WEDNESDAY, APRIL 7,1982
When Frank Gihan, a p.r. whiz and hoops connoisseur from the Bronx, got involved with the McDonald's All American Game five years ago, he thought it would be a joyful experience. And for the most part, he says, that's what his association with the country's No. 1—or No. 1A—high school basketball all-star game has been.
He recalls that, "On the day before the 1979 game in Charlotte, North Carolina, we took these giants like Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie out to the speedway and they stuffed themselves into the cockpits of 200-mile-per-hour racing machines. Antoine Carr gets in one and his first question is 'Where's the radio?'
"And last year, in Wichita, we were leaving the children's hospital after making a group visit there, and we couldn't find one of the players, Manuel Forrest, anywhere. We looked all over the place, and I was really beginning to get worried, when we finally found him in this tiny room, crying his eyes out over these terminally ill kids he had just seen, blessing his own luck."
But Gihan's sharpest recollection is of a different nature entirely. "The gauntlet," he says softly. "I'll always remember it as the gauntlet. In Oakland, in 1980, at the Coliseum Arena. The players were on their way out to the floor. On both sides of the tunnel were these coaches. They were like madmen, screaming, 'He's mine! Get away from him!' and 'I saw so-and-so talking to him! I want my shot at the kid! Fair is fair, dammit!' " The scene still provokes a long sigh and a look of disbelief from Gihan. "For me, emotionally, that was the worst," he says.
Now even the most brazen coach knows better than to defile the McDonald's showcase so openly. The players invited to this spring's game, to be played at the Horizon here in suburban Chicago, share quarters with their high school coaches on two floors of the Hyatt Regency O'Hare. Phone calls are screened, and all of the players' time is accounted for in advance on Gihan's heavily laden clipboard. "What we fear most," Gihan says, "is that the NCAA will rule a player ineligible for all postseason play in college because of something that happens at our game."
Consequently, the players do a lot of grumbling. "So this is what prison is like," mutters one.
"Yeah, right, precautions, but why do we have to stay and play out here in the suburbs?" asks Johnny Dawkins, a 6'1" guard and honor student from Mackin High in Washington. "I thought we were going to be in Chicago." He gestures toward the plain surrounding O'Hare International Airport. "Sure doesn't look like Chicago to me."
Bob Geoghan, executive director of both the McDonald's Game and the Capital Classic, the other big high school all-star game, thinks such complaints are akin to those of smug seniors at commencement who belittle gowns and mortarboards. "It'll hit them later on in life," he says. "They'll look back and be glad they were here."
Geoghan and Morgan Wootten, the renowned coach at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., came up with the idea for this game, and both believe such high school all-star events, of which there are scores of varying degrees of prestige, are rites of passage. From small-town gyms to big-time arenas. From local acclaim to national fame. Of course, that passage can also lead to disappointment and frustration. But in the hotel lobbies, teeming with players, parents, girl friends, coaches, hangers-on, nobody thinks about that.