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4 MILLION REASONS TO LEAVE COLLEGE FOR NBA

THEY'RE COMING out in droves this year. The trickle has turned into a torrent, the drip into a drain. They'll play in Minneapolis or Vancouver, wherever, it don't matter. They'd rather live in a Hyatt than a dorm. They don't care about ivy on the walls or the Sigma Nu parties they might miss, or freshman orientation either. Their sights are on hire education, not higher education.

No less than 25 guys have already signed up for early entry in the NBA Draft - and it's still, well, early. Every time you turn around somebody's standing up at yet another press conference to announce that after much consideration and consultation with family, friends and, uh, (grin) business people, he has decided to skip biology lab and go straight to punching that old shot clock. Bring on the ball and chain.When Utah's Keith Van Horn decided to stay in school, he did not set a trend.

Twenty-five early entrants is already an all-time record, and since on any given draft day the NBA only selects 58 people, it's likely that nearly half of this year's draftees will be people whose only primary baggage will be the college eligibility they still have remaining.

On campuses and in booster clubs around the country, many see this trend as alarming, an affront to the college game. It's never flattering, watching an exodus from the porch. Even Rick Pitino says it's a dark day for the colleges. But maybe this is exactly what the college game needed: A reality check that it should never try to compete with the pro game, period.

What's amazing is that the revolution has taken this long.

Take a player like Shareef Abdur-Rahim, for example. Abdur-Rahim is a 6-11 center from the state of Georgia who, after a spirited recruiting battle, signed with California last year and spent the 1995-96 season with the Golden Bears in Berkeley, where, despite playing on a mediocre team, he was not only named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year but also Pac-10 Player of the Year.

In the process, Abdur-Rahim discovered what the college game entails: An intensive five-month playing season, strict rules against making any outside income, and academic requirements that all the while you still go to class, study, and pull a qualifying grade point average.

Now, he can either do it again, or he can go to the NBA and exchange it for: An intensive six-month playing season, no rules, and a salary with a lot of zeroes.

The only difference between the college game and the pro game is the pro game pays better and you don't have to attend Prof. Kaczynski's math class.

That, and you don't fly coach.

No wonder Abdur-Rahim broke down at this press conference. Those were tears of ecstacy.

Unless you've assured your school that you're coming back and you'll leave them high and dry should you turn pro, the way Shawn Bradley once did to BYU, where's the harm?

It might be another story if playing big-time college basketball offered more of an alternative. But the truth is, at most Div. I programs you'll end up spending more time playing ball - counting practice - in five months than you would in six months in the NBA. And in college you've still got to try and pass Keynesian economics.

Intensity and ruthlessness are about even.

Besides which, turning professional hardly precludes you from getting a college education, or from any other pursuit along the lines of personal development. NBA signing bonuses alone usually amount to more money than the average American male will make in a lifetime (anything beyond about $1.5 million). In effect, you're starting out where most people wind up. You can give yourself your own scholarship.

It's still just a handful of people we're talking about here. Only a few have the raw talent to be in a position to choose between a college scholarship and an NBA offer sheet. In increasing numbers this year, they're choosing the no-class route. And while many see in their decisions the calousness of youth, the myopia of adolescence, and a lack of respect for tradition, I see a bunch of guys who can add $2 million and $2 million. If they weren't smart enough to decide for the pros, I'd wonder why any college would want them, anyway.