Kenny Carr and Adrian Dantley, Los Angeles Laker forwards out of De Matha and the nation's capital, seemed created as mutual foils, a living parable of the perplexing NBA.

Together they form a tale of two gifted friends who have taken absolutely opposite approaches to basketball -- epitomizing life above and below the rim, the high glamorous road of artistry and the low road of drudgery.

At a young age they have had to face questions of compromise and self-knowledge. Yet, when the facts are known, they still seem a mystery.Neither the degree of Dantley's success nor Carr's current flirtation with failure seems credible.

NBA should stand for Nation of Basketball Alchemists. When the jumble of jumpers is whipped away, pro basketball perhaps is the only sport that nobody, not even the players, truly understands.

It is a game of chemistry and confidence, where players of gold often make teams of lead, and vice versa. Coaches are like Merlins madly mixing metals, searching for "the right combination," even if it contradicts common sense.

In this magic domain of hoop gypsies, we find two paradoxes.

Dantley, a 6-foot-4 1/2 205-pounder who can barely jump, should not be a brutal inside-playing All-Star scoring 22 points a game and drawing more fouls than any other NBA player.

Carr, a 6-8 1/2, 230-pound greyhound on the next level below Dr. J as a skywalker, should not be riding the Laker bench behind a hustling mediocrity like Don Ford. Carr is a Cadillac stuck behind a Ford.

Dantley is a conundrum only on the surface. Ferocity and durability, mixed with savvy, never have had a hard go of it in this world.

Carr, however, is a genuine case for the textbooks. As much as Dantley's size and ability were questioned when he left college, Carr's skills were praised. After going hardship as a North Carolina State junior, Carr signed a three-year contract for nearly $500,000. As a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference scoring leader, Carr's stardom seemed just a matter of time.

In fact, Carr was part of the greatest draft of forwards in NBA memory -- Marques Johnson, Walter Davis, Greg Ballard, Carr and Bernard King, all among the first seven picks in 1977.

Now, Johnson, Davis and King are All-Stars, each averaging more than 23 points a game.

Carr, by contrast, did not get his first extended opportunity to start until this month when Dantley hyperextended his knee. Dantley should be back within a fortnight -- he began jogging Wednesday. But the big chance has meant little to Carr. He crashed.

In Dantley's absence, Carr started 11 straight games and played his way out of the lineup, losing his job this week to Ford. Carr's presence proved one thing -- he is the most spectacular player the Lakers have had in years: spectacularly good and spectacularly bad.

Rarely is one game the microcosm of a whole career, but that was the case Tuesday night in the Forum with Carr. He was hero and goat, phenom and flop, all in one night.

Carr threw down a reverse onehanded slam dunk that was worthy of a time-capsule holograph. But he also committed an egregious charging foul with four seconds left that sealed a Laker defeat.

"That's Kenny." said one Laker beat writer. "He's totally inconsistent. He leads the Forum in slam dunks, but he plays out of control."

To Carr the past two years, summed up in that one evening in which he had "erased everything good I did with something just as bad," have been deeply disturbing.

"When I came into the league, I didn't think I knew everything, but I thought I could do everything," he said. "I depended on my glides and dunks and just jumping over people.

"Now I have to get more fundamentally sound... actually, I have to learn to play the game.

"I'm indecisive out there... I don't know exactly where I fit... I'll try anything to help."

Carr is doubly upset because he still believes, as he alwasys has, that he can be not merely good, but great.

"I know that I can do extraordinary things... if I have to learn to be an ordinary player, then I guess I will. But I'd still like to be a little special. I can do things that make me feel good all day. I like to give people pleasure in watching me.

"When things go wrong, I look kind of dumb. But I still think I can be one of those players who is remembered. You play for the team first, but you can also do the flashy, exciting things."

In some sense, Carr may be a victim of Dunkomania and the philosophy of Total Cool. He grew up watching the icy Walt Frazier and the Doctor of Midair, Julius Erving.

Carr was faced with the choice of basketball as art or basketball as labor. Dantley had no such choice, so he perfected his homely, crowd-boring labors under the basket -- the marvelous subtleties that make him a hoop-cultist's hero. Carr perfected the smooth, never ruffled manner of a stylist, a star.

Carr admits that he always finessed his way past "the little things. I saw guys that I couldn't believe played in the NBA. But now I have a lot more respect for them. The whole level of play in the league is higher than I thought because of those little things."

It is an axiom in the NBA that 99 percent of what wins games happens below the rim, and that what a player does with his feet on the floor is vastly more important than what he does in the air. That truth, however, never has filtered down to the ground.

Dantley, 22, with a certain arrogance natural to him, has mastered the world of bumps and elbows and fake falls. It has made him a star. Carr, 23, the sweetest-tempered most easy-going sort of youngster, chose to follow what he saw as "my blessing of special abilities." It has brought him to the edge of benchwarmerdom.

Carr's career has also been slowed by injuries. In each of his two pro preseasons, he has broken a foot, forcing him to spend the season openers out of uniform.

"It's a myth that Adrian can't do anything and that Kenny can do everything," said one man close to the Lakers. "Actually, the opposite would be closer to the truth. Dantley can do almost everything. Carr is only an adequate jump shooter, a poor defender and he can't fill a lane on the fast break very well."

"I'm not worried a bit," said Carr. "I'm going to be in this league another 10 or 12 years. I firmly believe that someday I will be an All-Star."

First, however, he must regain the starting lineup.