IT HAPPENS every year about this time. I notice the first stirrings of the winter recreation-department basketball leagues, and I think again of The Letters.

"Dear {Nameless}," begins the first one I wrote. "Nameless" was the county rec-department "basketball commissioner." (The county also will go nameless, but it shares a border with the District and is renowned for its high demographics.) "The letter will serve as notice that I am protesting the outcome of the game played January 10 . . . ."

"Dear {Nameless}: Much as I hate to sound like a stuck record, I am writing again to protest . . . ."

"Dear {Nameless}: Since we don't seem able to communicate with each other by phone or in person . . . ."

How did it all begin? When Dr. James Naismith first nailed his peach baskets to the gymnasium wall in Springfield, Mass.? When our humanoid ancestors moved out of the undergrowth, took up spears and set out to become masters of the universe?

In practical terms, it all began with poor old Bill O. He'd been coaching the neighborhood boys rec-league team since time immemorial, and truth told, the experience was beginning to wear on him. His calls to me -- could I help him with practice? -- were becoming more frequent and plaintive. The hints were getting broader. What harm, I thought, could come from taking over the team myself? They were nice kids, my son among them. I'd been a high-school swimming coach. As Adam probably said to himself, "Well, it doesn't look wormy . . . ."

The first season glided by. Victories were few -- one to be exact, a cliffhanger -- but out here in {Nameless} County we aspire to the nobler virtues. And what the team lacked in the win column, we made up for in high spirits and good times. It was fun. I re-upped for a second season. Alas. And alack.

The first sign of the debacle ahead came in pre-pre-season. For practical purposes, our teams could use only about 10 players, and I had 13 kids sign up. I called Coach A to see if he could take the three extras. "No can do," he said. So I called Coach B. He had a speaker phone in his house; his voice was cavernous. He said he would get back to me. When he did, he had a counter-offer. No, my three wannabes didn't fit into his plans, but if I needed to open up three roster spots, he would be willing to take X, Y and Z. By sheer chance, X, Y and Z were my best players. Had he been reviewing game films? Checking scouting reports? "No can do," I said.

As fate would have it, our first game that year was against Coach A's squad. Ours was a 9th-grade division, and during the warmup a few of my players took me aside and mentioned that the other team's center was a 10th-grader. This didn't require great powers of deduction. Virtually all the kids on both teams went to the same high school. Who was a 9th-grader and who was a 10th-grader was hardly a secret.

Before the game began, I took Coach A aside and mentioned that his center was a 10th-grader. He said he'd check on it -- after the game. After the game, I said, was too late to prevent an illegal player from competing in it. He said he didn't want to upset his center by getting into such a sticky matter before tip-off. We played. We lost by six points. The 10th-grader scored eight or 10. Hence my first letter: "Dear {Nameless}: I am writing to protest . . . ."

By the time we faced Coach B's squad, our record stood at one forfeit, one loss, one snow-out. What with all those game films and scouting reports, B's team was the terror of the league. Before the game, two of my players took me aside and mentioned that No. 6 on the opposing team wasn't 100-percent legal either. No, he wasn't a 10th-grader. He was a college freshman! He had been a classmate of their older brothers -- and he was Coach B's son. Judging from the number of players available, he also was necessary to field the minimum five starters and one substitute.

I mentioned the matter to Coach B. Without his speaker phone, his voice sounded tinny. No, he said, No. 6 was nothing of the sort. Wasn't there, I said, something in the Bible about denying your own son?

I tried to bring the matter to the ref's attention. Without evidence, naturally, he was powerless to intervene. So, apparently, were the parents of Coach B's other players. I put the matter to them, in a manner of speaking, somewhere through the first quarter when the rout had already begun. They peered down on me from the stands as if I were -- what? -- a little whacky? A bit out of control?

At halftime, No. 6 left the game, and the gymnasium. By then, another player had shown up to fill out the roster. We found No. 6's photo later that day in the previous year's high school annual, among the senior class. Hence my second letter: "Dear {Nameless}: Much as I hate to sound like a stuck record . . . ." I enclosed a copy of the yearbook page.

That forfeit was granted, too -- or so I thought, and so I told my players, because that's what Commissioner {Nameless} had told me. Turns out, though, that {Nameless} had told Coach B the forfeit wasn't exactly granted, yet. That was the impetus to my third letter: "Dear {Nameless}: Since we don't seem able to communicate much with each other by phone or in person . . . ." (We'd had a few chats by then, both in-your-face and via Alexander Graham Bell.)

So I want to tell my players -- X, Y, Z, the rest of you, if you are anywhere out there in reading land -- I really don't know what the official annals of the {Nameless} County rec-department say our 1987-88 record was. But you know what it was. And so do I.

I admit to wondering, in retrospect, whether we had been playing on an uneven field all along. Did those 7th- and 8th-grade teams that had slaughtered us in previous seasons have ex-NBA point guards playing in disguise? Were opposing coaches flooding the foul line with electromagnetic fields when we went to the charity stripe? Had my chalk talks to the boys been tapped? I would suspect so if my strategy hadn't been so blindingly simple and, as it turned out, so hard to follow: Score early, and score often.

In retrospect, too, it all might have been a good lesson for my team: Life has a lot of uphills . . . the deck is often stacked . . . beware of Trojans in wooden horses . . . and so on. Maybe I just wish they could have learned the lessons on their own time. Those letters drained me.

Maybe, too, our 1987-88 season was just a period piece, a little slice of the times. Wall Street traders were raking in millions on insider information. Savings-and-loan executives were playing fast and loose with widows and orphans. In the halls of Congress, PAC money had become the nation's conscience. Life was getting more and more criminalized, but it was nothing to get in a snit about, especially in the better zip codes of {Nameless} County. So what if the center was a 10th-grader? Who cared if No. 6 was old enough to vote?

And, of course, this was sports, that strange national wonderland where a "five-year contract" is something you renegotiate annually, where NCAA recruiting violations are as common as house cats and where even in the minor, minor leagues coaches prowl the sidelines like serial killers. Me, for example. Beyond doubt, those parents in the stands had reason to think I'd gone a little whacky when I addressed them on the subject of Coach B's aging surprise starter. I had gone whacky. I was nuts. If I'd been packing heat, I would be serving time now.

But between the lessons their silence taught their sons and the lessons that some outrage on their part might have taught, I'll take the latter every time. This was not a complicated moral moment. The issues were clear: No. 6 was a glaring ringer; a forfeit hung in the balance. By their inaction, the parents chose victory at any price. It may be a tribute to the age, but it's a lousy piece of lore to let 14-year-olds carry into life.

Howard Means is senior editor of Washingtonian magazine.