NEW YORK (AP) _ Four years after he was linked to a government probe of insider trading in the takeover-crazed stock market, Michael Milken finally faces his day of reckoning.

The junk bond financier first denied wrongdoing, then was hit with the biggest indictment in Wall Street history, then pleaded guilty. He watched his old firm Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. go belly up, other executives go to jail and his junk bond market go into a tailspin.

Milken's highly publicized saga ends Wednesday in a Manhattan federal courtroom, where he faces up to 28 years in prison for violating securities, tax and conspiracy statutes in the most celebrated case of high-finance crime.

Sentencing by U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood caps a demise that - despite Milken's pleadings - has become a metaphor for the bygone 1980s of multibillion-dollar mergers, free-flowing capital and awesome power.

''I think for Milken there was a sense that he could do these things, call up and make people wealthy,'' New York University law professor Harry First said Tuesday. ''He had an extraordinary power and he kept all of this going.''

But Milken fell, the market tumbled and now Milken is an admitted felon facing prison time. He has agreed to pay $600 million in penalties, but still has hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

The government has requested a lengthy prison term; the defense community service only.

In a letter to the judge, Milken said he did not think he would be able to speak at sentencing. He wrote about the stigma of his four-year ordeal, the pressures on his family and the attack on his work and personal beliefs.

''Let me return to a life of anonymity if humanly possible for myself and my family,'' Milken wrote. ''I think I can accomplish more by blending back into society and quietly seeing what I can do. I am a person, not a symbol.''

''I recognize that I have broken the law and I am truly sorry - not just because of the consequences, but because it was wrong,'' he wrote. ''I ask your honor for an opportunity to build again.''

Wood, 46, has been on the federal bench for only two years. Milken is Wood's first high-profile case, so legal experts have little with which to judge her sentencing history.

The judge is considered meticulous, firm and thorough. She delayed sentencing for a two-week hearing into government charges of crimes beyond Milken's guilty plea. After that ended, she has taken three weeks to prepare a ruling.

Prison time is expected, though no one rules out the possibility that Wood will put Milken's financial skills and philanthropic interests to work.

''She will defend whatever term she imposes,'' said NYU law professor Stephen Gillers, who predicts a three- to five-year prison sentence. ''She'll explain exactly how she came to her decision.''

Legal experts listed several critical factors Wood may consider in sentencing the 44-year-old financier, including:

-The three-year prison term given to former speculator Ivan Boesky, who settled widepread insider trading charges in November 1987 and led investigators to Milken. Several of the counts to which Milken pleaded involve trading with Boesky.

Boesky's term is considered a benchmark in the Wall Street scandals. But the cases are not identical; Boesky cooperated with the government and Milken did not.

-The six counts to which Milken pleaded guilty in April. They are considered serious violations of securities and tax laws, including stock manipulation, participating in phony transactions, and helping Boesky evade regulatory requirements and fund manager David Solomon evade taxes.

-Evidence presented at the pre-sentencing hearing. The government alleged insider trading, stock manipulation, bribery and misappropriation of securities in three transactions.

Prosecutors failed to prove Milken's guilt ''beyond a reasonable doubt'' on those allegations, but under the hearing's lower standards they didn't have to. They suggested Milken's criminal behavior extended beyond his guilty plea, and testimony showed questionable behavior at Drexel's junk bond department run by Milken.

Albert Alschuler, a sentencing expert at the University of Chicago's law school, said deterrence of other financial crime and sentencing in future cases are the main arguments for prison time. But Alschuler, who favors alternative sentences to ease jail crowding, supported increasing Milken's fine instead.

''Maybe we ought to forget the system - which takes money out of the public treasury - and put more into the public treasury,'' he said. ''Why not double the fine? Don't let him be rich anymore. Tell him to start over and see if he can do it legally this time.''