Jack Manton, Bob Hartsfield and Bill Cummings had just officiated a typical fun evening of ACC basketball. The trio agreed it was about the norm in their peculiar lives.

The losing coach, Maryland's Lefty Driesell, upheld tradition by intimating that the crew was less than spectacular and probably biased.

"A lot of shaky things happened in the last minute, a lot of strange calls," sneered Driesell. "And once again North Carolina gets away with a two-point victory."

"The refs cost us the game," stated Maryland's team captain, Lawrence Boston, adding that Cummings made "the worst call in history."

Winning coach Dean Smith said of Manton's putting a second back on the clock in the final moment: "The only other time I've seen a call like that was at Munich."

From the instant the three referees set foot in Cole Field House Wednesday night, they had 14,500 enemies.

"Here come the James Brothers," bellowed a fan.

"Carolina refs" chanted one section, while another answered with the time-tested refrain of "Bull . . . ."

A Maryland student, dressed like a guerilla terrorist, handed Manton a 1978 rulebook and gloated, "Hey, Manton, bet you never saw one of those before."

Before half, Hartsfield had been hit in the neck by a full roll of toilet paper thrown from high in the stands.

"Don't mind a little paper," he said. "Heck, somebody once threw the whole New Orleans phone book at me."

The trio fled the court at the final buzzer with a cordon of security police.

They left the game hall behind. "Not worth the risk of saving it," said Manton. "Maryland can afford one hall."

Gradually, as the veteran officials decompressed afterward, word filtered to them that coaches and players had blasted them, that countless fans had exited muttering that yet another college game had been decided not by the athletes but by the despised refs.

"So everybody hated us," said crew-chief Manton, 34, a trial lawyer in Atlanta by profession, a masocbist only by avocation. "Both sides, right? The fans, too.

"Well, Poochie," he said, turning to Hartsfield. "We've done it again. The . . . zebras called another great game."

And Manton was right. His gang of striped-shirts had worked an excellent, if not flawless game.

They had shown flexibility in crisis, and grace and even humor under extraordinary pressure.

Their impartiaity was total, their knowledge of rules and mechanlcs encyclopedic and their experience immense - more than 2,000 major-college games officiated.

More than that, they had striven to implement the spirit of the rules, as well as the letter, by practicing "preventive officiating" - avoiding confrontations, explaining rules to players, ignoring nit-picking calls.

The overall tone of the game - clean, fast, wide open - stemmed in part from the early whistles that made clear that hand-checking, back-climbing and phony charging fouls would not be condoned.

In the entire game, only one call had been an unquestionable blunder - a five-second jump-ball violation on which only three seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock. And, naturally, TV had noticed that gaff and announced it to a million ears.

Yet these three men of integrity - all successful professionals in other jobs, none greatly in need of the $125-to $175-a-game pay - left Cole Field Houe to almost universal vilification.

The best they could hope for was to be ignored. Not one person sought them out to tell them they had worked a strong game.

The only person who said "goodnight" to Cummings was Manton. And the only person who bade farewell to Manton was the terrorist student who waited for him out back and hollered. "See ya next year, Manton," and let out a crazed laugh.

Of all team sports, basketball is surely the most influenced by its officials, and college ball is the most suffocatingly ref-conscious. And of all leagues, the precariously balanced, powerhouse ACC is the one in which homecourt edge and crucial whistles seem in most danger of dominating the entire season.

"It's enough to make you chase cars . . . parked cars," says the chuckling Hartsfield, 45, a Class A baseball manager in the Chicago Cubs chain and brother of Toronto manager Roy Hartsfield.

"But I love the challenge of it. The only requirement for this job is that you be perfect. Then they expect you to get better.

"I take pride in doing a difficult job . . . If I'm going to shovel manure, I'm going to make nice piles."

It only takes about two games to give up the idea that everybody's going to be your friend," said Manton. "You've got to have some S.O.B. in you to survive.

"You just keep blowing the whistle until it's over. Then you get out the back door. You know they're not going to invite you back to speak to the booster club the next day."

