CHICAGO (AP) _ Ask a doctor about the medical profession's $170,000 average income and chances are you'll get a short lecture on how much basketball stars and corporate tycoons make.

''I don't think I'm overpaid. What I do is just as important as the basketball players,'' said Dr. Morton M. Kurtz, 59, a family practitioner from New York. ''It's a pretty good living, but I deserve it. I earn it.''

Dr. Peter W. Carmel, 56, a New York neurological surgeon - one of the higher paid specialties - said, ''I don't apologize for my income because I work harder than anybody you know.''

Money is a hot topic at the American Medical Association's semiannual convention - the money it costs to go to medical school and set up a practice, the money doctors earn from what is commonly a 60-hour, six- or seven-day work week, and the money they fear health reform could take from their pockets.

These doctors - some of the nation's 600,000 practicing physicians - say their six-figure incomes barely put them on a par with mid-level business executives, not to mention corporate lawyers. Among pro ballplayers, multimillion-dollar contracts are commonplace.

After hearing a pitch for health reform from Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joy A. Maxey, a 34-year-old pediatrician from Atlanta, said, ''I would gladly swap work hours and paychecks with Mrs. Clinton from when she was in her law practice in Little Rock before becoming first lady.''

Mrs. Clinton made $203,000 last year.

Maxey said she made $78,000 working 70 hours and getting ''a day off every other week.'' She still owes $10,000 from medical school.

She thinks that most of the talk about health reform is really about ''how physicians are going to get paid.''

Dr. Scott Aarons, 40, a urologist from Baytown, Texas, said, ''My income is very, very low. Last year I made about $120,000. I was working my butt off. ... Seventy to 80 percent of what I do is Medicare. The payment is so poor that there's a very slim profit margin.''

Aarons just quit a managed care plan that had been paying him a meager 40 cents a month per patient to provide services for some 2,000 patients.

''We need collective bargaining,'' said Aarons. ''That's the only weapon we can have to tell these managed health care programs. ... 'No, we will not accept what you're doing.'''

Dr. M. Frank Sohmer, 69, a gastroenterologist from Winston-Salem, N.C., said, ''(Chairman) Michael Eisner gets $178 million for his stock benefits in the Walt Disney Corp. Is that wrong?''

''I know some physicians I think are making too much money, some cardiovascular surgeons who make $750,000 or $1 million a year,'' said Sohmer. ''Yet the stress these people are under, the training that they've had and the things that they do are wonderful.''

The most Sohmer ever made in his practice was $103,000. ''That's a lot of money. I've had a good life,'' he said. ''But the real joy in the profession is the admiration (and) acclaim from your patients. What's in the bank is of little value.''

Dr. Michael D. Bishop of Bloomington, Ind., president-elect of the American Board of Emergency Medicine, said some of his group's 12,000 members worry that Clinton's push for managed competition could drive down business at emergency departments.

Bishop doubts it. ''We're still going to have the disenfranchised, illegal aliens, drug addicts and people who are super-sick and super-injured,'' he said. And if Clinton achieves universal coverage, emergency doctors will no longer have to write off 30 to 40 percent of their fees as bad debt.

Many doctors approached at the AMA meeting were skeptical about Clinton's ability to pull off health reform, but convinced the system needs changes.

''We always dread the worst and it never comes out that way because this is a democracy,'' said Dr. Byron C. Pevehouse, a neurological surgeon from Charlottesville, Va.

The five-day convention ends today.