What do you do with a basketball story older than basketball that has 10 pounds of spice and 10 ounces of substance? If you're The New York Times, it gets spread across the bottom of Page One.

Digger Phelps may very well be as flabbergasted as the rest of us that the Times judged what he told Gordon S. White as significant as anything that happened on or above the planet Thursday. The Notre Dame coach is an honest man who very often preaches for reforms that would make collegiate sport more closely resemble collegiate life.

Phelps is to be applauded for that. But until he takes what he told White a whole lot closer to the hoop, passes some names of schools and players around in public, not much good is being served. The Times went too far in its play of the story; Phelps did not go far enough.

What Phelps said was that "at least seven schools" are paying a standard rate of $10,000 per year for shooting jumpers and taking charges exceptionally well. That's it. Not which schools are doing it, or how; not what players have taken the money. Just that he's pretty sure it's happening and has told the NCAA about it.

He may very well be right, for basketball coaches as a lot are no more pure than any other group of driven men in a win-or-be-fired business. But Phelps and the Times have damned by implication an entire profession, glorified gossip when both should know better.

"Well intended," said Washington State Coach George Raveling, "but with a degree of irresponsibility. If he's gonna start pointing fingers, he'd better take it a step further. Name names. I've been recruiting 20 years and I've never heard of anything like $10,000 a year to players."

Raveling did not say nobody cheated.

"I must not be recruiting the same quality players Digger is," he added.

Because the Times has deemed this sanctimonious spasm of Phelps' as a near-cosmic revelation, reaction pieces are being spewed out all over the country. Now Digger's colleagues are being asked for comment, and many of them are equally loose with their words.

"Digger is telling it like it is," said Alabama-Birmingham Coach Gene Bartow. "There is a lot of cheating going on. I'm 0 for 11 against one (school) in my state. But I don't understand why."

Another classic case of what Jack Mann calls fender-bending libel. Coaches are wonderful at it. I lost a player, therefore the school that signed him must have cheated.

Some do; most don't.

If Phelps were in coaching shoes other than his own today, perhaps he might wonder: hmmm, Notre Dame had such a terrible season maybe the guy is trying to deflect some criticism. Plucking flowers for his game-suit lapels instead of working at recruiting. Selling too many sneakers on television. And if he's losing great players to coaches paying $10,000 a year how did he get the ones that took him to the NCAA semifinals four years ago?

Digger's clean.

I'm convinced of that. He doesn't buy players, and the ones he gets conform to Notre Dame's academic standards or they leave. There is a good deal of evidence to back that up, situations where a player Phelps needed was declared ineligible.

Cheating tales abounded in collegiate sport long before the first basketball dribble in 1892. Or the first football scrum decades before that. There was great interest in intercollegiate rowing in the mid-19th century, and some examples of fellows pulling for more than alma mater.

Still, it took a great deal of screaming, some of it from coaches with Phelps-like zeal, for colleges to begin policing themselves. The Times also helped with investigatory stories. It even published a book about recruiting. So it should be more sophisticated in its coverage of cheating charges, demand more of a story than what Phelps volunteered to give it such significance.

The NCAA is trying. Having caught and convicted the preeminent basketball school in collegiate history, UCLA, and such as Oklahoma and Southern Cal in football in recent years, it undoubtedly will follow the Phelps leads with enthusiasm.

The sad truth of college sports is that winning often is emphasized rather than teaching, that so many coaches and so many schools are so hypocritical that a player becomes cynical before he performs his first varsity act.

Hope and dismay were 200 yards from each other here today. In the Superdome, four eager, well-disciplined teams prepared for the NCAA semifinals that begin Saturday. In the adjacent hotel, the National Association of Basketball Coaches has posted for its membership a list of current job openings.

From Arizona through Wisconsin, the total is 17.

Only such as Phelps realize how truly tough coaching at the highest level of college basketball is. When cheating exists, they ought to whistle loud and long. But without at least some leads, anyone who cares deeply for reform will not bother to listen.