In the NBA, summer basketball is markedly different from the brand exhibited throughout the fall and winter. Showmanship and a sense of good theater are infinitely preferable to strategy, for the players as well as the fans.

That was the case last night at Capital Centre before 10,771, where a team of players led by Earvin (Magic) Johnson defeated a squad led by Dominique Wilkins, 170-169, in a charity exhibition game.

As one would gather from the final score, defense wasn't a big priority either but then again, it never is in games like this.

"It's crazy -- there's no defense," said Manute Bol, a 7-foot-6, 195-pound rookie for the Washington Bullets, who was a spectator last night. "It's like they don't care about it."

That's not quite true. It's just that one tends to get swept away with players such as Wilkins, who scored 55 points, and Mark Aguirre of the Dallas Mavericks, who added the same amount.

"It's just basketball," said Johnson, the all-NBA guard from the Los Angeles Lakers. "There's nothing to slow you down. It's just all out and you can try to do things you never think about doing in a real game."

Yesterday, it took a while for those wondrous things to begin. At halftime, the score stood at tied at 81, which could have approximated the number of turnovers being committed by the players.

"Where's my jumper?" the Bullets' Jeff Malone asked to no one in particular after making four of 15 field goal attempts in the first half. "I don't play in too many games like this. I've been playing but in little gyms. You think you are running and getting a workout, but these courts are big."

When the players did get it together, the performances were prolific. In one three-minute stretch of the third quarter, the teams combined for 31 points. By the end of that period, both Wilkins and Aguirre had scored 41 points.

By the midway point of the final period, any pretense of team play had evaporated in a trail of slam dunks, with Wilkins providing many of them. In fact, some of the efforts were so impressive that Johnson deliberately turned over the ball to Wilkins, rather than pass to one of his teammates.

But the gesture was only good for second place on the fan appeal meter. Taking high honors was Isiah Thomas. Continually hailed throughout the game by a young fan, at one point late in the game the Detroit Pistons' all-star invited the lad down to his team's bench, where they exchanged high fives and then hugs. Before returning to the court, Thomas gave the happy teen a towel.

Johnson, Thomas and Aguirre, best friends off the court, are old hands at the exhibition game, spending their summers playing across the country. In the process, they have developed routines that would make a company of touring thespians -- or at least professional wrestlers -- proud.

The reception from the crowd was in fact very similar to those at other Capital Centre exhibitions.

"I was waiting for one team to mysteriously catch up with the other," said Paul Herndon, 16, of McLean. "I know they're just out here to score and have fun so I can enjoy that. But when the regular season starts, they'd better be getting back down to business."