INGLEWOOD, CALIF. -- Big East Conference basketball is safe again, rid of its foremost menace. Nadav Henefeld, the thief of Storrs, Conn., now plays elsewhere, far enough away to cause little concern.

When he was in Connecticut, it seemed Henefeld never went away. He was a persistent presence, always an arm's length from stealing something -- often a basketball, sometimes a game. The Connecticut Huskies had themselves a pick-pocket.

In leaving the Big East for the Middle East, he renounced his NCAA eligibility by signing a professional contract to play in his native Israel.

Presumably, an NBA contract is the only thing that will bring him back as more than just a visitor.

"It's everyone's dream to play in the NBA, and I haven't given up hope about this yet," said Henefeld after his new team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in an exhibition game at the Forum last week. "Hopefully these people who saw me at Connecticut are going to keep on looking at me."

That won't be as easy as it was last season, when Henefeld was stealing his way into the national spotlight and turning Connecticut into a state of frenzy. Israel, previously unfamiliar with college basketball, also became enamored with Henefeld, who is regarded there as a favorite son, a source of inspiration.

And, judging by Connecticut's conference and tournament play, he had the same effect on his teammates.

Henefeld's defense -- which resulted in 120 steals, most in the nation and third highest in NCAA history -- and leadership helped Connecticut end a decade of frustration with a conference tournament title and a berth in the final eight of the NCAA Tournament.

He was named Big East newcomer of the year to cap a freshman season that turned out to be his last with the Huskies.

"It was so hard to leave all the fans over there," Henefeld said. "For me, it was a great experience. Physically, maybe, I'm not going to be in Connecticut, but besides this I'm still there."

He would have been a sophomore at 22, as old as some NBA rookies, having spent three years in the Israeli army after high school. He said he was looking to the future when he made the decision to return home; not bowing to pressure from his countrymen, as it has been suggested.

"Everybody respects Nadav for the type of person that he is, the way that he speaks," said former Illinois all-American Tal Brody, Israel's first basketball hero and the No. 2 draft selection of the Baltimore Bullets in 1965. "The fact that he came back to Israel to continue playing basketball, people will respect him even more."

The pressure figures to increase as well. Maccabi, champion of the Israeli League 30 times since 1954, is expected by its supporters to win at home and abroad. In 1977 Brody led the team to its first championship in the European Cup, and since then Maccabi has been criticized harshly in Israel whenever it fails.

In a news conference after Maccabi's 129-106 loss to the Lakers, members of the Israeli press openly questioned Coach Zvi Sherf's strategy.

Asked if Israeli expectations will burden Henefeld, Sherf said flatly, "No, he's a cool man."

Even against the Lakers, who forced the Israeli into a few rushed shots and several turnovers, Henefeld, who scored 10 points, never appeared frustrated.

"He's tough," said Lakers guard Magic Johnson. "He's one of those guys who's tough. He's a good driver. Good head and shoulder fakes. He's really a good, basic player."

Henefeld likely will need more than basics to become the first Israeli to make it to the NBA, but at least he doesn't appear to have physical limitations. At 6-foot-7 1/2 and about 220 pounds he can be a force at big guard. With Maccabi, which recently signed former Washington Bullets forward Ed Horton, Henefeld also plays in the front court.

"The Big East is a very physical, tough conference," he said. "Even the way we practiced was different than the way we practice in Europe.

"I {loved} practicing for Connecticut. . . . After you get used to it it's really fun and you enjoy it very much. You're playing with amateur players who just give everything they have, and it's a much more emotional game."

Henefeld was introduced to the emotional side when he and Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning exchanged words during their first meeting. Mourning was accused of making anti-Semitic remarks.

"It was nothing more than just two people who {were} playing basketball," Henefeld said of his run-in with Mourning, who, according to Henefeld, later apologized. "Sometimes, you just say a few things.

"Maybe I'll just clear it once: It was not anti-Semitism, like some people try to make {it}. I don't think it was so nice, but no more than that. The words {didn't} mean anything."

Henefeld repeatedly speaks of his love for Connecticut, that Storrs is a "second home" to him. So, to keep up with the Huskies, Henefeld will be sent game tapes and continue to converse via telephone with Huskies Coach Jim Calhoun.

The rest of his time will be occupied with getting used to the Maccabi system. Going back to Israel meant adjusting to a new coach, new teammates and an old way of life.

"I can't say it was really tough, but it's different," Henefeld said. "I had to get used to {Israel} as when I came" to the United States.

"I can't really point {to} one certain thing that made me stay in Israel, but now we're already three months after my decision and so we just have to look forward for the future."