This time last year, Washington, D.C., basketball ace Donald Ford was being wooed by college coaches from 25 states, from California to Texas to New York. Always, his recruiting mail was flattering: Georgia Tech wrote how "strongly" it felt about him as a "student-athlete"; New Mexico praised his "integrity"; Maryland invited him to attend "any or all" of its home games; Rice told him he was "truly a gifted athlete", and Iowa urged him to "call us collect if we can help you in any way."

Ford appreciated the letters, even if choosing a college was the furthest thing from his mind. He was still in junior high school.

"It was hard for me to think too much about all the college coaches who were recruiting me," he remembered, "because I still had to deal with all the high school coaches who were after me."

A 6-foot-6 shooting whiz, Ford has been a target of high school and college coaches -- even professional agents -- since his eighth-grade year at Langley Junior High. It's supposed to be a pleasurable experience, being a junior and senior high school athlete. But for potential "franchise" players such as Ford, who has been slam-dunking since the sixth grade, the experience can be head-splitting.

"So many high school and college coaches were after me that I used to get headaches," said Ford, now a 10th grader at Dunbar High. "Sometimes I'd go home and say, 'I wish I wasn't even playing basketball. There's too much pressure.' "

"Two agents even came to see Donald play as an eighth grader," Wes Milam, a Langley coach, added. "One agent told me, 'We'll buy you a car if, later on, you can influence Donald's decision.' Another agent said, 'Donald's family would sure look nice in a new house.'

"Some high school coaches were even offering me things if I could deliver Donald," added Milam, whose brother Steve is Langley's head coach. "They'd say, 'Give me Donald Ford and you can be a chaperone when we take trips to play in tournaments around the country. And you can bring your girlfriend.' "

Ford said he was wooed by "just about every high school" in the Washington area, even though school board rules forbid athletic recruitment. An "open admissions" policy allows ninth-grade junior high students to attend any senior high school in the District, but the choice is supposed to be based on academic -- not athletic -- considerations.

Ford, who lives with his grandmother and great-grandmother in lower Southeast, had another consideration in mind when, in fall 1984, he enrolled at Langley Junior High in Northeast.

"Even though it sometimes took an hour and a half to get there by bus, I wanted to get away from the atmosphere in my neighborhood," said Ford, who lives on a street described by police as a major "crack" and PCP marketplace. "A lot of my friends are into the drug thing."

When he arrived at Langley, Ford already was a legend-in-the-making. At 12, he had led his Potomac Valley AAU team to a national championship. "I was MVP of the tournament," he said. At 13, he was MVP of a tournament in Taiwan. "I was the youngest person ever to dunk a basketball in that country," he said.

By eighth grade, Ford said he was besieged by high school coaches, who sometimes sent their players to talk up their programs. "A couple of coaches told me if I came to their school they'd make sure I got what I needed off the court and on the court . . . you know, if I needed clothes or anything," he said.

"It was a mad war," said Riley Gore, the Potomac Valley coach. "People would try to go through other people to get his attention. There is a lot of greed out there. People were really chewing at him. They were digging into him. Playing on his mind."

Charles Perry, basketball coach at McKinley Tech, said that recruiting is a fact of life in the Washington area. "It's illegal to recruit but, realistically, everybody does it," said Perry, whose school was being considered by Ford. "You'd be a fool not to try to get the best players because you're only as good as the players that represent you. The pressure to win in this area is so great that you will never -- never -- change that system."

As an eighth grader, Ford led Langley to a 20-0 record and the District junior high championship. Hello, college recruiters.

"The college coaches are very nice," said his grandmother, Rosalee Ford. "They'll just call and say they were watching Donald and they like the way he plays."

"They say he plays clean," great-grandmother Lucille Cheatham noted.

"One coach came to our apartment to take Donald out to dinner," Rosalee Ford said. "But Donald couldn't go; he still hadn't returned from school."

One college recruiter even offered his opinion on a high school to Ford. In a letter dated May 7, 1986, Pittsburgh assistant coach Mark Coleman wrote:

"There are a lot of different schools in D.C. and I will always do some recruiting there. One school I will always stop at is McKinley. Coach Perry and I have a very good rapport with each other and he will always have great players. Another aspect that Coach Perry is very concerned with is academics . . . I hope when you are making a decision about high school that you'll take all these things into consideration. Good luck and if you have any questions please don't hesitate to contact me."

Coleman said he shared his opinion with Ford because, "Charles Perry is a good friend of mine and Donald was unsure of where he wanted to go to school. I wanted Donald to go to a good high school."

Ford was benched during the first half of his ninth-grade season for disciplinary reasons. "I had to show Donald that although he was good, the buck stops here," Steve Milam said. "Donald's grades weren't up to par, mainly because he was bothered by all the high school coaches who were recruiting him."

