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For this year’s Capital Classic, LeBron James will lead a team of national all-stars versus another team of national all-stars. That’s not the game the Classic was designed to be.

From its origin in 1974 until last year, the annual event threw the best prep players from the D.C. area up against a squad of All-Americans from the rest of the country. Over the years, other U.S. cities have claimed to have a prep basketball tradition as strong as D.C.’s. But none of them put their reputations to a yearly test with such an us-against-the-world all-star matchup.

“That’s what made the game special, especially for the locals,” says Bryant Johnson, a former Spingarn center who played for the Capital All-Stars in the 1978 contest. “I know that guys around D.C. viewed playing college ball as a step down from playing in that game.”

Johnson played in two city high-school basketball championships and went on to play hoops for Ohio State. He even participated in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, as a member of the U.S. handball squad. But he says nothing in his athletic résumé tops the thrills he got from the Capital Classic.

Until the 1978 Capital Classic, the locals hadn’t done much to uphold the city’s regal court reputation. In the first four games of the series, the national team had won by an average of 21 points. And when the 1978 national all-stars came to town, they were heralded as the best group yet assembled. The drool-inducing imports included 6-foot-7 Mark Aguirre, player of the year in Illinois and a future Detroit Piston; 6-foot-9 New Yorker Carlton “Scooter” McCray, who went on to become an All-American for 1980 NCAA champs Louisville; 6-foot-11 Texan Rudy Woods, a future center for Texas A&M and the Dallas Mavericks; and 6-foot-3 guard Dwight Anderson, an Ohioan considered the best prep guard in the country, who was signed by defending NCAA champ Kentucky (and was drafted by the Bullets in 1982).

Johnson, at 6-foot-7, was the tallest player on the D.C. roster. His teammates on the Capital All-Stars included future Maryland Terrapin Dutch Morley and Charles Bryant of DeMatha, Billy Barnes of St. John’s, and Eric Smith, a Churchill guard who went on to Georgetown. In the days leading up to the Classic, the home team heard respected basketball minds declare that its losing skein would go on. David DuPree, now an ESPN commentator, predicted in a Washington Post piece that the D.C. team would endure “considerable embarrassment.”

“The U.S. Stars are loaded and the Metro Stars are out of their league,” wrote DuPree. He sarcastically added that promoters should promulgate special rules to negate the invaders’ height and jumping ability—such as “make it illegal for the U.S. Stars to score after getting an offensive rebound” and “make [the U.S. Stars] take the ball back outside, as in a half-court playground game, before shooting it again”—in hopes of giving the homeboys a chance.

After hosting dozens of high-powered college recruiters (including Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall and Maryland’s Lefty Driesell) and the national team for a workout in the DeMatha gym, legendary coach Morgan Wooten termed the 1978 visiting squad virtually unbeatable.

“On paper, and I hate to say this, our kids don’t have a chance unless they have a great shooting night,” Wooten said.

Capital All-Stars coach Les Lombardi, who had just led Churchill to a Maryland state championship, was also getting the doom-and-gloom prognostications.

“Even my friends were telling me we were going to get beat by 40 or 50,” recalls Lombardi, now a marketer with Anaconda, a sporting-goods manufacturer.

So Lombardi figured he might as well play the underdog card to the hilt. When the D.C. players hopped on a bus at a Landover hotel for the short ride to the Capital Centre, the driver popped in a videotape of Rocky, which Lombardi had fast-forwarded to the climactic fight scene.

“Oh, boy, do I remember that Rocky tape,” laughs Johnson, who is now bid director for the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “The fight finished right when it was time for us to go into the arena. It was perfect. We came off that bus ready to do battle.”

The mood carried over after tipoff. The Capital All Stars wowed the home crowd by jumping out to a double-digit first-quarter lead. The going was never easy underneath the backboards, however. “I was up against Rudy Woods, and this guy was so big it wasn’t funny,” says Johnson. “Early on, he swatted one of my shots all the way to the scorers table. I figured I wasn’t going to be able to compete against him as a scorer, but [then-Bullets center] Wes Unseld was my role model at the time, and I learned from watching Wes that the tallest guy didn’t always get the rebound, so I just concentrated on hitting the boards.”

Woods and Aguirre rallied the national team to a fourth-quarter tie. But the underdog locals refused to let the game get away. At the end, it was the Capital All-Stars, 87-79. Johnson, who according to the official box score had 15 points and a Capital Classic-record 20 rebounds (“I remember 22 rebounds, actually,” he says. “But I don’t want to be picky after all these years”), was named MVP for the winning squad.

“The best thing for me about that night wasn’t really basketball,” Johnson says. “My mother had always had an intense fear of crowds and had never seen me play before, and even that night, I kissed her and left her at home and went to the game, like I always did. But after the buzzer, I’m on the court celebrating this incredible win that nobody expected us to get, and this guy tugs at my shoulder and points into the stands, and there’s my mom over the railing, clapping and waving at me. The first time she ever saw me play was on this perfect night. I tell you, the whole thing was surreal, larger than life. I’ll never forget it.”

The MVP performance helped land Johnson the scholarship from Ohio State. Lombardi left Churchill that year for a short-lived stint as an NCAA head coach.

“All the kids really bought into the whole Rocky, David-vs.-Goliath, underdog thing,” says Lombardi, who will attend this year’s game to reflect on the 25th anniversary of the big win. “They played like a team, which never happens in an all-star game. The next day, I must have gotten a phone call from every coach in the area saying, ‘You did a great thing for D.C. basketball by winning that game!’”

It’s doubtful anything good or bad for D.C. basketball will come from this year’s rendition. Capital Classic founder and promoter Bob Geoghan, a Washington native, says he went to an all-national format last year to make the game more attractive to the new sponsor, Jordan, a Nike clothing division named for Michael Jordan. “I loved the old format, so I felt that in some ways I wasn’t doing the right thing by the local kids,” Geoghan says. “But I had to think of what was best for the event.”

Only one local player, Linas Kleiza of Rockville’s Montrose Christian Academy, is on either roster for Thursday’s Capital Classic, the 30th game played in the series.

“Now, I guess it’s just another all-star game,” says Johnson. —Dave McKenna