The United States, hundreds of thousands of young men and women, spent yesterday preparing for war in the Persian Gulf.

The La Salle Explorers, 12 young men, spent yesterday preparing for a slightly less daunting road opponent, Loyola (Md.).

"You wonder about the significance of it all," said Speedy Morris, the father of two draft-age sons, the coach of a dozen draft-age basketball players. "We've been talking about it as a team. We've been talking about it for a few days now. We said a prayer before practice the other day, and we're going to do it again today, and we're going to do it every day from now on. We're going to pray for the kids on both sides.

"The young people over there, they're the same age as these kids. Last year, they were laughing and running around and not thinking about anything, just like my players. Now, look at what they're facing.

"Makes you think," Morris said. "Makes us all think."

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War and sports.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Eagles and the Washington Redskins closed out the season with a game at rickety, old Griffith Stadium in Washington. It was Greasy Neale's first year as the Eagles' coach. It was a year that ended with a record of 2-8-1. The game would not have been a big deal, even under normal circumstances.

As the sun-splashed afternoon wore on, around the start of the second quarter, announcement after announcement was made over the stadium loudspeakers. General Smith, call your office. Admiral Jones, report to your post immediately. Ambassadors, members of Congress and Cabinet secretaries were summoned over the public-address system. Newspaper circulation managers were called. On and on it went, as the Eagles and Redskins played on.

Only when they got outside the stadium did the fans learn, from newspaper extra editions, that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. " War With Japan," the headlines screamed. Later, stadium management said it did not want "to contribute to any hysteria."

Sports and war.

The year was 1950. The Phillies, the Whiz Kids, had just won the National League pennant. They won it on the last day of the season. They won it in Brooklyn, on Dick Sisler's famous home run. And after the train ride back to Philadelphia, they all gathered to celebrate.

All that summer, the Phils had shared the headlines with a United Nations police action on the Korean peninsula. In fact, on the day the Phillies clinched, their story was on the front page of the Daily News along with this headline: "SO. KOREANS SWEEP 16 MI. INTO RED AREA."

And at their celebration, the Whiz Kids took time out to make a phone call. Pitcher Curt Simmons had won 17 games for the Phils that summer. He was a huge part of their eventual success. But he wasn't at the party - Uncle Sam had called during the summer. He celebrated the Phillies' win by telephone from wherever the 28th Division was doing its training.

Sports and war.

We use the same phraseology to describe them both. We throw the bomb, and we invade enemy territory. We say the quarterback has a gun for an arm, and we say that an indecisive coach can't pull the trigger. Sports - football, especially - and war are almost obscenely intermingled sometimes. But to state that there is difference between the two is so obvious that it insults one's intelligence.

As Morris said, "The churches are pretty full these days. There are a lot of people in this town who aren't real concerned about Buddy Ryan anymore.

"But young people, unless they've had some adversity, don't think about dying. Even with all the things we've been reading, the countdown to when it might start, I'm not sure they think much about it. That's why I think it was important to bring it up to them.

"It's important for them to realize that sometimes coaches get carried away, go off," Morris said. "(Recently), I lost it and screamed. I thought I had to tell them, in the long run, that there are other priorities. I don't know how significant it is that we win as long as we play hard . . . I don't know how important it is. You play to win - that's why they keep score - but significant? I don't think it really is."

Morris has a brother who was shot twice in Vietnam, and a nephew who just received the call to the Gulf. Of La Salle's three seniors, Mike Stock doesn't know anyone personally who is in the Gulf, Doug Overton has a cousin and several other friends in the Middle East, and Broderick President has a couple of high school friends already there and a close friend about to ship out.

"I really feel scared for him," President said. "Our generation has never had anything like this . . . There are some kids over there because they couldn't go to school. I mean, I could have been in the same situation."

But he is not. He is a college basketball player. He is isolated, insulated. College is like that to start with, an island of schooling and socializing, separate from the structure of high school and home life, distinct from the responsibilities and problems of real life. College athletics are even more separate.

"At school, we're isolated even from the other students, always doing our own little thing," Stock said. "We're privileged, in a way. We have a lot of things to keep our minds occupied."

But from Washington, from Baghdad, from datelines all over, the real world is indeed intruding.

The La Salle basketball players gathered together the other night to watch the Georgetown-Villanova game on television. They ended up talking about the imminent war.

Some people around the country have brought up the notion that a sporting event such as the Super Bowl should be canceled in the event of war . None of the Explorers believes that's necessary. They all see the escape value of sports. They all see the essential truth, that to play games and to watch games does not make them more important than a war . It just makes them, well, it just makes them games.

"You can only take so much of Peter Jennings and Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw," Overton said. "I mean, ESPN is the best thing on television these days. On ESPN, Pete Rose is the saddest thing that's happened in the last year. How sad is that?"

*

They are only one group, one team, one small subset of the American athletic scene. All they seem to know about the world is that there isn't much they can do to change it, and that it scares them.

"Basketball is a vacation compared to what's going on in the world," Overton said. "We're over here playing ball, we're on TV, we're having fun, but then there's the real world. Sometimes you feel like you're not a part of it. You're in college, a little insulated. But step off campus, there's drugs on this corner, there's people getting shot on that corner."

And now, there might be war . Overton sat there, waiting for a team film study to begin, wearing his practice uniform and white wristbands with the number 44 written on them. The late Hank Gathers wore No. 44. The wristbands are Overton's small tribute to a friend who died too young.

The real world. Once again, it intrudes.

"Like what happened with Hank last year," he said. "It seems like a lot of things are happening now that I'm getting older. I'm not a kid anymore. I'm not just in mom's house. This is life. A 23-year-old friend passes away. And now, we've got a war . This is life.

"It's all coming so fast," Doug Overton said.