This is the story of how NBC suffered one of the biggest mishaps in the recent history of TV sports: the loss of the NCAA basketball tournament to CBS. Put bluntly, it's the story of a $48-million double dribble.

But when CBS starts airing 14 regular-season college games next week, you won't hear announcers Gary Bender and Billy Packer describing how NBC coughed up the tournament. The networks let each other suffer their embarrassments in private.

Still, this behind-the-scenes tale is worth the telling. It shows how sharply the NCAA's whip can crack at the network level. It shows how ingenious, some would say ingenuous, a network can be when faced with the loss of a major package.

Finally, it stands as a bad omen for NBC, which already has lost the Olympics, the basketball tournament and David Brinkley inside two years. NBC's deal with the College Football Association to carry major games next year now seems a longshot, sources say. The NCAA's rival agreement with CBS and ABC has been gaining favor with college presidents.

The story of the basketball disaster can be told in three neat chapters:

The Case of the Nasty Letter

Last year, NBC's contract with the NCAA, under which it had carried the tournament for 13 straight years, was drawing to an end. NBC had a right to first negotiations for a new package during a one-month period in December.

When NBC Sports President Arthur Watson slapped his first offer on the table, the NCAA saw that he was willing to increase the number of tournament telecasts from 11 to 15. It also saw that the per-game payment he was willing to make was not substantially higher than under the old contract. "Offer refused," said NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers.

Hindsight suggests that NBC should have paid a premium just to keep the tournament away from competitive bidding. Its penny pinching cost it dearly. Error No. 2, according to sources inside and outside television, was Watson's behavior after the first bid was rejected.

Watson, a former network sales official who was relatively new to sports, was advised by his lawyers to write a stinging letter to Byers, accusing him of negotiating in bad faith. Critics say the letter was clumsy. It made a bad situation worse and antagonized Byers needlessly.

"I'm not confirming or denying that I sent the letter; I'd have to check my files," Watson said this week. "During any negotiations, there are several letters that go back and forth. But I don't think that had any effect."

The Million-Dollar Bluff

Unable or unwilling to reach a new contract with NBC, Byers put the tournament up for bid. There was an important stipulation: whichever network got the tournament had to be willing to carry a "representative" schedule of regular-season games.

For a number of years, NBC had aired a full regular-season slate in conjunction with the TVS sports packaging house. The deal brought college conferences many thousands of dollars a year. NBC now put out word that it wouldn't renew its contract with TVS if it didn't have the tournament.

In effect, Watson dared Byers to risk the loss of national exposure for college basketball. He proceeded to bid some $47.5 million over three years for the tournament -- substantially more than he had offered only weeks before. CBS bid $48 million. ABC, delighted with its weekend ratings, didn't bid.

After a tense all-day meeting at an airport hotel in Chicago, Byers awarded the tournament to CBS. You've got to admire his nerve. He banked on Watson's unwillingness to replace college basketball with women's bodybuilding competitions. He called NBC's bluff.

Within 24 hours, NBC backtracked. "We might sign with TVS after all," network spokesmen allowed. Watson admitted this week that NBC never intended to quit college basketball if it didn't have the tournament. "We had it set up to go either way," he said.

Meanwhile, the shrewd Byers had the best of both worlds: more money and exposure for the tournament, and regular-season games on two networks.

Full-Court Press

Hoping to deny CBS a chance to come up with a "representative" in-season schedule, NBC engaged in a fervid game of keepaway. The aim, sources said, was to create contract problems between CBS and the NCAA.

After all, Watson figured, hadn't Byers stipulated that the winning network would have to carry regular-season games? And wouldn't NBC win back the tournament if CBS couldn't live up to the contract terms? Watson vowed to tie up every basketball team in sight.

By late March, his agents had negotiated a new deal with TVS, giving NBC exclusive rights to nine major conferences. He signed exclusive contracts with independents such as Notre Dame. He worked out still other agreements with non-TVS conferences such as the ACC.

NBC campaigned against CBS, calling it the "Big Sky Network" and joking how it would carry Montana versus Montana State in the regular season. NBC offered conferences X number of dollars for three or four telecasts. If they sold one game to CBS, the conferences were told, they could forget NBC.

The pressure grew intense, the stakes higher. Early one evening, Notre Dame officials were being wooed by NBC in New York. They suddenly broke off talks for an "important engagement." When the NBC people went to dinner at an East Side eatery, the Notre Dame folks were seated at an adjacent table with CBS.

Believing NBC had a lock on the regular season, Watson approached Byers at the NCAA's final-four meeting in Philadelphia. "Look," he said in effect, "CBS can't carry a 'representative' schedule. What are you going to do about it?"

Not a thing, Byers said, adding that the contract merely said the winning network should try to put together a schedule. CBS ultimately succeeded, arranging a surprisingly attractive slate of games featuring independents. NBC was left with the bathwater but not the baby.

"CBS didn't win this tournament; NBC lost it," said a network executive who was privy to the negotiations.

"There have been comments that Mr. Byers and I were not on the best of terms," Watson said last week. "I have never observed that. I would say the basic reason was money."

Money, or bad blood. As anyone at the NCAA will tell you, it has been a rough year for the peacock.