During the long history of high school boys basketball, there have been literally thousands of outstanding players. Those individuals have been deservedly recognized with various levels of recognitions such as all-city, all-conference and all-state.
At the national level, many of those players have been bequeathed the highest possible accolade of All-American status, denoting them as the very best in the nation within that particular school year. Longtime highly respected publications such as Parade Magazine, Street and Smith’s College Basketball Yearbook and USA Today have done so for many years. Many years ago, the late Haskell Cohen originated his listings for Parade Magazine.
Taking that to its next logical step, the media, coaches and fans often like to cast their votes for what they believe to be the best class or classes.
While that of course is a purely subjective opinion and argumentative, one would be hard-pressed to disagree that the Class of 1979 would deserve consideration as the best class of them all.
For starters, it was a class that had just about everything ‑ it had outstanding height, athletes and talent; it had a bevy of great centers, forwards and guards; and it had tremendous depth at every position. It was a class that had several players who subsequently became stars at the collegiate and professional levels. But, most importantly, it was a class that had several individuals who were among the very best basketball players at the high school level.
If you like big men, then you’d love the Class of 1979.
The three most highly touted centers in the class were 7-foot-3, 210-pound Ralph Sampson of Harrisonburg (Virginia) High School; 7-1, 205-pound Sam Bowie of Lebanon (Pennsylvania) High School; and 6-11, 235-pound senior Steve Stipanovich of St. Louis (Missouri) DeSmet High School. Toward the end of the 1978-79 season, that trio of post players earned the rare distinction of being high school student-athletes to be featured in an article in Sports Illustrated.
During his senior year, Sampson averaged 29.8 points and 20 rebounds a game, while shooting .610 from the field. He had single-game highs of 50 points and 34 rebounds, and finished his career with more than 1,500 points, 1,200 rebounds and 450 blocks. Sampson was college player of the year at the University of Virginia and played several years in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Bowie averaged 32 points, 18 rebounds and 10 blocked shots as a senior, with a single-game high of 51 points. In one game, he compiled 28 points, 27 rebounds and 18 blocks while not committing a single foul. He played collegiately at the University of Kentucky and was the second overall pick of the 1984 NBA Draft.
In contrast to the slender Sampson and Bowie, Stipanovich was a prototypical strongman. He averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds, while shooting 60 percent from the floor. He had high games of 45 points and 25 rebounds and led DeSmet to third place as a sophomore, and to state titles as both a junior and a senior. From December 16, 1977 to December 8, 1979 (spanning Stipanovich’s junior and senior seasons), DeSmet won 63 consecutive games. He later played for the University of Missouri and in the NBA.
Other noted high school centers in 1979 included 6-10 Tim Andree of Birmingham (Michigan) Brother Rice High School, 6-11 Greg Kite of Houston (Texas) Madison High School, 7-1 Randy Breuer of Lake City (Minnesota) High School and 6-10 LaSalle Thompson of Cincinnati (Ohio) Withrow High School.
The forward position was equally stellar, and likely was led by smooth 6-9, 210-pound James Worthy of Gastonia (North Carolina) Ashbrook High School. Worthy shot 59 percent from the field as he averaged 21.1 points and 12.2 rebounds a game his senior campaign, and scored more than 1,400 career points. He went on to the University of North Carolina, where he led the Tar Heels to the 1982 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) national championship. He subsequently played 12 years of “Showtime” with the Los Angeles Lakers, helping them win three NBA titles (1985, 1987 and 1988).
A classic power forward if there ever were one, 6-7, 225-pound Clark Kellogg averaged 27.2 points a game during his senior year at Cleveland (Ohio) St. Joseph’s, and used his oversized hands to grab every rebound in sight. Kellogg later played for Ohio State University and averaged 18.9 points and 9.5 rebounds during his NBA career. Today, he is lead analyst for CBS Sports’ coverage of college basketball.
The flashiest player might have been 6-7, 200-pound Dominique Wilkins, who averaged 30 points and 17 rebounds for Washington (North Carolina) High School. The high-flying Wilkins later was appropriately dubbed the “Human Highlight Film” in recognition of his acrobatic and very impressive dunks. He played for the University of Georgia and averaged 18.2 points a game during his 14-year NBA career.
Other standout midsized players included 6-7 Derrick Hord of Bristol (Tennessee) High School, who played at the University of Kentucky; 6-9 Antoine Carr of Wichita Heights (Kansas) High School, who played at Wichita (Kansas) State University; 6-7 Dale Ellis of Marietta (Georgia) High School, who played at the University of Tennessee; and 6-8 Darren Daye of Granada Hills (California) Kennedy High School, who played at UCLA.
The class was filled with several backcourt aces, but none perhaps as great as 6-1 Isiah Thomas of Westchester (Illinois) St. Joseph’s. As a junior, Thomas led St. Joseph’s to a 31-2 record and to second place in the Illinois High School Association state basketball tournament, and he averaged 20.9 points a game as a senior. Incredibly, he played on his school’s 7th-8th-grade “B” team when he was in kindergarten. Thomas led Indiana University to the 1981 NCAA national championship and went on to a 13-year NBA career with the Detroit Pistons.
John Paxson was a standout 6-2 guard at Kettering (Ohio) Alter High School, where he averaged 23.3 points and six assists his senior year, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free-throw line. In addition, he graduated as Alter’s career scoring leader. Paxson went on to the University of Notre Dame, where he was named first-team All-American as both a junior and a senior.
As a senior at New Britain (Connecticut) St. Thomas Aquinas High School, 6-1, 160-pound Rod Foster averaged 30.2 points a game as he led his team to the state title. Dubbed “Rocket” in recognition of his great speed, Foster went on to UCLA, where he led the Bruins to the runner-up spot in the 1980 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Foster played for the Phoenix Suns in the NBA.
Other top guards included 6-4 Tony “Red” Bruin of Astoria (New York) Mater Christi High School, who later played for Syracuse (New York) University; 6-0 backcourt partners Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg of Hyattsville (Maryland) DeMatha High School, who helped lead North Carolina State University to the 1983 NCAA national championship; and 6-2 Jon Sundvold of Blue Springs (Missouri) High School, who teamed with Stipanovich to lead the University of Missouri Tigers to four consecutive Big Eight Conference championships. Sundvold is also a member of the NFHS’ National High School Hall of Fame.
Other players of note included 6-9 Sidney Green of Brooklyn (New York) Jefferson High School, who was an All-American at UNLV; 6-5 Byron Scott of Inglewood (California) Morningside High School, who became an All-American at Arizona State University and won three NBA titles as a member of Los Angeles Lakers; 6-7 Rodney McCray of Mount Vernon (New York) High School, who helped lead the University of Louisville (Kentucky) to the 1980 NCAA national championship; and 6-7 Craig Robinson of Montclair (New Jersey) High School, who in addition to playing at Princeton (New Jersey) University and currently serving as head men’s basketball coach of the University of Oregon, calls President Barack Obama “brother-in-law” as his younger sister Michelle is the U.S. First Lady.
To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the McDonald’s All-American Game, McDonald’s announced on January 30 its list of the 35 greatest participants in the storied showcase’s history.
The 1979 game led the way with five players ‑ Kellogg, Sampson, Thomas, Wilkins and Worthy. No other year’s game had more than three players named.