Commentary

'79 contest showcases legends

Originally Published: March 26, 2009
By Christopher Lawlor | ESPN.com

What started out as a ballyhooed matchup of the nation's top big men became a watershed moment for the McDonald's All American High School Basketball Game.

Fueled by the strong Class of 1979 -- 7-footers Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie were the centers of attention -- the McDonald's Game became ingrained into the national psyche of sports writers and fans. More important, the event evolved into the ultimate goal for aspiring teen basketball players.

The 1979 class was not solely responsible for the game's overall success. Still, it certainly helped launch the national all-star game during its embryonic stage, leveraging 24 talented players, 16 of whom were taken in the NBA draft. "The two key ingredients to a great class are superior big men and point guards," said Van Coleman, the publisher of hoopmasters.com, who has analyzed high school talent since 1977. "The overall depth of this class and their success in pros is proof."

Golden Arch Madness

Basketball was walking on air in the late '70s.

The NCAA Final Four became an annual springtime ritual thanks to coach John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins, whose dynasty included 10 national crowns, with the last in 1975; the USA had won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, beating several Eastern Bloc nations; and the NBA was the verge of explosion with talents such as Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin "The Big E" Hayes and George "Ice Man" Gervin. (Youngsters like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were waiting in the wings).

McDonald's Game

The 1979 McDonald's All American Game might have been the greatest collection of high school basketball talent ever assembled. Is there a better class? SportsNation

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The 32nd McDonald's All American Game will take place April 1 at the University of Miami's BankUnited Center. You can watch the game on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET. Roster

The game's site was Charlotte, N.C., southwest of the ACC's epicenter, Tobacco Road (home to Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Wake Forest). Five players would play for ACC schools; the most decorated was slender forward James Worthy of Ashbrook High in Gastonia. His future Tar Heels teammate, Jim Braddock of Chattanooga, Tenn., also participated in the game, giving Carolina faithful an early glimpse of two cogs on the 1982 NCAA national championship roster.

The rosters were loaded with a cavalcade of future NBA stars. Morgan Wootten, the Hall of Fame coach from DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., and McDonald's selection committee chairman since the game started, recalls: "It was an incredible class."

Imagine a game with teenagers named Ralph Sampson, Sam Bowie, Dominique Wilkins, Isiah Thomas, James Worthy, Clark Kellogg, John Paxson and Byron Scott. The East squad, paced by the passing of Thomas and the perimeter shooting of Paxson, held off the West 106-105 in front of a sellout crowd of 11,666 at the Charlotte Coliseum. "It was the greatest high school class in history," said Wilkins, who played for Washington (N.C.) High and scored 16 points for the East. "There were at least 40 players from the Class of '79 to play in the NBA; the talent was unbelievable at the McDonald's Game."

"When Ralph [Sampson] walked into the gym, there was an aura about him," said Paxson, currently the the Chicago Bulls' vice president of basketball operations. "He was a unique player who had size and talent."

Darren Daye -- a 6-foot-8 forward from Granada Hills, Calif., who spent five seasons in the NBA -- was the game's Most Valuable Player. In the West's one-point overtime loss, Daye recorded a double-double, 22 points and 14 rebounds, but it wasn't enough. The East backcourt of Thomas (19 points) and Paxson (14 points) combined for 33 points and Horace "Pappy" Owens of Dobbins Tech (Philadelphia) scored 18 points to lead four double-digit scorers on the winning East roster. Sampson blocked a game-record 10 shots, overshadowing his meager offensive output of four points on 2-of-7 shooting. His East teammate, Worthy, also disappointed the locals, only scoring two points.

"Because he showed up the day before the game, we couldn't integrate Ralph into the offense," East coach Red Jenkins recalled. "I told Ralph to rebound and block shots. What a great job he did in the middle."

"As far as many are concerned, including me, the Class of 1979 has stood the test of time," Wootten said. "It's as fine a class as there's ever been in [high school basketball] recruiting; they were champions on the court.

"All the hard work they put in they used to influence their future endeavors."

Jenkins, who is the only person to coach and win all five traditional all-star games -- McDonald's, Kentucky Derby Festival, Dapper Dan, Capital Classic and the Roundball Classic -- was impressed with the players' attitudes.

