George Mason University will begin awarding full basketball scholarships for the first time next season. Athletic officials say the grants are the first step toward constructing a major-college basketball program at the school.

"We hope that maybe within three or four years, we can think about turning Division I (major college)," said athletic director Hap Spuhler. "We feel we have to start making a move at this time before we get overshadowed locally by the rest of the basketball schools around here."

George Mason basketball players currently receive aid limited to tuition and fees. Spuhler is trying to raise $40,000 through the school's sports booster club so he can award at least two full scholarships (room, board, books, tuition, fees) next season. He then hopes to add at least two full grants each succeeding year until Mason reaches the NCAA limit.

Scholarship players will be housed in new dormitories that are scheduled for completion by the fall. These are the first on-campus housing units at the school. Previously, athletes had to either live at home or find off-campus apartments.

"With the dorms and the added booster money, I think we have arrived at a transition period," said Spuhler.

"We have the capabilities of going big time if we work at it. But if we wait, I think we will find ourselves lost in the shuffle."

George Mason currently is a Division II school belonging to the realigned Mason-Dixon Conference. The Patriots are only one of three Division II shools in Virginia.

Spuhler admits that he is depending heavily on community support for the Fairfax-based school to finance Mason's athletic expansion. He said he cannot use state funds for athletic scholarships.

"The most we've raised is $15,000," he said. "But there is money in the community and now we have to find it and cap it."

Mason already has talked a hamburger chain into sponsoring a season-opening basketball tournament that Spuhler envisions as including, besides Mason, Catholic, Howard and American universities.

But only Howard so far has agreed to play in the event, which would be held this year in the Patriots' gym.

Basketball coach John Linn admits he feels "a bit squamish" knowing that now he has full scholarships to hand out. Until now, he has not been able to adequately compete for the top players, either in Northern Virginia or in neighboring states.

"I can't make a mistake now," he said. "I'm sure people will expect more."