March 24, 2008

For most 17-year-olds, playing in a basketball game with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire would be the highlight of their week. In 2002, it was just the tip of the iceberg for J.J. Redick, a 17-year-old from Roanoke, Va. Not only did Redick play with those rising stars in the McDonald's All-American Game, but also he met legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and won the game's MVP honor. Yet, none of those were the most memorable experience of the week for Redick.

"My best memory was going to [the Ronald McDonald House], interacting with the children and seeing the smiles on their faces," said Redick, now in his second season with the Orlando Magic. "For a lot of us players, it was the first time we had done something like that and had the opportunity to really do some community service like that."

The McDonald's All-American Game has been the premier preps basketball all-star game since 1978. Before Michael Jordan was "MJ," Earvin Johnson was "Magic," Shaquille O'Neal was "Shaq," Kobe Bryant was "Kobe," LeBron James was "King James" and Carmelo Anthony was "Melo," they were all McDonald's All Americans.

"None of us could have envisioned that it would be 31 years and it would be the national game for high school basketball and the springboard for the top players nationally," Philadelphia icon Sonny Hill said.

Though legendary personalities like Hill, Wooden and DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) coach Morgan Wootten head the selection committee, the game's creator is rather anonymous. Bob Geoghan, who grew up a basketball fan, brainstormed the extravaganza more than 30 years ago. "I was always a catalyst in the neighborhood for organizing things," Geoghan said. "I was just trying to do something that hadn't been done yet."

When Geoghan realized that there was no all-star game between the best high school basketball players in Maryland and Virginia, he organized one. From there, his idea evolved. In 1974, he wanted to have the best players from the Maryland/Virginia/Washington D.C. area play the nation's best players. The event would take place in the brand new Capital Centre in Landover, Md.

When Geoghan went to McDonald's for sponsorship, he thought he could just let them run it and he would buy a ticket. Surprise. "They told me that they're good at flipping burgers but not at running high school all-star games," recalls Geoghan.

Friends said he'd be lucky to get 3,000 people at the event, called the McDonald's Capital Classic. As it turned out, he was quite lucky. The event brought more than 11,000 fans into the Capital Centre.

By 1977, Geoghan wanted to create a national East vs. West game, but McDonald's didn't like the idea. Instead, the Capital Classic's U.S. All-Stars were renamed the McDonald's All-Americans, but they still played against the regional team. Magic Johnson, Albert King, and Gene Banks headlined the 1977 All Americans, who won the game with Banks being named MVP.

It wasn't until then Philadelphia 76ers general manager Pat Williams got behind the idea of a national all-star game that McDonald's supported the concept. The next year, more than 13,000 fans showed up as Philadelphia hosted the inaugural McDonald's Game (Mark Aguirre won the MVP award). From there, the game grew and grew. "I never knew the events were going to last as long as they did," Geoghan said.

In 1986, the game was broadcast on television for the first time. Six years later, ESPN broadcasted the game's first slam dunk contest and three-point shootout. In 2002, Geoghan created the girls' McDonald's All-American game.

No matter what city the game has been in, one thing remains consistent. The players always take a trip to a local Ronald McDonald House to visit sick children. Last year the event raised more than $500,000 for the Ronald McDonald House in Louisville, Ky. "It just makes you happy when you see the smiles on their faces," said Philadelphia 76ers rookie forward Thaddeus Young, who was a 2006 participant.

On Wednesday night, this year's collection of 24 players will take the court at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, slipping on the McDonald's jerseys and carrying the tradition into its 31st showing.

"I coined the phrase 'McDonald's All American' so that it has now become a part of a lexicon of the sport," says Geoghan. "No matter what, these kids will forever be labeled as McDonald's All Americans."

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