Ten years ago, they were the poets and prophets of the area basketball courts, valedictorians of the fast break. Down by two, you wanted the ball in their hands.

The Washington Post's 1976 All-Metropolitan high school team included the ripper from Dunbar, Craig Shelton, and court hustlers such as DeMatha's Charles (Hawkeye) Whitney and Shelton's Dunbar teammate, John Duren. There was Mackin's JoJo Hunter, so smooth he received feelers from the Philadelphia 76ers in high school, and there was Carroll's Billy Bryant, whom somebody once called "the best swing man since Benny Goodman."

They were the big fish in the little pond, swimming in dreams and illusions as America elected Jimmy Carter president and celebrated the bicentennial. Swimming upstream, how could the Class of '76 have known then that life was full of piranhas?

They are now 27- and 28-year-old men, whose human character has taken on full shape, yet they seem reluctant to give up the essence and conviction of their youth: basketball. In some cases, basketball is all they have ever known and they have tried somehow, in some way, to extend the one thing that set them apart and put their pictures in the paper.

How else can we explain the fact that four members of the Class of '76 are still playing professionally overseas in Chile, Italy, Argentina and the Philippines when it's obvious they have little chance of playing in the National Basketball Association? Or how another member, already cut by an NBA team, drove his own car to Ohio to take part in a last-ditch Continental Basketball Association tryout that ended with torn knee cartilage and the knowledge that his basketball days were over.

Or how another played in the Final Four with Notre Dame, spent two years in the NBA, then prolonged his career by playing for Athletes in Action, where he could learn of fellowship and spread the word of the Bible? Or how another began an entrepreneurial business that just happened to include selling warmups and basketball shoes to area schools? Or how another, after a disappointing college career, drove a diesel station wagon across the plains states as a marketing representative for a Denver floor covering company, while playing in a city recreation league "just to find someone to abuse and to prove to myself that I could still play"?

Perhaps the high school all-stars from around the nation who will play in the McDonald's Capital Classic at Cole Field House Saturday night might learn from the travails of their counterparts of '76.

The majority of The Post's All-Met Class of '76 were so consumed by basketball that they seemed to play four corners with their college education. Seven of the 10 failed to earn their college degree. Some regret it. Others don't.

Before heading off to work the graveyard shift at the Giant Food warehouse in Jessup, Md., the other day, Bryant, who played at Maryland and Western Kentucky, said, "I want to go back and get my degree someday, but right now I'm making good money. Maybe if I had a degree I wouldn't be making good money, know what I mean?"

Now that the 76ers no longer ring his phone, Hunter recently left for the Philippines and a chance to become the token American all-star. Hunter will get $4,500 a month over four months, he said, which isn't bad for being a token piece of jump-shooting apple pie.

Hunter, a two-time Big Eight player of the year at Colorado, also after starting out at Maryland, said he plans to finish the remaining 15 hours for his political science degree. He wants to become a coach and said, "It's hard to get a job without the degree."

He said of the All-Met Class of '76, "There was a lot of great talent here. Some guys went to good schools, some to bad schools. Hopefully, everybody got the most of what they could. Some things didn't turn out the way they should have.

"But as long as everybody has got their health, that's all you can ask for, right?"

Total: Three Diplomas

Only three of the 10 players obtained their college diplomas -- Duren at Georgetown, Tracy Jackson at Notre Dame and Chris Scott at Virginia Tech. Scott is the beanpole guard from Robinson. He said he had illusions of playing pro until his senior year at VPI when, with a career scoring average of 2.4 points per game and a grade-point average of 2.3 per subject, he was told by his roommate, a chemical engineer, "You're short, white and weigh but 160 pounds. You better start thinking about getting your degree in business ."

Five members of the Class of '76 played in the NBA, though only Duren scraped and clawed to finish a third season (career average: 3.5 points per game). That was long enough to guarantee he'd receive his pension and to allow Duren to say, "I got to kiss the Man Upstairs. I had my time. I got three years and a lot of guys don't get three months."

Whitney, Shelton and Jackson, the Paint Branch High star who later played with Athletes in Action, each played in the NBA, but faded after two years. Hunter was on the Milwaukee Bucks roster for three games in 1981 and was cut, without ever having received a second of court time.

Furthermore, how could the Class of '76 have foreseen the injuries that had never happened before? Duren blew out his knee moving around a Tom LaGarde pick and missed 40 games in his rookie year with Utah. He spent hours of loneliness cranking out the movies on the VCR at home in Salt Lake City, where, he said, the clubs close at 11 p.m. and where most of the veterans were married and stayed to themselves.