Cummings agrees with Manton. "It's probably no accident that I've worked 32 years in the credit collection department of the gas and electric company (in Columbia, S.C.)," said Cummings, a grin growing. "That's the S.O.B. department all right."

Perhaps the most surprising aspects of crackerjack college officials are their humor, their candor and their aloof, almost superior detachment from the game.

"Frankly, we think of each other as a rather special breed of people," said Manton. "Money is not a factor in why most of us do this job."

Let's run through that again?

"Your first job determines standard of living. Your second job is for love.

"I decided not to become a coach because my best friend was one and I noticed that whenever we played golf, he carried his own bag and brought peanut-butter sandwiches from home.

"I became a lawyer. During the week, I call 'time-and distance' fouls on Pontiacs. But I'm still right at the heart of my first love - basketball."

Fans constantly wonder if the minds of officials work like other humans. Do they worry about TV replays? Do they doubt their own calls, admit errors among themselves? Do they know who has four fouls, which team is favored, who just cursed them, or even what the score is?

Of course, the answer is yes.

The Manton crew, possibly because it knows it is among the cream of the officiating crop, is able to dismiss the preposterous convention of pretending that it does not know the personalities, reputations and styles of the players in its games.

Three ACC refs sipping soft drinks at half-time sound a great deal like three hoop fanatics in the hot dog line.

"That (Phil) Ford's got 16 points," said Cummings. "I sure coached him good that half. That blue team (UNC) is so sure he's gonna make it that the whole bunch turns around and runs back up court while the ball's still a fair piece up in the air.

"Say, I think we let that '30 blue' travel a little. He's shuffling those things."

Hartsfield laughed. "We bunched that Zaliagiris boy up pretty quick. He's gotten four fouls before I could turn around."

"A foul is a foul is a foul," Hartsfield said defensively, obviously still not happy with the idea of getting good players in early foul trouble. "For me it's just action-reaction. My eyes see and the whistle blows. After 19 years, it can't be any other way."

Many fans subscribe to the Dean Smith notion that refs should have minds as blank as a sheet of paper. "They shouldn't even know the score," said Smith, who certainly knows the names of the officials.

It is not intimate knowledge of the details of a game that referees fear.That knowledge is their friend. It is a too-close intimacy with the players and coaches that worries them.

"The worst thing that can happen," said Manton, "is to be too well-known. I worked 27 games in the SEC one season. I had one team eight times. Two more games, I'd have been eligible for a letter."

Familiarity breeds contempt, in the adversary relationship between referees and coaches. Sooner or later, Manton says, "the Hole Theory will get you, and your career is dead.

"There are only a few important games in a conference in one year. Every time you work one of those, it puts a bullet hole in you. Your body can only take so many holes and then there's nothing of you left and you're out of the league.

"Sometimes you only pick up one hole . . . the losing team blames you. More often you get two holes. If you worked a good game, even the winning team thinks it was too close."

"In basketball, they say it's not who wins or loses, but who gets the blame," one of the three refs grumbled." "And it's never the coach. He wins 'em: we lose 'em. I'm still waiting to hear a coach say, 'The refs won it for us tonight.'

"All assistant coaches are asses. They just come in different sizes."

If assistants are a mere nuisance, the big bosses are a full-scale pain.

"Coaches are good evaluators of officials," says Manton, "except when it's their game. Then they're completely blind."

"Among the three of us, there isn't one behind left," said one of the crew, patting his rump. "They've all been chewed off."

Particularly infuriating is the way coaches pick on one official and try to swing him their way.

"They plant psychological seeds early in the game and hope they grow," said Manton.

"Sometimes I hate to work split crews (one official from coach each league in an interconference game)," admitted Cummings. "The coach from your conference gets on you right away, yelling, 'That guy from the Big Ten is killing us, Bill. Get to work. Give us some help. Even it up. That fellow's stealing from us.'"

