Dwayne "Pearl" Washington spends his days in a hotel room, watching soaps, ordering room service, talking on the phone.

Not so long ago, Washington, 26, was a New York playground prodigy. Crowds gathered at the neighborhood courts in Brownsville to watch him handle a basketball.

Washington starred at Syracuse, but grew bored with the college game. After his junior year, he decided to leave early for the pros. Four years later he made an early exit from the NBA.

When an underclassman decides to trade textbooks for checkbooks, to leave the pastoral insulation of the college campus for the fast-lane glamour of the NBA, he is taking a gamble that rarely pays off. As the college basketball season progresses, four of the nation's top five players -- Kenny Anderson, Billy Owens, Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O'Neil -- will be among those weighing the fact that pro salaries have increased 578 percent in the last 10 years and will try to decide whether they want a contract or a diploma.

Washington is two classes shy of a communications degree. When a sprained ankle heals, he will return to the lineup of the Continental Basketball League's San Jose Jammers, the third pro team he has played for that loses much more than it wins. Rapid City and Cedar Rapids are a long way from the Forum and the Garden, and $3,000 a month isn't much, but in some ways Washington is luckier than the others who went pro as underclassmen in 1986, a particularly disastrous year.

Chris Washburn was called "Washed Up and Burned Out" by Golden State fans, and after violating the NBA's substance abuse policy three times he was out of the league and in and out of rehab. William Bedford, a lottery pick, also had drug problems. Walter Berry, college player of the year as a junior, irritated teammates with his selfishness and now plays in Europe. John Williams, who left college two years early, gave up rehabilitating a knee and ballooned to 300 pounds this year.

"Gross mistakes are made," Louisiana State Coach Dale Brown said. "There's a lot of romancing and self-delusion. But when the honeymoon's over, 50 percent of us are divorced."

Against All Odds

The odds are even tougher for underclassmen. For every Magic Johnson, there are several Quintin Daileys. Since University of Detroit sophomore Spencer Haywood first asserted his right to work and joined the pros 20 years ago, 199 players have left school before their eligibility expired. About one-sixth have had undisputed successes. To find the last bumper crop, you have to go back to 1984, when Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Akeem Olajuwon came out early.

In each of the last two drafts, a record 14 players have been early entry candidates. But in 1990 only seven got drafted, four in the second round. Only 18 of 38 underclass football players got drafted. Once a player declares for the draft, he loses his remaining college eligibility.

"I'd say 99.9 percent should finish their four years," said television commentator Dick Vitale. "Only the unique talent is ready for that war, that dance. A lot get cut, or wasted sitting on the bench. Their skills deteriorate. Their confidence erodes."

Said Washington: "If I had to do it all over, I probably would have stayed my senior year and become a better player."

For the player who has the physical and mental ability to make it in the NBA, there is no reason to stay. With the NBA salary cap increasing every year, rookies are the major benefactors. In 1989, five rookies signed contracts averaging $1 million per year. In 1990, there were 14. No. 3 pick Chris Jackson signed a contract that pays him an average of $2.5 million, 2 1/2 times what No. 3 pick Jordan got in 1984. The average NBA salary will exceed $1 million next season.

"Ten years ago the college guys really had a tough decision because the money was not compelling unless you were in the top three," Milwaukee Bucks Coach Del Harris said. "Now you really can't expect a young man to stay in college if he's assured of being in the top 12. There is a severe thinning out after 10 or 12. What has cut the risk is that they're getting four- or five-year contracts. If you can bankroll four or five million bucks, you've got to be an idiot not to have some financial security down the road."

North Carolina Coach Dean Smith encouraged Jordan, James Worthy and J.R. Reid to go pro early. For him and most coaches, it's a simple issue of freedom of choice for the players.

"John McEnroe left Stanford early to play pro tennis; {Ron} Darling left Yale early to play pro baseball, and Ray Floyd left UNC to play pro golf," Smith said. "Yet there is no public outcry about these people not completing their education. The outcry by fans was for Adrian Dantley, Jordan and Worthy to complete their eligibility -- not their education."

A Call for Draft Reform

Smith is one of many, including NCAA Executive Director Dick Schultz, advocating a new rule for early entry candidates that would allow players to enter the draft, but retain college eligibility if they don't get drafted or get drafted low. Major league baseball currently drafts players who then have the option of going pro or pursuing college.

"With a new rule, a student-athlete would have a realistic view of his talent and perhaps would work harder academically," Smith said. "Also the better players would go on and there would be even more balance in college. The rule could really hurt the NFL and NBA draft. Of course, the draft itself is unconstitutional, if anyone ever wished to challenge it in the courts."

Agents also would be relieved to see an unrestricted draft. Agent Leigh Steinberg said it would have a "cleansing effect," that would allow players who are not serious about school to end their academic charade.

"They're serving time," he said. "They are the most susceptible to taking money from agents and alumni because they don't really want to be in college."

Hofstra Coach Butch van Breda Kolff said athletes should be forced to stick with their decision. "Everything's always been too easy for the athlete," he said. "If he decides to leave and doesn't get what he wants, tough luck. I'm a little tired of players being so spoiled."

Former Marquette coach Al McGuire said the pros enjoy the "free marketing" televised college sports provide. But because of the money, he fears a Moses Malone trend -- players being lured into the pros after high school.

"Tito Horford {a former Miami player} had no business being drafted early, but they took him because of the fear someone else would get this project," McGuire said. "It's getting close to the point where the pros will take a high school player like Eric Montross, enroll him in a local college and have him practice with the team until he's ready."

Unlike Jordan and Worthy, few players who go pro early return for degrees. And few are mature enough to make the transition to the NBA lifestyle. Coaches say an extra year or two of growing up and refining skills can make the difference between success and failure in the NBA. With no degree or other skills to fall back on, a surprising number of players blow their money and drift from the NBA to the CBA or European leagues and then on to a "whatever-happened-to" list.

Whatever it takes, Pearl Washington didn't quite have it. Yet he's still playing, and contemplating a coaching career. And there is still a Pearl Washington Day in Brownsville.

"Maybe it wasn't meant to be for me," he said. "When I go home, I still have kids looking up to me, still see a lot of guys hanging around who never made it as far as I did.

"Hey, it's better than {working} nine to five."