Nobody much cares which team wins an all-star basketball game, especially a high school all-star game. The game is supposed to be a showcase for the players, a chance to show what they can do in front of college scouts. It’s also for the fans, who get a glimpse of the college (and potentially professional) stars of the future.
The Capital Classic all-star game, which was created in 1974 and featured a squad of D.C. area players going up against a national all-star team each spring, was no different. The games were popular and well-attended at the old Capital Centre in Prince George’s County and the early matchups included such future stars as Moses Malone, Magic Johnson and Albert King.
The one thing those early games didn’t feature was a competitive performance by the locals. In the first four years the game was played, the best the D.C. all-stars could do was lose by 18 points to the national team. In the most lopsided game of the series to that point – a 138-107 victory by the U.S. squad in 1976 – the score probably didn’t get any further out of hand because the players on the winning team got tired from all the running and dunking.
By the time the fifth anniversary game came around – 36 years ago this week – local basketball officials were determined to change things. Area coaches and players were sheepish about what had happened in previous years and wanted badly to make a better showing.
Not much was expected from that ’78 group of locals, though. The first four games in the series had been blowouts and this one figured to be just as one-sided, especially with players like Scooter McCray (Louisville) and Mark Aguirre (DePaul/NBA) on the national squad.
“Probably the only thing that could save the Metro All-Stars from considerable embarrassment in tonight’s Capital Classic basketball game against the United States All-Stars would be a last-minute changes in the rules,” noted The Washington Post’s David Dupree in his preview story the day of the game.
“As has been the case the last couple of years in this, one of the premier high school all-star games, the U.S. stars are loaded and the Metro Stars are out of their league.”
Eddie Crane of The Washington Star was just as pessimistic.
“The Capital All-Stars have failed to give the United States team much of a fight in four previous tried in the McDonald’s Capital Classic basketball game,” he wrote. “The trend is likely to continue in tonight’s game at Capital Centre. And there’s a good possibility the record 31-point margin of victory … in 1976 may be in jeopardy.”
On paper, it did look like a mismatch. The national squad had a talented seven-foot center in Bill Cartwright, who later enjoyed a 15-year NBA career. The locals’ tallest player, meanwhile, was 6-foot-7 Bryant Johnson of Spingarn.
But despite his height disadvantage, Johnson stood tallest when the game was over. He scored 15 points and grabbed a game-high 20 rebounds as the locals stunned the nationals, 87-79, before 14,293 screaming fans in Largo. Johnson was named the game’s MVP.
The honor just as easily could have gone to Churchill’s Eric Smith, who hit his first five shots to stake the locals to a 25-14 first-quarter lead. He finished with a team-high 16 points.
Many thought the MVP award should have gone to DeMatha’s Dutch Morley. Morley scored just seven points, but handed out five assists and controlled the tempo of the game as the U.S. All-Stars grew desperate in the closing minutes.
Even DuPree was impressed.
“The smaller Metro players controlled the tempo and plainly played more like a team than the highly touted visitors,” he wrote afterward.
That was all part of the plan. The locals’ coach, Churchill’s Les Lombardi, wasn’t interested in having his team play as the previous D.C. All-Stars had. He wasn’t interested in turning his players loose and watching them get blown out – again. He coached just as he would have in a regular-season game – with the aim to win. Consequently, he emphasized teamwork and slowed the game down as he saw necessary.
“The kids did a super job,” he said afterward. “We wanted to spread the U.S. team out and make them play defense. It worked.”
It had been quite a year for Lombardi and Smith already. In early March, the two helped Churchill to the Class 4A state basketball title, with Smith scoring 29 points in the title game as the Bulldogs downed future NBA star Thurl Bailey and Bladensburg, 77-63.
At that point, Smith had enjoyed one of the great senior years in D.C. area prep sports history. Four months before he led Churchill to the state basketball title in Class 4A, he ran for a touchdown and passed for another as the Bulldogs captured the state 4A football title as well.
Like Smith, Morley also went out in style to end his high school career. During the 1977-78 prep basketball season, he ran the show on the court as DeMatha finished with its first undefeated season ever, going 27-0 and finishing ranked No. 1 in the area again.
Then he capped the memorable campaign with a heady, essential performance in the locals’ Capital Classic victory.
“You can’t get much better than that,” Morley said.