It was as wicked a slam dunk as anyone had seen, and when James Lee of Kentucky returned to earth in this NCAA semifinal game he was atop the brave, though foolish, Jim Counce of Arkansas. Charge? Block? Two points?

That would be decided by the assistant principal of Taft Junion High School - and quickly. The immediate question for more than a few witnesses in St. Louis, however, was not what Jim Howell would call but what he was doing there at all.

Yes, this was the very Jim Howell who 26 months earlier had said, with the same force he was about to show on the floor: "I've had it (with officiating). I'm not going back out there again."

The decision had been well considered, although a day after a Maryland-North Carolina game in which Lefty Driesell had seemed fully capable of punching Howell's game partner, John Moreau, for failing to see a foul.

"That's when I began to think: "Hey, I don't know if I could handle it the way John did,'" Howell said. "Mostly, I'd been tired of all the travel.Once or twice a week is no problem, but four or five times you get tired and can't take as much (abuse)."

Seven months after he quit Howell was coaxed back, on the limited basis he preferred and in the relatively tame Southern Conference and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Which is why he was in the midst of another tempest in the NCAA final four.

Howell had been to the final four more times than any of the teams. This was his third appearance in six years and he was showing why, although a coach or two said showing off would be more "to the point."

In a matter of seconds, he managed to get nearly the entire state of Kentucky angry at him. He called Lee for charging - and he also took away the basket.

"Everybody in the gym would bave been happy if I'd called charge and let him have the two points," Howell said. "Everybody except me, because I saw contact before the dunk."

"The let-'em-play faction among coaches and fans insist Howell frequently sees too much contact. One coach even went so far as to mimic Howell's technically perfect form and it was that, rather than his legs, eyes and mind, that got him to the final four. That and J. Dallas Shirley, who did not quite invent basketball but did help write many of its rules.

In fact, there is a study afoot to see if another method for selecting officials for the regional and final-four tournaments would be better. Too many people who do not know much about officiating have too much power in deciding who works the important games, many within the NCAA believe.

The present method has committees of five at each regional and national. The committees usually are composed of a coach or so, an NCAA representative, a supervisor of officials and the tournaments chairman. Each evaluates the officials and gives a numerical rating up to 80 points. The official with the highest point total advances.

The coaches, it is whispered, tend to overrate officials and those with a deep knowledge tend to underrate them. What happens is that the coaches vote overbalances everyone else and the best officials don't always advance.

Why doesn't everyone vote on whomever they believe is best, second best and so on, a simple 1-2-3-4 evaluation? That will be proposed this June. It may be a year or so before it becomes fact; it also may not pass.

None of this especially bothers Howell, who at least irritates someone almost every time he blows his whistle and says: "The worst part of any game is leaving it, walking off the court. All you need is one fool among the bunch that runs out there."

To those who see him as a nit-picker he says: "If a browl took place, they'd be the ones saying it wouldn't have happened if we'd cleaned it up.

"Let's say a defender has his hand on a guy's back. He has an advantage, because he essentially can guard two men that way. But the guy is going to try and slap that hand away. And one thing leads to another.

"I might call 'em close, but I don't have too many fights."

Howell has either witnessed or taken part in nearly every imaginable on-court situtaion. But he still was not prepared for what Bobby Knight said after Howell had finished working the Gator Bowl tournament this season.

The Indiana coach approached Howell and began talking about a call Howell had made in a Hoosier NCAA playoff game - five years ago . Knight said Howell called a foul on his Indiana player, who in fact had all but been maimed by some UCLA brute.

"He said next time he's in Washington he'd like to show me some film of the play," said Howell, still stunned by the memory of some coaches. By now, he should know better, that it's always open season on zebras.