Whitney blew out his knee returning to earth from a slam dunk and missed about 35 games as a rookie with Kansas City. When Whitney returned the next season, his weight had swelled by 15 pounds to 230 and he was soon sent packing. Only a tryout rejection with the Louisville Catbirds of the CBA remained in his pro basketball career.

By the time Bowie's Herb Gray tore cartilage in his right knee, he already was grasping for one of the lowest rungs on the ladder. The knee failed him during a tryout with the CBA's Ohio Mixers a couple of years ago, long after he had failed a free agent tryout with the Atlanta Hawks.

Chances are, you could spin the globe now, thumb it to a stop and your finger would land on the whereabouts of one member of the Class of '76:

Whitney is in carpentry and doing volunteer work for the Niles Home for Children in Kansas City. He said he hopes to become involved with the juvenile court system, helping children. Scott is working for a cable television company in Spring, Tex., after a marketing consulting business he and a buddy started went bad in two years.

Shelton is married and playing in Italy for PallaCan-estro Trieste. He is one of the few players recruited to Georgetown by John Thompson who has not earned his degree. Shelton, the All-Met player of the year from 34-0 Dunbar in 1976, excelled with big numbers (17 points per game) with the Hoyas. He did a quick fizzle in the NBA (career average: 4.1 points), then drifted off to the CBA's Atlantic City Hi Rollers.

Eastern's James Ratiff, who transferred in 1978 after one year at Tennessee to become the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference player of the year at Howard, is playing in Argentina. His mother, Joyce Ratiff, said, "He still talks of the NBA. His father and I tell him he should think otherwise. It's time to get on with other things. He majored in physical education. He didn't finish his degree. We told him he should, but a lot of people put things in kids' heads and they never listen to their parents, you know."

An Unwanted Notoriety

Coolidge's James (Stretch) Gregory is playing basketball in Chile. Newspaper clips show that Gregory's was a college career of turbulence: he spent 1 1/2 years at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he led the team in scoring as a freshman before he became academically ineligible as a sophomore. Gregory, who couldn't be reached for comment, later transferred to Wisconsin-Superior, but school records indicate he departed quickly. Along the way, Gregory was involved in some bizarre, headline incidents.

In 1978, Gregory pleaded no contest to shoplifting a $7 billfold from a Madison store. He spent eight days in jail and received one year's probation, according to records in the Dane County district attorney's office. At UW-Superior in September 1980, Gregory was arrested for possession of marijuana, consumption of alcohol in public and littering. The first two charges were dismissed and a $61 fine was levied for littering, according to Douglas County records. Two months later, he was charged with unlawful entry into the room of a classmate and was given one year's probation.

Before leaving for the Philippines, Hunter, the former Big Eight star, said, "Basketball is still not out of my system." After he was cut by the Bucks in 1981, Hunter bounced around such CBA towns as Lancaster, Pa., and Portland, Maine. "I had to go with my natural motion," he said. Hunter recalled making 10-hour overnight van rides between CBA cities and how players stayed awake talking about NBA players or games that were on TV the other night. Always, the conversation was about the NBA, which made sense. After all, didn't Dorothy and the Tin Man always talk about Oz, hopping down the yellow brick road?

"There's no doubt I should be in the NBA and I should be playing right now," Hunter said. "A lot of people said I didn't play defense, but through my career I didn't see anybody take advantage of me. At Maryland, I played the Jeff Lamps, the Phil Fords, the (Jim) Spanarkles. I didn't see them exploiting me on defense and they had to take me on the other end of the floor."

You won't find Duren spinning his wheels for $2,500 a month overseas or $1,200 a month in the CBA. He was a No. 1 draft pick of Utah, had a six-figure contract and once scored 18 points in a game against the Lakers in Los Angeles with the Jackson Five sitting in the front row.

Duren later spent 1 1/2 months in the CBA, but said he grew tired of others making decisions about his career. No wonder, after his short stay in the CBA, Duren figured, "When you've eaten lobster, it's hard to eat bologna." So in 1983, at age 25, he gave up on basketball.

Duren earned a degree in sociology at Georgetown in 1981 and refers to himself as an "entrepreneur." He heads John Duren Enterprises, which consists of, among other things, selling warmups and shoes on a wholesale basis to area schools and various kinds of printing. He also did color commentary on Hoyas radio broadcasts this season.

Tracy Jackson said he never had any false illusions of beginning and ending his life on a 90-by-50 chunk of wood. As a member of the All-Met Class of '76, this makes him a rarity. Jackson said he is involved with real estate in the Washington area and is now interviewing with financial advisers, which would make a fitting transition for the Notre Dame graduate with a degree in economics and education. He said, "The academic coordinator at Notre Dame was great, helping us. I went to summer school about every year just to keep up with my credits. Nowadays, players seem to misinterpret what they want out of college."

