic. He wasn't a great scorer, but was all-Met and led T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria to the Virginia AAA state title and the No. 1 ranking in the area. Being quick and fearless would matter little when matched against Magic Johnson and Darnell Valentine of the U.S. team.
Before the game, Harris got to know Valentine, a high school all-America from Wichita who went on to Kansas and now plays for the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA. "He was really personable," Harris says. "He was semibragging in a nice way. I thought, 'He's all-American, and he's trying to psych me out.'
"That was a great team -- Banks, King, Magic. I knew all about those guys. But I wanted to show what I could do, too."
There was more than pride involved. Unlike most players chosen for the Classic, Harris, because of his height, had few scholarship offers. If he didn't play well in the game, he might well have to accept one from a Division II school. "I knew I was better than that," he says.
"There's one thing that sticks out in that game," he says with pride. "Magic was in the middle on a fast break and he tried this real fancy pass between his legs. It was a good pass, but I stayed in front of him and took the charge.
"After they made the call, he came over to me and helped me up and said, 'Hey, Shorty, what you doin'? I was trying to turn this place out.' "
So was Harris. Driving with abandon, he scored 14 points and was named most valuable player for the Capital team, which lost, 112-98. People noticed him now. There was a scholarship offer from Tulane. He accepted and was off to New Orleans.
As a freshman, he averaged 5.9 points and led the team in assists. But his playing time declined after that; his senior year, he averaged only 2.3 points a game. Although a three-year captain, he became a spot player.
"I have a little regret," he says. "I wanted to play more, but . . . Still, it was a great learning experience. I got my degree and learned there was more than just basketball."
Then there were jobs with corrections departments in the New Orleans area, performing such tasks as transporting prisoners, taking roll call and working in juvenile detention homes, which he preferred -- "Adults are too far gone to do anything with them." He moved back to Alexandria last year and works as a hall monitor at George Washington Junior High School in the city.
"It's hard for me to watch a game on TV," he says. "When I see Magic or Albert or Gene Banks, I don't see superstars. They were really my peers. I envy them in some kind of ways -- no question."
The 1979 Classic might have the most eagerly anticipated of all because of one matchup: Sampson vs. Bowie, the two best 7-footers in the nation in some time, going head to head. The U.S. team was loaded with future pro stars; the Capital squad had Sampson, Dereck Whittenburg, Thurl Bailey, Sidney Lowe and Quintin Dailey.
It was the game in which Sampson, after pulling up for a 20-foot jumper in the first half, was booed by some of the sellout crowd of more than 19,000. He ended with 23 points and 21 rebounds, the latter a Classic record, and the less-publicized Capital team managed an 86-85 upset when Whittenburg made an 18-foot jumper with 18 seconds left.
Kevin Darmody remembers the last half-minute well. He had one of the best views in the house when Whittenburg took the game-winning jumper.
"I was wide open underneath," Darmody says in amusement. "I was hoping he would see me. Obviously, it didn't matter. He made a great shot."
Darmody had made the Capital team after averaging 29.1 points for Bishop O'Connell High School and being named all-Met. He was 6-7 and a good jumper who liked playing inside.
The night of the game, "I was really nervous. This game was all you heard about all year long, and it was sold out. I was one of the first to be introduced. I was so worried about tripping on the court with the spotlight on me."
He missed five of six field goal attempts but made all six free throws in finishing with eight points. That fall, he was off to South Carolina. After averaging 4.3 points, he increased his scoring average to 10.7 his sophomore season. But his playing time and scoring dropped, and he ended his senior year with a 3.9 average and some regrets.
"Maybe if I had worked harder, my basketball might have been more what I had hoped," he says. "I'm a little disappointed. But I got my degree in accounting in four years, after being way behind my freshman year. I'm very proud of that."
After playing a year in a league in Ireland, he got a job as a salesman in Atlanta last year.
"When I came back from Europe, I thought, 'Well, it's time to put the toys away,' " he says. "These last two months, though, I've had second thoughts. I thought, 'You've been playing since you were 8 and you're only 23 now. You've still got a couple of years left.' "
Now he is preparing to play in the Walt Frazier League, a top-notch summer league in Atlanta. There are hopes of playing well and, just perhaps, catching on with another team in Europe.
"You just don't give up something like basketball that easily," he says. "You just don't."