He was tall and strong, a feather-soft shooter and an intimidating terror on the backboards at playgrounds and gymnasiums all over the city. When he walked down the street, people would stop and ask him, "You're a pro, aren't you?"

A pro.

He had dreamed about it all his life - the chance to play against the best and all that went with it: the money, the custom clothes over his 6-foot-7 frame, the luxury car and, most important of all, a big down payment on a house for his mother.

She had been so proud of him, graduating from high school, making the all-city team, being courted by so many coaches who wanted to send him to college and, finally, her son accepting that scholarship from the big university on the West Coast.

Yes, she had been so proud. But on that nightmarish day three years ago, it all came apart. Her son, in a fit of depression, had swallowed a quart of antifreeze.

He had been out of school for two years, dropping out because of a problem with his coach. And yet, he never stopped working on his game, always hoping for the chance to play pro ball that never came.

As she sped frantically toward the hospital, her son by her side, the last thing he said to her before he lost consciousness was "Drive slow, mama, I want to die."

A few hours later, he did. He was 23.

It happened in the District of Columbia. The young man's name will not be disclosed - at his mother's request. She also declined to be interviewed. "It's still too painful to talk about," said a friend of the family.

John Thompson, the Georgetown basketball coach, knew about it, because a month before the young athlete killed himself, he - we'll call him Ronald Jones - had borrowed some sweat clothes from the tall head coach.

"All he kept saying was, 'John, I have to get a pro tryout, I have to get a tryout,'" Thompson recalled. "He was convinced that if someone gave him a chance, he could make it. So he borrowed the sweats and I guess he started working out.

"The next thing I knew, he had killed himself. He had played ball most of his life, and then he wasn't playing anymore. The pressure had hit him, and he reacted in the worst possible way."

Jim Wiggins, a barber in Northeast Washington who runs the Urbans Coalition summer basketball league, added a few more details.

"He went out to his college, yeah a big school, and his coach wasn't really too sharp," Wiggins recalled. "Ronald was a very smart boy, a deep thinker, but very impressionable. This coach actually told him that black kids had a problem learning is school, that all they were good for was playing sports. He told him not to worry about school, everything would be taken care of.

"Ronald couldn't deal with that. The coach really messed up his mind.I'm sure he has some kind of break-down out there, and then he came home.

"When he came back, all he talked about was playing pro, playing pro. Between that, and the coach telling him what he did, well, he couldn't handle it, so he killed himself.

"I'm not saying the fact that he couldn't play pro ball was the only reason, but it was a big one. And you know something, it's one of so many stories I know. Maybe not as extreme, where a kid will kill himself, but there are thousands of kids who have the dream. And when it doesn't come true, many of them can't handle it."

This is a series of articles about youngsters - black and white - who spend their formative years trying to become professional athletes and about the society that fosters their dreams.

Numerous athletes - successes and failures - coaches, parents, educators recruiters were interviewed over the past two months.

Through it all, one fact stands out: the athlete's dream is all-absorbing.

Millions of American youngsters want to become professional athletes. Few make it.

It is, of course, an almost impossible dream, this vision of gold and glory in the land of the pros. The numbers will tell you why.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there are about 70,000 boys playing high school basketball, and 1.1 million playing high school football, in the U.S.

By the time they get to college, those numbers will decrease to 18,000 playing basketball and 43,000 playing football (in NCAA institutions).

This year, there are 264 men playing professional basketball in the U.S., and 1,194 playing professional football. On opening day of the NBA season, only 41 rookies were on the rosters of the 22 teams. In football, 220 first-year men made NFL clubs.

Using those figures, one of about 5,000 boys playing high school football and one of about 17,000 playing high school basketball will ever make it to the pros.

The odds, quite obviously, are staggering, and they are even higher for the black athlete, the primary victim in what NYU professor of education Roscoe C. Brown Jr. describes as "the jock trap."

"Because of the limited areas of upward mobility available to blacks, and because sports is one of the few places where individuals blacks got mobility, black children are more inclined to spend a disproportionate amount of time in sports in their youth than white kids," Dr. Brown said in a recent interview.

"They see a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but if one in every 5,000 makes it, what happens to the other hundreds of thousands who don't? Many of them are pursuing this dream to the exclusion of everything else.

"As a result, they don't have any of other skills necessary to cope.Even the kids who go to college don't get very much out of that. They're there because they're athletes, and many of them will last as long as their eligibility lasts. Sure it affects some whites, too, but mostly it's the blacks, the Chicanos and the Puerto Ricans."

But try telling that to a 10-year-old who watches Dr. J jump out of the universe in his Converse All-Stars, then heads right, to the playgrounds to practice the same moves, hour upon hour upon hour.