Ford roared back in the junior high championship game to score 51 points in a losing cause. "Donald Ford is incredible -- I mean, he is phenomenal," Steve Milam would say later. "If he doesn't get hurt, if he keeps his head on straight, he'll probably be the best-paid basketball player in the NBA."

The NBA would have to wait because Ford still had not decided on a high school. As late as last spring, he was considering at least eight public schools, including one in Maryland. How could a District resident receive permission to attend a school in Maryland? "I probably would have to get my address changed," Ford said. How could that be accomplished? "Find someone that lives in the vicinity of the school and use their address."

Allen Chin, the interim athletic director of Washington's public school Interhigh League, conceded in an interview that the District's "open admissions" policy encourages high school coaches to actively recruit junior high athletes. "Some high schools have certain {academic} programs that other high schools do not offer," Chin said. "So the coach will say {to a student}, 'Well, look what we have to offer you in terms of education,' and that's really a recruiting incentive." Chin said he intends to "make coaches aware of the {recruiting} rules . . . to cut this illegal activity out."

By summer, Ford had decided to attend McKinley, next door to Langley. He signed up for a work-study program, supervised by Perry, and competed in three summer basketball programs.

Ford later withdrew from the work-study program and had a falling-out with Perry. "Donald didn't live up to what I thought a student-athlete should be," Perry said. "He wanted a lot of preferential treatment and I told him I didn't have time for that . . . I have enough athletes to help me, rather than to be trying to wipe a little 16-year-old's nose." Ford said he did not expect any special treatment.

College coaches had been hearing about the tug of war over Ford for several years. One day last summer, Georgetown's John Thompson said he had heard enough.

"I saw Donald at an AAU game and told him that he'd better be careful," he said. "I said, 'I'm not trying to recruit you. I'm trying to tell you that there's a danger in this. You need to get your school done. You need to be sensible . . . and forget all of this {recruiting} B.S. because if it doesn't work, people aren't going to be interested in you at all.' "

By summer's end, Ford had a surprise for the high school basketball world: "I'm going to Dunbar."

"I found out that I didn't like the way {Perry} ran his program," Ford said. "Basketballwise, he's got a slow-paced game. He liked to walk the ball up court and he tends to have favorites . . . Academicwise, he probably would have cushioned me more. You know, like babying."

Perry said he does not "baby" his athletes, academically or otherwise. "The only reason why Donald didn't come to me was he realized how strict and disciplined I was," he said. "I encouraged Donald to make a transfer."

Ford said he chose Dunbar because it offered "a good basketball program" and the opportunity to take a "computers class" at a neighboring trade school. He signed up for the computers class, then dropped it a week later. Reason: "It was beginning to become a problem because it was at like 8 o'clock in the morning," Ford said.

Under normal circumstances, Ford would have to take two buses to reach Dunbar, which is in Northwest. Most mornings, however, he is driven partway by Dunbar Coach Mike McLeese, who teaches at an elementary school in Northeast. "I don't have to go out of my way," McLeese noted. Most afternoons, McLeese also drives Ford and several other out-of-zone players to their homes.

McLeese said he did not recruit Ford. "I'm sure that every high school coach in the area other than me probably was recruiting him," he said. "Fortunately, I landed him."

Ford said it's only right that a student be given a choice of schools. But Chin, the interim Interhigh athletic director, would like to see more student-athletes attending their neighborhood schools. "A kid who lives in Southeast and goes up to a school in Northwest, that's just ridiculous," he said.

For Donald Ford, the high school recruiting war may be over, but the Big Bang is yet to come.

"Donald . . . you are going to be a project for me," Pittsburgh recruiter John Calipari declared in a letter last February. "I want you at Pitt."

"One thing we can promise you during a four-year career at Iowa is national exposure," Hawkeyes Coach Tom Davis wrote. "This year we will have 10 games shown on national television . . . Donald, we know you would love to have your family and friends watch you play during your college career."

College career? Ford smiled, dreamily. "My goal is to play for Georgetown," he said. "Tell Coach Thompson that I love his program, man. Ever since I first saw Georgetown on TV, I've said, 'I'd love for The Big Guy to holler at me just one time.' "

Late in his 10th-grade season, Ford is averaging about 15 points and nine rebounds per game as a starter for the Dunbar varsity. "Donald has been doing very well," McLeese said. "He's shooting well and he's silky-smooth when he goes to the basket. And make sure you tell people that he's doing very well in the classroom, too."

Outside the classroom, Ford said he has learned some important lessons about the high school basketball environment.

"Sometimes when I get tired of all these coaches recruiting me I say to myself, 'Oh, my God! Why am I tired? I'm still young. I thought basketball was supposed to be fun,' " he said. "Well, basketball is fun. But it's also a business. So far, the biggest thing I've learned is: Basketball is a business. A big business."

Next: The recruiting of Alonzo Mourning