"They had the greatest work ethic," said Jenkins, a veteran of 43 years at Northern Virginia high schools, including 39 years at W.T. Woodson (Alexandria), where he coached signature player Tommy Amaker, who played in the 1983 McDonald's Game and for Duke. "All the players were on the same page and played like a team. We had five days to practice, and with that much time to prepare, you can put something together." Paxson said it was a special group. "The athleticism of the players really stood out."

[+] EnlargeIsiah Thomas
Courtesy of McDonald'sIsiah Thomas was one of three Chicago products in the 1979 McDonald's All-American Game.
Raymond McCoy, a talented point guard from Bloom High School in Chicago Heights, Ill., came into the game as one of the nation's top-rated point guards. In those days, the citywide debate centered on who was the area's most adept prep playmaker. West-siders favored Thomas, while McCoy was the pride of the South Side.

"When we got [to play in] the McDonald's All American Game, it was the icing on the cake for all the work we had done," McCoy said. "There was top-notch play. We took the game real seriously. At the same time, we had fun off the court. We became friends."

Historically speaking

Bob Geoghan, the founder and executive director of the McDonald's All American Game, had a vision.

He worked behind the scenes at two Final Fours in College Park, Md., had observed local high school stars from the greater Washington area and witnessed Americans embrace the college game on national television. The McDonald's Game was born out of the Capital Classic -- a prep all-star game pitting the nation's finest against local D.C.-area products -- which commenced in 1974. Geoghan created the game and took his idea to local McDonald's proprietors.

In the inaugural Capital Classic game, Geoghan tapped Wootten to coach the U.S. team, featuring future Hall of Fame center Moses Malone of Petersburg, Va. Malone, who was committed to the University of Maryland, bypassed college after the game for the ABA's Utah Stars.

"McDonald's had never put their name on anything. I was a real nobody, really a guy behind the scenes with an idea," said Geoghan. "But the timing was right. Basketball was exploding nationally, and McDonald's rolled the dice.

Dominique Wilkins
Courtesy of McDonald'sThe high-flying Dominique Wilkins would go on to become one of the greatest dunkers in basketball history.
"If I had approached them five years earlier or five years later, it may have been different." In 1977, 15 players were named McDonald's All Americans. The 12 national players formed the U.S. team, while the remaining three local products were added to the Washington-Maryland-Virginia team in the Capital Classic. That first game featured high-profile players such as Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Gene Banks and Albert King. Geoghan then developed a national format. "There were other all-star games in Pittsburgh [the Roundball Classic], Louisville [the Derby Festival Classic] and Washington [the Capital Classic], but they featured a regional team against U.S. players," he said. "We figured it was time to launch a national game and keep it fresh by moving it around each year." McDonald's quickly realized supporting the concept was a no-brainer. Geoghan sold the hamburger mega-giant on the charitable arm (Ronald McDonald Houses) and the youth target market. The Games have raised $5 million since 1978. "I identified McDonald's with the teen market; who else was really working there? We hoped [the game] would become the goal of every high school player. After 31 years, we have [achieved that hope]," Geoghan said. Bob Gibbons, a veteran analyst and McDonald's Game selection committee member, said, "It was a benchmark class. They played an entertaining game."

Dominique: Magnifique!

The landscape of high school basketball differed in the 1970s. Players would go head-to-head at summer camps such as Five Star or B/C All-Stars, or in all-star games in the spring of their senior year. The shoe giants were years away from putting their names on summer tournaments or camps. Wilkins, a 6-8, 200-pound forward who attended one year of high school in Baltimore and later attended the University of Georgia, recalls being nervous at his first McDonald's practice. However, he quickly established himself by blocking Antoine Carr's dunk attempt. "Antoine was dunking all over people in practice that week," Wilkins said. "Then I blocked his dunk and caught it in one play. The whole gym stopped. I knew then I belonged here." It would be Wilkins who became a master dunk artist during his high-flying NBA career. (Wilkins is expected to attend the game this year as a guest judge in the Powerade Jam Fest, the dunk contest which debuted in 1987. Past winners include Baron Davis, Vince Carter, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.)

Wilkins, now a television analyst for the Atlanta Hawks, is honored to be a McDonald's All American. "Over the years I [have] spoken with NBA players about the game; it was entertaining and something I don't forget," he said.

McCoy agreed, beaming with class pride.

"We like to think '79 was the best ever. Based on everybody's progression and what they've done."

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys' and girls' basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.

Christopher Lawlor

High School Basketball
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years.