Don King, the boxing promoter, combs his hair staight up.

Straight up.

He is very big and very rich. He is bigger than just about anybody you're apt to meet at anything less than, say, a meeting of the American-Samoa post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He is richer, undoubtedly, than anybody else in this limousine, which is bearing him crosstown to Howard University, where he'll give away $100,000 to a slew of favorite charities, mostly black community organizations. $1Also, he wears a lot of diamonds. On his left hand he wears a ring the size of a small television set. It complements his smile, which is rectangular.

But mostly you notice the hair, which together with his size and diamond, makes him look like the most prosperous possible combination of an oil burner and a frightened chinchilla.

You want to ask him why he wears his hair like that, but there's something so unpredictable about him, even as he sits here in the benevolent morning light of a too-warm day in February, mulling the dusty brightness of Washington . . . something about this man who since 1974 has been a promoter for the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire (the "Rumble in the Jungle" as King calls it); Ali-Bugner in Kuala Lumpur, Ali-Frazier in the Philippines ("The Thriller in Manila"); both Leonard-Duran fights, the biggest fights in history, scores of millions of dollars changing hands. . . There's something about him that leads people not to ask him why in God's name he wants his hair to look like that. Something that makes people describe him as if he were some kind of natural phenomenon like, say, the San Andreas Fault.

The natural phenomenon parallel is mentioned to him. He grins his rectangular grin. He replies, in his kindly tenor:

"It makes me feel very proud to hear you say that. I think that it's a tribute to me to have people speak of me in the manner that they do.I create what I call the magic of excitement. I excite people and people know that I love them because I am one of them."

He does not seem to breathe, but everyone else in the limousine does, like a crowd seeing the first big rocket of the Fourth-of-July show twitch skyward, and waiting for the fiery spew and blossoming to come.

Which it already is: "I am not one of the elite classes, I am not one of the masses, the multitudes, so I recognize that my position is such that I must deal with all people, all races, colors, creeds and religions, and I must do it with pragmatic realism, with the type of love and understanding that far transcends the norm in the sense that I recognize the different vices of man, the jealousies, the envies, the strife, that would be perpetrated against one who is successful because, Demosthenes described it, years ago, that people are more inclined to invective than accusation, rather than one to talk in a favorable manner, but I have to do so and defend myself, you know, with moderation, so recognizing that people are more inclined to invective than accusation and that they would rather deal with calumniation and slander rather than to deal with any type of accolades and extolment, ah, you have to, you have to understand people in their normal thing so I can, I go beyond the emotion and the passion and try to deal with calculation and design."

The other people in the limousine wait for the syntactical smoke to clear. Then they say things like "Hoo!"

Don King is 50 years old. He wears a small mustache and carries a big cigar. He was once Mr. Big in the numbers racket in Cleveland, until a manslaughter charge put him in jail for four years. When he got out, in 1971, having "armed" himself, as he puts it, with nonstop reading in Aristotle, Freud, Hegel, Kant, Fanon, Shakespeare and Demosthenes, it took him only three years before he was promoting George Foreman's heavyweight title defense against Ken Norton in Caracas.

And now he's on his way to Cramton Hall at Howard, with $100,000 to give away, and all those diamonds to show off, including the crown-shaped tie clasp with a diamond that would have to be measured in hat size like say, 6 7/8 -- stuffed into the "O" of DON.

Hoo.

He is big enough that he doesn't so much get out of the limousine as he unfolds like a carpenter's ruler.

He is at ease, right at home. He is a preacher for whom every day is Easter, Beowulf unlocking the wordhorde as the crowd gathers to hear The Word and see The Man.

"Hey, Jack, what's happening? My pleasure, my man, that's right, you and me together, a pleasure indeed, I'm so happy, so happy," he says. The crowd pulls away from the lunch wagons parked in front of the hall; abandons the giant tape decks which inform the spring-like air. Don King seems to move through them very slowly, "Hey, brother man, how you feeling . ." while they scurry and run. For Don King, the world is an entourage.

Inside the hall a television news crew is waiting to ask him about the boxing scandal involving the Wells Fargo bank, about the possibility of another Leonard-Duran fight and so on while he stands there preposterous and charismatic with that hair standing on end.

"It's very difficult for me to believe that two little black guys could embezzle this type of money out of the bank, as difficult as it is for me to draw my own money out," he says of the Wells Fargo business, winning a ragged chorus of "that's right" from the crowd.

An immediate Leonard-Duran rematch, he says, "would cast aspersions and an ominous cloud of suspect upon the beautiful sport of boxing."

A few minutes later he has drifted amiably onto the stage of Cramton Auditorium in front of maybe 150 people. He deals out the $100,000, "tantamount to a mere pittance," he says, to groups including the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the United Negro College Fund. He reserves the right to announce the amount himself to the tone of crusher modesty heard in the mouths of men not only betting the mortgage, but holding the four aces to back it up.

He delivers a speech urging successful blacks to help those below them. "Climbing the ladder of success, as many of us have done, as soon as the wrinkles get out of our belly we seem to forget where we come from."

After the speech he walks across campus to a buffet lunch. On the way, he dispenses greetings to all, and assures various political theoreticians that he is in agreement with them all. "Hey man, solid, a pleasure and a privilege, right on, me and you."

In the room with the luncheon, he holds court from a folding chair. He eats chicken, deviled eggs and potato salad off a glass plate. The crowd crushes and jostles around him now, with a steady glinting of flashbulbs.

He warms to it. Middle-aged women in hats push next to him for photographs. Reporters interview him. He preaches, incants, inveighs, discourses, holds forth: "I'm looking for respect for the black man from the womb to the tomb when he springs from the loins of womanhood!"

"Yeah!" says the crowd, mesmerized beyond meaning, medium or message.

"Then you give me the trophies for the achievements that I done in my life, the gaudy doodads and the little citations and the little things I get. But give me manhood, respect!"

"Yeah."

The crowd pushes closer, knowing King is about to leave, which he starts to do, now, rising from his chair as if from the sea, which parts before him.

Not, however, before curiosity overcomes prudence, and someone, after all these years of looking at pictures of Don King, just can't resist asking him the question nobody else ever seems to: Why does he wear his hair like that?

Don King replies, with a crowd of faces nodding to his cadences: "I wear my hair like this here because it's an indication of my uncontrollability. It's an indication of my blackness and my wildness, so this is a wild nigger, when you deal with me, so you have to deal with me on business principles, not the color of my skin or what I represent because I'm not one of the conventions or norms where I'm gonna have my hair cut and my shoes shined and I'm gonna stand at attention and go to scratching when you talk to me. You understand what I mean? I'm gonna deal with you on what the issues are at hand. You put in what you have on the table, I put in what I have on the table, we extricate what is mutually advantageous to both of us, and we both must go to the bank!"

The crowd says all right, all right, you got it.

Don King's hair is combed straight up.

Hoo.