Try telling the same child that his chances of landing a $1 million contract, of driving a big car, of playing on national televsion before audiences of millions of people are slim, even almost none.

No, the children are getting a far different message from all manner of sources, the most pervasive of all being the mass media. A lot of them are listening.

Recently, for example, the announcer working the San Francisco Notre Dame basketball game was talking about USF forward Winford Boynes. "You know, said Dick Engberg, "he has a key to the gymnasium and sometimes he'll practice his shooting at 4:30 in the morning. He told us the longest he's ever been without a ball in his hands is a week, and that's when he was injured."

The message was clear: practice hard, and you, too can play for the No. 1 team in America.

The media are providing other messages. Each day's nightly sportscast or sports page supplies news of players signing for staggering sums of money, sometimes exaggerated but nevertheless there for all to see.

The leagues give credence to the figures when they annouce that, for example, the average player in the NBA earns $109,000, or that the average NFL salary will creep over $50,000 a year under the latest labor contract.

"If you figure you've been deprived of opportunities all your life and you also want to get out of that situation, a kid and mostly the black kids, are going to say, "What's the quickest way?" says Bob Piper," the Western High School coach of Bullets' guard Larry Wright and now successful insurance executive.

"I said the quickest way, not the best way. Well, then, you look at TV, listen to radio and even read the sports pages, if you can read, and they glorify people who make large salaries. The kids sees that and says, 'Hey, that guy isn't doing anything I can't do!'

"But that pro made it with a lot of hard hours of practice. And with that practice went a lot of hours of study, and being able to do what you're told, and doing things you don't like to do when you have free time.

"And then, you also have to be lucky.

"But you can identify with Dr. J. He's black. So what if he's 6-foot-7. He has two arms and legs just like you do and he can play basketball. So many kids think it would be easier to do that than it would be to spend eight years in medical school, where they'd stand a chance of making a hell of a lot of more money than most basketball players make in a lifetime.

"But who reads about a doctor who isn't Julius Erving?" Piper asked.

Vincent Reed, the D.C. superintedent of schools, acknowledges that the schools also must share a good portion of the blame of perpetuating the impossible dream of sports.

"We as adults haven't been as realistic with kids as we should have been," he said. "Basically, we haven't done a good job educating them as far as what they can expect when the dreams don't pan out.

"And so many of our black leaders make excuses for the failure of our kids. They tell them they're poor and they're black and success might be hard to achieve, which is certainly not the case. Many of our kids who want to achieve can do it.

"The school system has failed them, but then the kids have failed the system, too, by not applying themselves academically. In many cases parental influence has also failed them."

"If anyone is at fault, it's the education system," adds Dr. Robert L. Green, dean of the college of urban development at Michigan State and the author of a landmark study on dicrimination toward black athletes in the Big 10 in 1972.

"Oftentimes there are just no options for the black athlete if the pro dream isn't realized. We have an obligation to make out athletes functional citizens, and we're not doing it.

"When a kid as early as the sixth grade shows some potential in athletics, a whole series of events, almost like a piece of machinery, goes into effect to start grooming that kid for the pros.

"As he goes through the system and the better he gets, the kid sees he can get away with flunking tests, not handing in papers, skipping classes. Usually, his coach will have enough clout, so that very few teachers would dare fail that kid."

There are countless stories of atheletes coming out of high school not able to read their own diplomas.

Dale Brown, the basketball coach at LSU, recalls recruiting one player named to several all-academic teams in high school. When the player arrived on campus, he was given a battery of tests that indicated he was reading at the third-grade level.

James Michener, in his book, Sports in America, tells of one young athlete recruited by 87 different schools, "that would pay all expenses plus spending money for four years of college training in such subjects as calculus, economics, history, chemistry and literature. At that stage, his educational competency was as follows:

"He did not know the multiplication table, had no concept of its significance, could not have made a guess as to what 8 x 7 was, and would have been astounded to learn that 7 x 8 yeilded the same result as 8 x 7.

"He had never read a book; indeed, he had never once been in any house that had a book other than an unopened Bible. He was not illiterate because he could read the sports pages of the newspapers and understand what the writers were saying about him . . . He had no concept of history, no familiarity with any science, had never attended a laboratory session and did not know what a peom was.

"From the seventh grade on he had rarely attended a class, yet he had received top grades. In his junior and senior years, he got straight A's in subjects whose classes he attended one day in five.

"In order to make him eligible for top scholarship, an adoring faculty twice gave him A's in classes for which he was not even enrolled . . . One (college) coach said, 'He is no less prepared than many of the boys we already take. With a tutor to write his papers, and see that he attends at least some of his classes, we'll get him passing grades, and that's all that counts.'"