Jackson, who failed a last-chance tryout with Atlanta last preseason, described basketball as "just something that happened, nothing I brought home with me." Now, he said, "I think it's important to have a balance in life."

After his knee gave out during a tryout with the Ohio Mixers, Herb Gray is a Burns security guard on the late shift at the Commerce Building. "At 14th and Pennsylvania," he noted. "It's not a bad job." Gray was a four-year starter at East Carolina and said he regrets the fact he didn't finish his therapeutic recreation degree. Gray said he is one year's worth of units shy. When he works the late shift, "I think about [finishing my degree] from time to time." After his senior year, he said, he played one year as a pro in Grenoble, France. He got in one year with the Atlantic City Hi Rollers, with whom he suffered a severely sprained ankle "and didn't get the proper treatment since the team didn't have a trainer."

Gray said he tried to return to ECU to finish his degree. He wasn't able to get a scholarship, though, and without it, he said, he couldn't afford school. What about attending another school?

"I'd probably lose some credits," Gray said. "I'm thinking about taking some classes at Howard, but . . . "

Listening to some members of the Class of '76 talk about their college education is like listening to a race car driver talk about the Indy 492. Some came close to getting their degree, but didn't finish.

Whitney said he is fewer than 20 hours short of obtaining his degree, in vocational industrial education from North Carolina State. But Whitney said he doesn't know when or if he might finish while living in Kansas City. Bryant said he is "about a year" short of his textiles and clothing/fashion merchandising degree from Western Kentucky after his transfer from Maryland.'

I Feel I'm a Pro'

When he finally quit the game several years ago, Bryant said, "I didn't know what to do because my whole life had consisted of basketball." Bryant said he worked part time as a salesman in a luggage store, then worked at several sports shops, before getting hired at Giant Food. "I don't mean to brag, but I think I'm pretty smart. A lot of my friends are still trying to play. That's crazy to me. I feel I'm a pro right now, regardless of what anybody says. I know I was good enough to be a pro, I just wasn't good enough to be on a professional team. I know anybody out there who knows anything about me and anything about basketball knows that Billy Bryant is a pro. That's why I could put the game down."

Scott, a 6-3, 160-pound guard, said, "The tragedy of college sports is that [colleges] are setting up so many kids to fail, not in school, but in life. Yeah, they did make it easier for some of the players [at Virginia Tech]. They'd tell you to take this class, that that teacher likes jocks. But on the other side of the coin, I had an English teacher in my sophomore year who made things tougher on jocks. So you had it both ways."

One point must not be lost: if basketball has been a seductive, blinding light to the Class of '76, it has also been a vehicle to a real-world education.

Bryant talked about seeing the poverty while touring with a team in Argentina. He said he was shocked to see a child attend a game once wearing only one shoe. He remembered "the time these two kids, about eight and nine years old, followed me the whole day. I took to them and brought them back to my hotel. They ate with me and I gave them tickets to the game. They brought their father to the game that night. It was sad. Both of the kids had physical deficiencies. One had a messed-up arm and the other had a bad hand. There wasn't much I could do, but I got a little satisfaction. I was gone the next day. I still have their picture."

Duren talked about the experience of being an inner-city product "sitting in the same classroom as millionaires' sons and daughters." When the Utah Jazz were in Los Angeles to play the Lakers, Duren remembered a former Georgetown classmate inviting him to his parents' house in Beverly Hills. "I couldn't believe it," Duren said. "The guy opened up his bedroom door and he had a full-court indoor gym in his house."

Hunter talked about having had the opportunity to experience Spain, while playing professional basketball in that country. In Spain, he said, the game "was just basically 'Give the ball to the American.' " Hunter even inherited a nickname: Jose Jose. Hunter laughed and said, "I guess to them that meant JoJo."

Whitney said one of the best things about being in the basketball spotlight was being able to help youngsters. The former ACC co-rookie of the year at North Carolina State said he and his wife adopted two teen-agers, a boy of 15 and his sister, 14, after their parents had died, during his rookie season in the NBA. Whitney, who has a son, 6, said both kids are on their own now, "but we still keep in touch."

From deep in the heart of Texas, Chris Scott named his biggest basketball thrill: "Being named to the All-Met team," he said. "What was it that Andy Warhol said, 'Everyone should be famous for 15 minutes.'

"When I go home and look at my mother's scrapbook, I laugh. Why? Well, now I work 10 hours a day," Scott said. "Life isn't as fun now as it was then."

Next: Stars start early.