Washington businessman Ronald K. Bethea said he had an idea back in 1978 to cut some of the stars of the National Basketball Association down to size -- to about six inches tall, in fact.

The NBA thought Bethea's idea of a line of action figures was a slam dunk, too, he said. But Bethea charges that before he could bring his tiny Magic Johnsons and Isiah Thomases to market, the league stole his idea.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court yesterday, Bethea alleges the NBA, its licensing arm and Kenner Products of Cincinnati violated his copyright for the Athlete Doll Collection. His suit asks the court for Kenner's profits on its Starting Lineup Sports Super Star Collectible series -- one of the hottest-selling toys in the United States -- plus $3.1 million in other damages.

Bethea said in his suit that he showed his plans for replicas of NBA all-star players to Kenner and other toy manufacturers 12 years ago. NBA Properties, which grants the rights for NBA-related products, was interested enough to sign a 10-year licensing agreement with him, but the toy companies turned him down, he said.

In 1986, Bethea found a partner, Olmec Corp., to manufacture the figures and tried to revive the idea with the league. By then, however, NBA Properties, he said, was considering a competing proposal from Kenner, which last year sold $400 million worth of Play-Doh and other toys. NBA Properties later accepted Kenner's proposal, telling Bethea that Kenner had more capital and that Bethea and Olmec had failed to provide sales projections for their idea, according to Bethea's suit.

"Their dolls look a lot like what I had in mind," Bethea said yesterday. "Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place."

A spokesman for Kenner Products said the company had not seen the lawsuit and would not comment on the allegations. Representatives of the NBA and NBA Properties were unavailable for comment.

Bethea, who is black, said that no minority businesses were licensed by NBA Properties in 1987, the year Kenner was granted permission to produce the dolls. Noting that few minority-owned businesses are involved in the multibillion-dollar sports marketing industry, Bethea said, "It makes you wonder, what tangible benefits do blacks receive from {the sports business} outside of being players and coaches?"