Of all the things that Hollywood traditionally has handled poorly, it may do sports the worst.

That is why it was no surprise to Ken Howard that CBS did not know what to make of his idea for a TV series called "The White Shadow," about a former NBA player coaching an inner-city high school basketball team.

"The network is like Mars to me," said Howard, a start of stage and Broadway who had flopped in two previous TV series, "Manhunter" and "Adam's Rib." "I never understand the strange things they do.

"We outlined "The White Shadow' idea and they said, 'We don't get it? What's the "hook"?'"

"No hook (gimmick)," answered Howard, who had daydreamed for years about a series based on his memories of an excellent high-school and sall-college basketball career.

"It'll just be good. No murders, gang fights or car chases. It can be colorful, true to life, and still have action. The basketball games will be our car chases. We can deal with some difficult social issues.

"Sports is a terrific metaphor that's hardly been touched on TV. It's an open-ended premise. Your only limitation is your imagination."

Already, "The White Shadow," in its third month, has jumped from Monday night to the heart of prime time -- Saturday at 8 p.m. "To my lights, we're a success," said Howard. "But I've always been the last to see the handwriting on the wall about anything."

It probably is Howard's suspicion of the whole TV ethos that has made the fledgling "The White Shadow" so precocious -- a program with vivid characters, spicy dialogue, tough if trendy central issues and an overall "texture" that athletes and coaches find believable.

The show's maverick edge comes from Howard, a graduate of Amherst College and the Yale drama school who is more accustomed to playing Thomas Jefferson in "1776" on Broadway, doing "Equus" on stage or performing Chekhov in summer stock, than grunting like a jock.

"This series is going to sink or swim the way I, and a couple of my close friends, want it," sid Howard.

"Our writing staff is tiny by Hollywood standards. People who haven't lived sports just can't write this show. It's really a labor of love for a bunch of us guys who are sitting back remembering our sports past, and maybe reading the daily papers to keep current.

"It's the most fun I've ever had in my life, just a real hoot."

It is the leading-man's burden that he must create heroes -- whole mythic personalities with elaborate life histories -- while knowing that he, himself, is just another flawed person.

These days, however, Howard actually enjoys the blurring of identity between himself and Kenny Reeves, his character. It bothers him not a whit that the two "White Shadows," one real from Howard's own adolescence, the other fictional, bear almost no resemblance.

"This is the show where I get to be the person I would like to be," said Howard.

"It's great to create a set of values, a fiber of character that you believe in.

"Who is this guy Kenny Reeves?" Howard soliloquizes. "I imagine him from Bayside in Queens... Irish-Catholic kid... father maybe owned a bar and grill... subways, street life, cops... a tough environment, but not too rough.

"He believes in the athletic virtues: strength, will, clarity. I don't think I had those qualities as player, I just admire them in others. I loved the words, but maybe not the work that went with them. They seemed a little tainted with Indiana Republicanism, too.

"Also, I grew up playing for Manhasset High on Long Island on a team with six black guys. I loved that outrageous, creative style of city ball. 'Logic is the death of art,' they taught me at Yale. Maybe in basketball, too."

In real life, Howard was called the "White Shadow" ('What a great nickname," he thought), because he was the one white guy always shadowing his black teammates on three championship Manhasset teams.

In fiction, on the other hand, Reeves, who bounced aound four NBA teams in nine years with a six-point career scoring average, was a bruising 6-foot-6, 220-pound defensive "shadow."

Howard drops his voice into the husky, diamond-in-the rough register of his TV character, and does an interview with his mythic self: "I was always a coach's player, a team man, kind of a miniature John Havlicek. I was what you'd call a quality journeyman, like Jack Marin maybe... no bench warmer, part of the pro scene, pretty well known, but never a star.

"You see, I truly understand the game," said the Shadow. "That's why I'm so unbelievably terrific as a coach with these street-smart kids. In fact, the Shadow is so terrific that sometimes he makes me sick. I created him, but I often wish I were more like him."

Howard, 34, is constantly asked, since he looks like the prototype NBA forward, if he could have played pro.

"I try not to make a fool of myself," said Howard, who still hold the Manhasset single-season rebounding rebounding record ((334), his name standing just above that of another Manhassett basketball star -- Jim Brown of NFL fame.

"I saw Eric (Love Story) Segal on a talk show accidentally comparing himself very casually to Tolstoy. "I've sworn not to do that.?

When Howard left high school, watching friends of similar ability go on to become unnoticed but competent big-time players at schools like Duke, he relegated basketball to the peripheral role of fun and laughs.

In the Little Three world he was part hot dog, part head case, a self-admitted "immature guy with a bad attitude."

"White Shadow" has many ancillary reasons for success. It trades well on trendy topics -- recruiting, drugs, alcoholism, corporal punishment and, this week, homosexuality. Also, the team cast of nine blacks, two whites and one Chicano is a promising ensemble of actors in their 20s -- most of whom can play some basketball. In fact, the team's center, "Coolidge," is 6-8 1/2.

However, the show's basic appeal is what Howard calls it "texture," its willingness to dwell on charming or touching vignettes. "When we get a good scene, a good chemistry, we're in no hurry to rush," said Howard. "Those are the best moments."

When Howard approaches a hot-shot recruit on the playground (played by former UCLA star Mike Warren) to try to talk him into attending Carver High, the Warren character says, "Yeah, I know you. You're Kenny Reeves, the pro. Man, Barry used you for years ."

"White Shadow" treads on thinnest ice when it bears down on the fragile premise that a white ex-pro would voluntarily coach for a near-pittance at an unknown and unpromising high school. The danger of Reeves patronizing his young innercity kids, or of the show exploiting them for stereotypical racial jocks is a constant problem.

"I've only watched the show twice," said Georgetown University Coach John Thompson. "I'm a little jittery and undecided about it and I think a lot of other blacks are, too.It's good entertainment but I'll reserve judgement on whether it's good social education or not."

That racial and class tension between Reeves and his street-smart players is obviously the program's dramatic engine and its biggest liability.

"Of course, we're aware of the problem," said Howard. "Reeves represents what we aspire to be, not what we are. The show tries to present an ideal of how people could relate.

"Yes, I suspect that in sports you see more racial barriers disappear than in any other area I have seen," said Howard. "Players think of themselves as exceptional athletes first, teammates second and as black and white somewhere farther down the lines."

No matter how "The White Shadow" prospers, Howard definitely has broken ground in one area -- he has combined the two most insecure jobs on earth: basketball coach and TV series actor.

"I don't know how we'll do on Saturday night. That's a pressure spot. But I do know one thing: I'm playing the best of my life. Turn on that camera and I can't miss."