Adds Dr. Green, "The semester before a big season, we'll have the kids taking the equivalent of basket weaving, scuba diving and Baseball I. Now I'm not anti-athletics. I've been at Big 10 schools since 1960 and I enjoy watching the games as much as anyone.

"But in the final analysis, when the athlete plays his last game, and he doesn't have the skills to play pro ball, he'll get dumped. And it's especially true with the black athlete.

"The average white kid who misses the pro thing probably has gotten pretty good training in high school and college. He'll have other options because there's a support system in the white community to help cushion the fall. They'll sell insurance or cars, profession where their reputations as athletes will help them in the white community.

"So many of the black players I've known, guys who were starters in college, maybe even all-Big 10, well, if they're not back teaching in schools or working in recreation departments, they're in factories. And a lot of them are unemployed.

Dr. Harry Edwards, professor of sociology at Berkeley and one of the driving forces in the movement to improve the lot of the black athlete, has noticed other trends.

He is about to begin research on the effect of athletics on the black community, and specifically the impact of failure in sports on the mental health of that same community.

"There are a number of syndromes we've already noticed in our preliminary research," he said. "Our prisons, for example, are loaded with individuals with tremendous athletic potential. But when they found they couldn't make it, their energies were directed toward antisocial behavior - crime, drugs, that kind of thing."

Indeed, when two Washington Post reporters requested interviews with athletes at Lorton correctional complex in Virginia, within one day a prison recreation officer came up with the names of eight inmates who had been former all-metropolitan or all-state athletes in the Washington area.

"There's no question we've got a whole bunch of guys who could have played college football or basketball," said Wayne Wilkins, head of recreation at Lorton. "At the very least, they could have gotten an education out of it, and some of these guys could have earned some money."

In his preliminary research, Edwards also has noticed an increased number of what he describes as "athletic bums, guys who wind up going to three and four different schools before they wind up flunking out completely or their eligibility is over.

"And when they're finished with school, they hang around the playgrounds, just messsing around with kids, playing pick-up games, teaching the little kids how to dribble and shoot. The kids all look up to them and they listen. I'm talking about guys 30, 35 years old, spending all their time doing this, still living in a fantasy world.

"There's a problem with some of the kids in college who believe that nothing else have relevance or importance except basketball - not books, not women, not ordinary human relationships. Everything revolves around athletics."

And even if the dream does become reality, there is hardly a guarantee of an idyllic existence for the professional athlete. The average NFL player will last five years, the average NBA man a year or two longer.

For every O. J. Simpson, Tiny Archibald and Elvin Hayes, there are hundreds more living with uncertainty, knowing they're only as good as their last touchdown run or 20-points game.

It is a life filled with constant highs and lows, where a hamstring pull can send a man into a deep depression because he knows there are a hundred healthy bodies right behind him just waiting for a chance to shine.

"The Golden State Warriors now have a psychiatrist sitting on their bench," said Edwards. "Not only does he provide treatment for them, but he also treats their wives.

"We also believe there is some relationship between failure in sports and the increasing suicide rate among blacks. Aspirations that can't be reached turn into people killing themselves, whether it's their jobs in factories or offices or out on that playing field.

"We have all kinds of cases of nervous breakdowns. Mental illness is something that's not really treated in the black community. These are very seldom diagnosed. But I'm sure it's all a part of this whole area."

Edwards recalled a former California football player cut from the team his senior year.

"He went right off the deep end into some heavy trips,' 'he said. "This individual shaved his head and walked around with a shroud and a staff in his hand. He told people he was Moses."

And then, of course, there was the tragic case of Bob Presley, a 6-foot-10 center at California and a former college teamate of Phil Chenier of the Bullets.

"He couldn't make it in the pros," Edwards recalled, "and he couldn't take it. At first there were these incidents where his wife had to call the police on him.

"He was writing bad checks but was able to get on probation. Then he got a job working for the phone company repairing telephone lines. He was out in public all the time and people were always asking him if he played basketball. Some guys develop a sense of humor about it, but he never did.

"Things just kept getting worse for him. One day, he showed up at the Seattle SuperSonics locker room and started screaming at Tom Burleson's shoes, shooting basketballs into a trash can and begging for a tryout.

"By then, he was long gone. A few months later, he jumped off a bridge and killed himself."

"I have a friend who coached a high school team in San Francisco. You know what he tells his kid? He says to them, 'When you're 21 years old, 25 per cent of you will be in jail and 15 per cent of you will be dead." It's sad. But you know something? He's probably right."