In a little over two hours the other night, Jim Howell ran 4 1/2 miles, sweated off 10 pounds, called 23 personal fouls and broke up one near fistfight. A coach cursed at him, and a player accused him of cheating. As the climax to his night's work, he was followed off the basketball court by the losing coach, who screamed epithets about Howell's parentage.

But five minutes later, as he undressed in an office at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Jim Howell seemed surprised when he was asked if this basketball game had been hard on his nerves.

"This wasn't a bad one," he said. "I'm used to this kind of thing. I get plenty of practice in school every day."

Howell, who is serving his first year as principal of Taft Junior High School in Washington, is a familiar face on Virginia basketball courts. For 17 years, he has refereed games in most of the major college basketball leagues on the East Coast, including the Atlantic Coast and Southern conferences.

Although Howell says he is "still learning about my kids (at Taft), and I guess I will be for a long time," basketball people say there is little Howell needs to learn about officiating.

Howell has refereed in the NCAA tournament four times. He has refereed on national television dozens of other times. Twice he has refereed the NCAA final game, which is college basketball's Super Bowl.

Howell is president of the Washington-area chapter of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, and he is one of a handful of college refs who are established enough to work when and where they want.

But "hoops" is only a part of Jim Howell's life, and he insists on keeping it that way.

"I always say that 'vocation' and 'avocation' are two very different words," Howell says, "and I never want to have to depend on basketball for my living."

Instead, Howell depends on being an educator, and he is extremely reluctant to mix teaching with officiating. At Taft, where Howell has taught for 15 years, Howell does not have anything to do with coaching or planning the sports program. It is hard enough, he says, to be a principal.

During basketball season, Howell's double-life as a principal and referee becomes something out of a survival school catalog.

Consider the first week of December. On Monday, Howell was at Taft all day as usual. Then he drove four hours to Lexington, Va., to referee a game at Virginia Military Institute. He drove back the same night, arriving at his home in Upper Marlboro after 2 a.m.

After three hours sleep, it was back to Taft on Tuesday, then on to Baltimore for the Morgan-Virginia Union game Tuesday night.

Wednesday was a school-only day. Thursday was school, followed by a night game in Richmond, followed by another post-game drive home. Friday was school, followed by a flight to Charlotte, N.C., for a Friday-Saturday tournament. Sunday was a well-earned collapse.

To Howell, such a schedule is "tiring but fun." It had better be fun, he notes, "because anybody who officiates for the money is a fool."

Howell's fees range from $75 to $150 a game, plus travel expenses. But no one pays him for the wear and tear on his 39-year-old knees, which he must grease up before, and ice down after, every game.

Jim Howell is the son of a Union Station baggage porter. He "came up the tough way" on the playgrounds of Northeast Washington, and he played basketball at John Carroll High School well enough to win a scholarship to American University.

"I wasn't anything tremendous," says Howell, who is barely 6 feet tall."I was a hustler. I did what we needed to do to win."

After college, Howell became a starving graduate student who refereed basketball games in Washington's summer leagues for spending money. One day, a well-known coach asked if Howell would like to referee on the college level.

"I thought he was just somebody running off at the mouth," Howell says, "but I sent in the application anyway."

The rest is history, although it is slow history. For six years, Howell labored in basketball's vineyards -- youth leagues, junior high school games and high school games. Then, in 1968, he got his first college assignment.

"I got it because I was good, because I was lucky and because I was black," says Howell.

"They desperately needed black officials then. And they still need them. There are still only about 40 working in the major college conferences. I'm still the only black to work an NCAA final."

But Howell was not glad to be black when he showed up for his first assignment -- Furman vs. Clemson in Clemson, S.C.

"There were about 15,000 faces in the stands, and maybe two of them were black. I just looked around and said, 'God almighty.' I didn't blow the whistle for the first six minutes, I was so scared.

"And I was so dumb. I hadn't ever been anywhere, so when I called up to make my plane reservation, I made it first-class. I had to pay for my motel and my meals out of my own money."

But in the years since, Howell has represented the State Department at basketball clinics in Thailand, the People's Republic of China and the Philippines. Last summer, he officiated at the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico. "I couldn't have done any of that without refereeing," Howell says.

In 1973, Howell received a lucrative offer from the National Basketball Association, but he turned it down so he could continue teaching.

And in 1976, he quit.

"It all just kind of got to me," he says. "All the grief, and the travel. And my wife was raising our two boys (now 13 and 9) all be herself."

Howell was talked into coming back as a part-timer the next year. That status brings him an average of 30 games a season. As a full-timer, he used to work 60. "It's more fun when there are less games," Howell says.

But for true professional rewards, Howell looks to life at Taft. He says he will referee for only five or six more years, but he plans to be a principal and teacher far longer.

"Those kids are where I measure myself," Howell says. "Refereeing is just a way to give back something to a game I love."