Former Harlem Globetrotter Larry Hawkins is a sports enthusiast with a distinctly academic mission. The tall (of course), bearded, and modest Hawkins wants to see more students - particularly blacks from inner-city elementary and high schools - do better in their studies. And he thinks the natural love most youngsters have for sports (''It has a grip on this country like almost nothing else'') can be an effective tool for helping them.
''I know dozens of kids who go to school only because of sports,'' insists this former high-school coach of everything from volleyball to track. He notes that participation in sports gives many youngsters their first taste of success, and that dropout rates tend to be far less for team members than for inner-city students as a whole.
With the right kind of encouragement from coaches, and the close cooperation of parents and teachers, Mr. Hawkins says, the motivation to improve skills in sports can be transferred to math, science, and literature.
''You're still working to defeat something - lack of knowledge,'' he says.
In some ways the University of Chicago's Office of Special Programs (OSP), which Hawkins has directed for the last 15 years, serves as a college model of what he is talking about. Located in Hyde Park on Chicago's South Side, the university has long felt a special obligation to and interest in the black inner-city community surrounding it. Through a mix of year-round enrichment programs in academic subjects, cultural activities, extensive counseling, and sports, OSP aims to help raise the skill and achievement levels of educationally disadvantaged but academically able elementary and high school students from the area.
More than half of the 700 students who study here each year come during the summer. A few are as young as 10. Hawkins is convinced that the intensive morning sports training in everything from volleyball to swimming - well before the mandatory afternoon tutorials in math, foreign languages, and the sciences - is the chief draw for most students. ''Many of them complain a lot (about the academic side) but we fuss at them hard, and I'd worry if they didn't grumble,'' he says.
Winter enrichment courses and tutoring, offered by the university both on campus and at local public schools, focus less directly on sports. But it still ''undergirds'' all programs as a motivator, according to Jonathan Kleinbard, a University of Chicago vice-president who serves on the OSP faculty committee. The overall aim, he says, is ''to help bring these students into the mainstream - to give them the kind of thing they'd be getting in suburban schools.'' One specific hope is to help them fare better on standardized college admissions tests, on which inner-city youngsters tend to score poorly.
Parents play an important role in the university's venture. Hawkins sees their support of the children as crucial, and invites them to frequent campus meetings. An impressive 210 parents turned out this summer as volunteers. ''We've learned that most parents are desperately interested in their children and how they do,'' Hawkins says.
''The Program,'' the words printed in white on the students' maroon T-shirts and the umbrella term for the university's enrichment classes for off-campus students, has been supported financially by the university, the Chicago Public Schools, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and by corporate and foundation gifts.
Some of the elementary and high school students participate in the program for years at a time. And that's fine by the university. It reports that 90 percent of those who have left the program as high school seniors are going to or have graduated from college. The University of Illinois nets the largest number.
But how can sports be made to work for elementary and high school academic goals if there is no University of Chicago around to lend a boost?
Hawkins insists that sports coaches and the public must change their attitudes toward school sports as a first step. On one hand, he says, many school boards see the importance of the concept of winning the game. On the other, they see sports as the more frivolous side of schooling. When budget cuts are made, sports programs are often the first to go. Hawkins notes that at least 22 school districts in Illinois have eliminated all sports programs.
''We should be increasing sports, not reducing it,'' he insists. ''It just needs to be redirected.''
Coaches also must rethink their roles as leaders, Hawkins says. They are in an extremely powerful position to help students see that sports can reinforce academics. To do it, he says, they need to think ''bigger,'' and see themselves as teachers, counselors, and even social workers.
Coaches also need to realize that sports at the elementary and high school levels are different from professional and college sports. While shooting for excellence is a worthy goal, Hawkins says, he knows some coaches so bent on winning that they cannot enter the locker room after losing a game. Yet that moment for the students, he says, needs to be ''diffused'' by constructive talk about the next game and good plays made that day. ''You can learn a lot of good things even if you never win a game.''
Are coaches receptive to Hawkins' suggestions? ''Some say, 'Are you crazy?' - though not as much as they used to. They either get the point or they don't,'' replies the OSP director, who has taken part in a number of workshops over the years to train coaches to provide a liaison between athletics and the academic goals of their schools.
Athletic organizations and school systems can help by setting high academic standards. Hawkins praises the Chicago public schools' requirement that all athletes must get passing grades to qualify for sports.
He bristles at any stereotyping of athletes as ''dumb.'' In his view, anyone good at sports who knows the value of split-second timing is bright.
''Every student can learn - some just don't learn as fast as others,'' says Hawkins, who freely admits he would like to see all young students prepared academically for college, whether or not they choose to go.
''Who's to decide who's not a good student? Some kids are upside down in high school and mature later. You've always got to give a kid a chance - you can't close the books.''
Hawkins comes by his sense of mission naturally. He is a graduate of George Williams College, long affiliated with the Young Men's Christian Association, where he studied not only physical education but the merits of community organization. It was there, he says, he learned the value of group support in individual development.
He says he came to the University of Chicago because he wanted to do more for youngsters than help them win championships. Now, the all-consuming interest of the Harlem Globetrotter (''That was 2,000 years ago'') is to help them succeed in life.