Hartsfield can become almost apoplectic on the subject of such make up calls, balancing-the -whistles, equalizing the foul shots:

"There are two entirely different games - one at each end of the court. The styles of play, and consequently the number of fouls you call, can be totally different at either end. You could call 25 fouls on each team and have it the worst-officiated game in history."

When coaches harangue Hartsfield to "call 'em at both ends," he fires back, "Hey, go get me some chalk. I'll keep track of the fouls on my black pants.'

It is, obviously, easy for an official, especially a conscientious one, to become terminally embittered.

"Without a sense of humor, this job would eat away your gut," says Manton. "Then you wouldn't have a stomach . . . your body would go right from your shoulders to your knees."

That brand of zebra humor comes in two shades - black humor and light humor - which alternate as hypnotically as the black and white stripes of their shirts.

"Your biggest nightmare is flying to Maryland and finding out the game is in Chapel Hill," said Hartsfield. "But sometimes I wish they'd have a game where we never showed up and they pulled in two street sweepers and told 'em, 'Anybody can be a ref. You guys do it.'

"I'd pay to see that game. You know what you'd have: a clean floor for TV. And chaos."

Like soldiers in a combat zone, officials must puncture the tension around them, the sense of danger, with one-liners. Their small talk sounds like a script from "M*A*S*H."

"It's true that the ACC is the top league in the country," said Manton. "When you leave a gym in the SEC or the Metro Seven, they pour Billy's Beer on your head. In the ACC they soak you with Jack Daniel."

"Yup, everything's first class," adds Hartsfield. "Never been hit with a penny. Only quarters."

All officials have learned to accept maniacal crowds, impossible rapid-fire decisions and infinite complaints.

Nevertheless, they wish the public knew the other details of what they must endure.

"Talk about your one-night stands," said Manton. "I got off work early, flew out of Atlanta at 4 p.m. today, landed in Washington at 5:45, grabbed a hamburger, drove to the game 90 minutes early, got a 1 a.m. steak afterward, checked into a hotel at 2 a.m. and my plane back to Atlanta leaves at 7 a.m. from National Airport so I can be at work by 9 a.m. I do that 50 times a season."

The tall tales of how refs get to games and then escape them are legion. "I once jogged five miles up a mountain through a snowstorm," said the 50-year-old Cummings.

"I once worked a gym at Mississippi State that was so small I had to go outside to change my mind," said Hartsfield. "Afterward, the state troopers helped me get through the crowd alive and to my car. Just when I was ready to let out my breath, the biggest trooper said. 'That was the worst game ever called in this state.'"

"We just wish people would realize that we're human," said Manton. "We're just decent, square guys who are out there every day fighting the system like everybody else. But at night we put on striped shirts in the middle of a volatile situation.

"Most of us are ex-players who love the game and don't want to stay away from it. Poochie was calling fouls on me 15 years ago when I played for Mercer College. That's Mercer, not Mercy."

"Yeah, and you committed every one of those fouls," said Hartsfield. "What a hatchet man. I fouled him out of a bunch."

The firm of Manton, Hartsfield and Cummings often has that wistful dream that fans and coaches could see them the way they see each other.

"I'm a basically happly person who's trying to fight the pressure and the criticism with a smile," said Manton. "The tragic part of this job is that the people you work closest with for years - the coaches - are people you can never get to know. We're at the center of a fascinating extravaganza, but we can never sit down and have a beer and talk about it."

Hartsfield nods agreement, finishes his beer and says, "Why don't we send this tab to Lefty."

The refs, each of whom has run seven miles, are bushed by the time they reach a hotel at 2 a.m. and ask for a room. The desk clerk looks suspiciously at the man with their overnight bags.

"Let's see two pieces of identification," the clerk says, "for all of you."

Manton rummages through the pickets of the huge, hip, rawhide Super Fly overmat that he says, "I picked up cheap at the Isaac Hayes bankruptcy sale."

Hartsfield looks at his watch. The plane leaves in less than five hours.

"Good night," he says. "Sleep fast."