Ladies and gentlemen, the No. 1 riddle in television for the college basketball season: How can a young grocer's boy from Silver Spring who is a mass of contradictions achieve happiness and success airing games in the old schoolish, southern-mannered Atlantic Coast Conference?

Especially if:

He is a frustrated athlete who quit his football team at Albert Einstein High after suffering no more than a sprained finger.

He is an unfulfilled actor whose sole part on the stage was playing Nathan Detroit in a schoolboy production of "Guys and Dolls."

He barely scraped by the University of Maryland, graduating with a 2.2 grade-point average while learning not a tittle or a jot about TV.

He is generally described as Mr. Earnest, a straight shooter in a business where only the cunning are supposed to survive.

His biggest break came from Notre Dame, of all places, when Moose Krause, then the athletic director, said, "Lenny, my boy, you want to televise our games? Start televising."

Since that day in November 1976, Lenny Klompus of Silver Spring, president of Metrosports Television Network, as it is now called, has written a pretty story. Horatio Alger tales were supposed to have gone out of vogue with the Great Depression, and now 50 years later this guy Klompus comes down the pike.

From a start placing radio ads for University of Maryland sports as recently as 1974, Klompus, now 32, has become one of the leading -- if not the leading -- syndicator of sports on TV, cable and radio in the nation.

He owns TV and cable rights to the ACC, Notre Dame basketball and football, Maryland basketball and football, and UCLA basketball. He runs the radio networks of five NFL teams, including the Redskins; three NHL teams, including the Capitals; and two NBA teams, including the Bullets. He's got Orioles' radio and Liberty Bowl TV. We could go on like this but it gets embarrassing.

Let's get back to success and happiness within the ACC. How can the son of a Baltimore grocer find peace on Tobacco Row?

The answer can be spelled in five letters: C-A-B-L-E.

When viewers watched Metro-sports' first ACC game between Virginia and Duke on Channel 7 Wednesday night (they could only watch it the first 10 minutes, seeing how some technician inadvertently pulled the sound plug), they probably were unaware it was also being sent by cable to 49 of the 50 states. Think of the exposure. Dean Smith does. When he says his father in Kansas will see almost all of Carolina's games this year, he has mainly Klompus to thank.

Klompus' entree to the very traditional, very correct world of the ACC in Greensboro came in two stages.

The first step was Nov. 27, 1976. Klompus was preparing to hook into a Saturday morning Notre Dame-at-Maryland game for Channel 9 when he heard, at 4 o'clock Friday, that the producer of the Notre Dame TV network had gone bankrupt. Klompus had reserved time on Channel 9. He stood to lose tens of thousands of dollars unless he could produce the game by himself.

Between 4 p.m. Friday and the 11 a.m. tipoff Saturday, Klompus rented equipment, hired Mike (hairy chest, gold medallion) Wolfe of Channel 9 and Billy Packer of the Chesley TV Network, and produced his first game. The next year Krause and the Notre Dame fathers signed their first TV contract with their new son.

The result: Lenny had a showcase. He gained instant respect.

Now the scene shifts to June 2, 1981. Castleman D. Chesley, the good old boy from Grandfather Mountain, N.C., who had enriched the ACC for 24 years, decided to give back his TV rights and retire. The rights were up for grabs.

Klompus and eight other nervous claimants gathered in a hallway at the Royal Villa Motel in Raleigh, N.C. Inside a nearby conference room were the ACC's athletic directors. Skeeter Francis, an ACC aide, came into the hallway every hour or so, cried, "You're next," and waved another hopeful in. "I felt like I was on the Ken Beatrice Show," Klompus said.

After their sales pitches, the other claimants flew home. Klompus shrewdly stayed. Hours later, he was sewing a new button onto his sports jacket in the motel bar when the athletic directors invited him back in. They just wanted to chat with whomever was around.

Suffice it to say that the pea-sized Metrosports -- besides Klompus, the only other production executives are vice president Paul Karlsson and program coordinator Marcia Cherner -- was awarded this season's rights for $2.8 million. This compares sweetly with $1 million under Chesley in 1980-81 and $660,000 in 1979-80. The ACC also gets $1.25 million this year for 10 games being aired by NBC and CBS.

The kicker in this tale is that Klompus did not submit the highest bid. A North Carolina firm named Raycom put $3 million on the table. So was it Klompus' good looks, his background or his Terrapin diploma that won the day?

None of that. It was his expertise in cable, say officials at the meeting.

Klompus was able to guarantee prime time. He was able to push cable throughout the country on one hand while restricting it in ACC territory on the other, so as not to hurt the local TV chaps. And forget Dean Smith's dad. Thanks to Klompus, schoolboys can see Carolina this year in Rome and Tokyo as well as Topeka.

Two years ago, Klompus feared cable might drive him off the map. He was syndicating mostly with commercial stations at the time. Now, 81 of the 85 college basketball games that the USA (cable) Network will show this year are owned by You Know Who.

"We've joined cable hand in glove," Klompus says. "The day's coming where cable will be dominant. Right now it's 50-50. Next year it probably will be 60-40. And when cable reaches 70 percent of a market area, it won't be necessary to be on commercial and cable simultaneously. You don't have to be a Phi Beta Kappa to see that."

No, you just have to be a hustling kid from Silver Spring with just the right answers for Greensboro.