In a little more than 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 of 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 a basement office at Morgan State Uiversity in Baltimore, Jim Howell seemed surprised to be asked whether 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."

What Jim Howell means is that he is not just another referee. He also happens to be principal of Northeast Washington's Taft Junior High School.

Although Howell has been at Taft for 15 years as a teacher and assistant principal, this is his first year as principal. He said, "I'm still learning about my kids, and I guess I will be for a long time."

But basketball people say there is little for Howell to learn about officiating.

In 17 years as a "zebra," Howell has refereed in the NCAA tournament four times. He has refereed on national television dozens of other times. Twice he refereed the NCAA final game, which is college basketball's Super Bowl.

Howell is a familiar figure on Maryland's high school and college courts, having refereed perhaps 200 games in Washington's Maryland suburbs over the years. For the past five years, he has lived in Upper Marlboro's Kettering subdivision with his wife, a computer traffic manager for the federal government, and two sons, ages 9 and 13.

As a referee Howell has achieved a certain status. He is president of the Washington-area chapter of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, and he is one of only 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, and I never want to have to depend on basketball for my living," Howell said. a

Instead, he depends on being an educator, and he is very reluctant to mix teaching with officiating. At Taft, for example, 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 keeps a hectic double-life schedule as principle and referee.

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 Insitiute. He drove back the same night, arriving home 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 school was followed by a night game in Richmond. Friday after school he flew to Charlotte, N.C., for a Friday-Saturday tournament. Sunday was a well-earned day of 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 porter. He "came up the tough way" on the playgrounds of Northeast, and he played basketball at John Carroll High School well enough to win a scholarship to American University.

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

After college, as a struggling graduate student Howell earned spending money by refereeing basketball games in Washington's summer leagues. One day, a well-known coach asked him if he'd like to referee college games.

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

The rest is history, although it was slow history. For six years, Howell labored in basketball's vineyards -- youth leagues, junior high school games, finally 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," said 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 clinics in Thailand, the People's Republic of China and the Philippines, and he officiated at the Pan American Games this summer in Puerto Rico. "I couldn't have done any of that without refereeing," Howell said.

In 1973, Howell received a lucrative offer from the National Basketball Association. But he turned it down so he could continue as a principal and teacher.

And in 1976, he quit.

"It all just kind of got to me," he said, "All the grief, and the travel. And my wife was raising our two boys all by 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 fulltimer, he used to work 60. "It's more fun when there are less games," Howell said.

But for true professional rewards, Howell looks to life at Taft. He said 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 said. "Refereeing is just a way to give back something to a game I love."