They pursue it from rookie camp to training camp, and if it gets away from them there, they follow it to the Continental Basketball Association, to Europe, and usually wind up where they started.

All for one chance. One look. One contract.

They are the NBA fringe players, and 12 of them survived the Washington Bullets' rookie camp long enough to make a rookie tournament beginning tonight in Detroit. The Pistons' rookies and free agents also will participate, along with Indiana's and Milwaukee's, in a round-robin format through Sunday.

Making the traveling squad were guards Haywoode Workman, A.J. English, Tony Harris, Lenzie Howell, Lanard Copeland and Doron Jamchy, with forwards Albert King, David Butler and ex-Georgetown player Sam Jefferson. The centers are 7-foot-2 Tom Greis, 7-3 Michel Bonebo and 6-10 Hansi Gnad.

They do it because they're looking for a regular, rather lucrative paycheck. That's certainly true, but simplistic. They do it because "the alternative," as Bullets General Manager John Nash said, "is nine to five." That's true, too, but incomplete.

"Being in the NBA is an honor," said Copeland, who has been. "And once you've been there, you don't ever want to do anything else if you love the game of basketball. And I'll do whatever it takes to get there. Just go to five camps or 10 camps."

Copeland was at the end of the Philadelphia 76ers' bench last season. He averaged 3.2 points in limited action. The 76ers let him go, and with the irony that frequently accompanies guys at this level he was invited here by Nash -- who, of course, was the person who let him go from Philadelphia when Nash was the 76ers' GM.

At least the competition here has a genuine purpose. The Bullets actually have a few roster spots open, unlike other teams that go through this just to find insurance for their already-full squads.

So a player such as Gnad can make an impression. He's probably the best of the big men. At 6-10, 220 pounds, he has the body to warrant a second look, but has to show offensive skills or rebounding prowess to make the next level.

Gnad, a German, began playing basketball in college at Alaska-Anchorage, and played pretty well, but couldn't make the 76ers two years ago because he didn't have a green card. He was taken by Miami in the expansion draft, but was injured and went for guaranteed money in Europe, where he played for Steineb Bayruth of West Germany last season.

"I needed a lot of experience," he said. "I didn't think I can afford hanging around here, getting cut and wait for the CBA, and wait around for one of the teams to pick me up. I need playing experience, so I thought it was a lot better to go back to Europe and play 35 minutes a night."

There's more money waiting in Italy, more than a 12th man here can earn. Yet he takes the chance.

Thus, there's a certain pathos involved. If they make the cut here, the fringe players have incumbents and other free agents to deal with in training camp in October. It's a four-month odyssey with no guarantee of reward at the end.

"I would think an individual {in camp} is the most paranoid in his life," Bullets Coach Wes Unseld said. "Everything you do is in the hands of somebody else. You can come out here and play great, but if you're not needed what good does it do? These are the times where guys are at the most vulnerable moments of their lives.

"I appreciate that and I understand that and I empathize and I sympathize, but it doesn't change anything."

Coaches don't like this much either, Unseld said.

"The biggest thing is to go back there," he said, pointing to his office, "and tell them they didn't make it. It's just . . ." His voice trailed off.

For the players, there's no time to contemplate the fact that one mistake, one blown assignment, may settle things in the coaches' minds.

"When you're on the floor, and you're confident in your game, you've gotta just go play," Copeland said.

"If you make a turnover here, you've got to get a turnover back down there. If you miss a shot here, you've got to block a shot down there. Keep yourself balanced."

"I don't know how this will work out," Gnad said. "If I make it here, I know I won't be a player with major minutes. I'll probably be a role player who gets his share, maybe. You never know.

"But this is different. If you're in the NBA, you're with the best players in the world. So you accept that."

Bullets Notes: Center Pervis Ellison will be making the trip to Detroit with the rookies, though it's uncertain how much he will play tonight against Indiana or Friday against Milwaukee. He took part in the afternoon practice.

Also deciding to attend other camps were guard Larry Robinson, who will be at the Nuggets' camp, guard Mark Stevenson and forward Eric McArthur (Celtics) and forward Nathan Buntin (Lakers). They may be invited to training camp in October. . . . Released after the morning practice was ex-Georgetown guard Jaren Jackson, along with forwards Anthony Bowie, Anthony Carver, Mark McSwain and Anthony Martin.