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NIT has own personality; Navratilova in the 'zone'; baseball openers set

As the Avis of college basketball tournaments, the New York-based National Invitation Tournament (NIT) has had to try harder. Long ago overtaken in prestige and importance by the NCAA tournament, the NIT went to a 30-second shooting clock this year and a ball that belonged on Jones Beach.

The red, white, and blue basketball prompted memories of the old American Basketball Association, but was meant to add to the NIT's distinct personality. ''I like the idea of a red, white, and blue ball because it is something that will be identified with the NIT,'' said Peter Carlesimo, the tournament's executive director.

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Gimmickry hasn't always been necessary. When the first NIT was held 46 years ago, there was no NCAA championship. Even after the NCAA playoff was launched, the early NITs remained highly visible because teams were allowed to play in both. The only double winner was City College of New York in 1950.

Eventually, the NIT field was limited to schools not in the NCAA tournament. Even so, the NIT continued to attract strong teams. Coach Ray Meyer remembers his DePaul Blue Demons once turning down an NCAA bid to play in the NIT ''because it was the more prestigious tournament.'' But over the years, the NIT lost ground as the the NCAA tourney grew in size and status.

To revive the NIT, the tournament went to regional playoffs in 1977, with the winners advancing to the competition's traditional home in Madison Square Garden. This format has led to record attendance figures in recent years.

Some might say that 32 relatively undistinguished teams can't make for a meaningful tournament, despite the crowds. Maybe so, but the NIT is fun, and that makes it worth keeping.

A footnote: the all-time NIT team, introduced at halftime of this year's championship game, had Maurice Stokes and Tom Gola at forwards; Lenny Wilkens and Walter Frazier at guards; and George Mikan at center.Notably absent from the squad was Virginia's Ralph Sampson, who, as a freshman, led the Cavaliers to the NIT title. 27-0 and counting; In tennis, when everything is clicking players are said to be in the ''zone.'' Martina Navratilova resides there now. No one has come close to beating her this year, not even the estimable Chris Evert Lloyd. The two met last Sunday in New York, and it was no contest, with Navratilova winning 6-2, 6- 0 in the richest final on the women's winter tour. The world's top-ranked player indicated it ''was pretty close to as good as I can play.'' Evert Lloyd, who suffered her worst defeat in 13 years, probably hopes so.

If Navratilova has lifted her game, it can't be by too much.In 93 matches a year ago she lost only three times - once each to Evert Lloyd, Pam Shriver, and Sylvia Hanika, all of whom Martina defeated in New York. In doubles she's been just as devastating, accumulating a perfect record with Shriver. In the past, she has been on the ''Doubles Team of the Year'' four times with three different partners.

The real measure of greatness, of course, generally comes in the major tournaments, particularly Wimbledon and the US Open. She has to go some to catch the likes of Evert Lloyd and Billie Jean King at these events. Billie Jean has a total of 10 victories at the two tournaments and Chris nine. Martina has won Wimbledon three times but, like Bjorn Borg, is still looking for her first US Open title. Baseball's synchronized openers

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* As the oldest major league team, the Cincinnati Reds traditionally open the baseball season. They will do so again this year too, but everybody's watch better be synchronized. The Reds are scheduled to meet the Atlanta Braves in Riverfront Stadium at 2 p.m. EST on Monday, but the American League opener begins only five minutes later in Baltimore, where the Orioles host Kansas City.

Opening Day, of course, is a time for dignitaries and ''first ball'' ceremonies. Using just any baseball, therefore, isn't appropriate. It must be special, as it was last year when astronauts Joe Engle and Richard Truly threw out a ball that traveled 1.25 million miles aboard the space shuttle Columbia. This year the Reds have decided to go from the heights to the depths, using a baseball carried on the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Cincinnati for the first pitch. If it's a sinker, no one should be surprised.

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