The NBA Players Association filed suit against the league and its 23 teams yesterday, charging that the college draft, salary cap and right-of-first refusal violate federal antitrust laws.

"It comes down to free agency," said Gerald Krovatin, an attorney for the players. "Players want the right to decide who they want to play for . . . and without artificial {salary} restraints."

The lead plaintiffs in the class-action suit are Navy's David Robinson, last season's collegiate player of the year, free agent guard Rory Sparrow of the New York Knicks, NBAPA President Junior Bridgeman and six other players who represent a cross-section of the contractual situations.

(It was announced yesterday that Robinson, currently on active Navy duty, will serve as a part-time basketball assistant at Jacksonville University in Florida.)

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J., is expected to be heard no later than Oct. 9. The players association asked for an expedited hearing and said it was hopeful a decision would be rendered within the next six weeks.

The suit was filed on the same day that a moratorium agreed to by the league and NBAPA ended. The moratorium prohibited the signing of draft choices and free agents, and it barred any legal action between the two sides.

The moratorium began in June when the contract between owners and players expired, and was designed to facilitate progress in reaching a new collective bargaining agreement. However, nine negotiating sessions since then have resulted in little progress.

"We don't believe that they've been bargaining in good faith," said Charles Grantham, executive vice president of the players union. "We've taken this action to jar them. Without it, it's clear that there wouldn't be much movement or negotiating taking place."

The two sides last met Monday in New York. After a 2 1/2-hour session, they adjourned without setting a date for further talks. According to the NBA, the major problem is the NBAPA's refusal to compromise.

"We're ready to negotiate anytime they're ready to compromise on the issues," said NBA Executive Vice President Russell Granik. "I think {the lawsuit} shows that they'd rather litigate than bargain. We were ready for this. We've always been comfortable with our legal position."

In the suit, the NBAPA charges that the salary cap, which places a limit (roughly $4 million per team in 1986-87) on player salaries for each team, "is a powerful weapon for destroying competition for player services," and that the draft of college players is "one of the longest-running continuing restraints on competition for player services in the NBA." The right of first refusal gives a team the right to match a salary offer for a player whose contract has expired.

The suit claimed all three restraints have been abused by the league's teams. The union also alleged that the league is withholding from the players more than $2.4 million due them because of a shortfall in the 1986-87 season.

The complaint also charges that teams have violated the spirit of the 1975 free agent agreement by agreeing not to compete for players whose contracts have expired. "As a result, in recent years there has been little or no bidding for free agent players," the suit charged.

This is the third time the union has filed suit against the league. The Oscar Robertson antitrust suit in 1970 prevented several attempts to merge the NBA with the American Basketball Association. It was settled in 1976, with the NBA absorbing four ABA teams for the 1976-77 season. In 1982, an antitrust suit prevented the NBA from instituting the salary cap, although the cap was later negotiated into the labor agreement signed in 1983 that gave the players 53 percent of the league's gross revenues.

That agreement expired on June 15, two days before the moratorium was signed. According to the union's executive director, Larry Fleisher, the players do not want a strike like the one in progress in the National Football League, where the main issue is free agency.

"We do not foresee a strike," Fleisher said. "We are going to resolve this legally through the courts."

Some league sources contend the lawsuit is merely a means for the NBAPA and Fleisher to "save face" by creating a situation that enables the players to go into training camps, which open Oct. 9. "He's talked so tough, he's promised so much to the players, that he's gotten himself to the point where he's made it difficult for himself," said one team official.

David Falk, a vice president of Washington-based ProServ, which represents a number of NBA players, disagreed.

"You always like to control your own destiny and not leave it up to a third party because you never know what will happen, but I think it was a great strategic move," said Falk. "If the moratorium ends without progress being made and the players don't take any action, there's no incentive for the league to continue talking."