Sports lore is often, perhaps too often, about soap opera victories or equally oversized defeats. That may be dramatic, but it's not very lifelike.

A.B. Williamson's tale is far more like the stuff of our daily toil. He's 40. He's balding. He's fighting a paunch. Once, he thought he might be a worldbeater. So did others. He dared to dream big and paid a price for it. Now, he fights the hardest of adult battles -- accommodating himself to reality. He's winning, but it's far from easy.

On Thursday night, Williamson's Howard University basketball team won for the 11th time in 12 games.

If he were younger, if he were still the 30-year-old hotshot who made Eastern High the No. 1 schoolboy team in America, he might get carried away. He might fantasize about winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament next month, then going off to make headlines in the glamorous NCAAs.

Oh, that's his goal all right. "One of my real wants is to be the first predominantly black school ever to win a game in the NCAA tournament," he says.

But Williamson won't lay such pressure on his kids by saying that this should be the year. Rather, he points out that he's already lost one forward to grades this season and has another hobbled by injuries. "I'm proud of what the kids are accomplishing," he says. "We're 13-6 and I think we can win 20."

Other coaches dream of making the Final Four. Williamson has to understand the pleasures inherent in smaller increments of glory. For a decade, his teams have won 16-17-18 games almost every year. Once, they made the NCAAs. Another year, the Bison were 21-7.

"Over the last 10 years, only three black schools in Division I have been consistent winners every year," says Williamson proudly. "North Carolina A&T (his alma mater and arch rival), Alcorn A&M and us. You have to live the Division I life to know how tough it is."

Williamson won't steal his players' credit, or their pleasure, by making them play up to his ambitions. "We have to accept that we have no superstars and live with that."

In fact, Howard has no player averaging a dozen points a game and no player taller than 6 feet 8. The Bison usually use 10 men a game, trying to exhaust more gifted foes; you truly can't tell the lineup without a program.

Under the boards, Robert McIlwaine (thin), Robert Jones (definitely not thin) and Derek Caracciolo (in between) rotate the dirty-work duties. A quartet of guards, led by Fred Hill and William Stuart, keep the running game going. And everybody plays defense -- the reason Howard allows only 66 points a game.

Williamson wishes that he and assistant Cy Alexander didn't have to bench-coach like madmen to steal every tiny advantage. He wishes he didn't have to ask his players for their own strategic suggestions during timeouts. However, when you don't have the money to scout opponents or get films of their games, you have to do a lot of fast learning after the opening whistle. All that Howard knew about its foe Thursday was its name and record: Jersey City State, 17-3. Not a lot of prep.

After 11 seasons at Howard -- a strong academic school that wants to be decent in sports but never has paid the price necessary for glory -- Williamson has long since been chastened.

On his desk, a solitary card says: "May peace be your gift for Christmas."

"I came here thinking I could conquer the world. I was green as green can be. I had no idea what college coaching was all about. I thank the people here for bearing with me."

What other coaches get out of petty cash, Williamson couldn't get with a machine gun. Players that other Division I teams recruit, Williamson doesn't even approach because he knows Howard cuts little slack for jocks in class.

Teams that others could schedule, Williamson can't touch because Howard has neither the crowds, the clout nor the cash to attract them with guarantees. "The big programs buy eight wins a year by paying (teams) to come and lose to them in their own gyms," Williamson says. "We can't even get home games. We play 17 on the road, only 11 at home."

To make a buck for his program, Williamson accepts guarantees to go on the road and be cannon fodder for schools such as Illinois. But only twice a year. "I'll be the sacrificial lamb, but not often," he says. "It's a vicious circle. To get money for recruiting and scouting, you take guarantees to play powerhouses. But if you schedule too many, you schedule yourself right out of a job."

All in all, Howard gives Williamson the resources to be mediocre. If he wants more -- and Williamson always has -- then he can take it out of his own hide. And he has.

The day Williamson left Eastern for Howard, heading for the high-pressure big time, his wife told a friend: "Take a good picture of him and give me one so I can frame it and remember what he looks like."

Then, it was a joke. Not anymore. "I hope to get married again someday," Williamson says, dropping the subject.

When Williamson allows his mind to wander, his thoughts fly to some future time when he has the kind of staff and resources typical of many Division I programs. "Maybe I could enjoy some things like a normal man for the next 20 years of my life," he says.

"Don't get me wrong," he amends. "I love it here. I don't want to hopscotch all over the country from one job to another."

Like many in other fields, he knows he's caught between an easy, acceptable mediocrity, which galls him, and a chance at real accomplishment, though it requires abnormal devotion to his job.

Williamson, still young enough to drive himself the extra mile, chooses to set two kinds of goals: some realistic, some improbable.

"The last four years, North Carolina A&T has gone to the NCAAs. It's always been some little thing that made them (MEAC) champions and not us. We're always the victim. We have to get this mystique of theirs out of our minds."

To that end, Howard already has a home victory over A&T, but it must play its nemesis on the road in two weeks.

Sanguine as he may have become, Williamson cannot keep his mind from flashing back to the hopes he had when he was young, brash and green. "I remember the enthusiasm, pomp and circumstance, before a big game at Eastern . . . I still believe that we could be an athletic mecca here at Howard."