ON THE 12TH day of Christmas, if your true love gives to you one lovely book, hope that it's "Twelve Mighty Orphans" by Jim Dent. It's the story of a scrawny bunch of belittled high school kids in scruffy uniforms, traveling to games on the back of a spluttering truck, and then beating

bigger, stronger city kids.

It's a true story that begins

in the bleak Depression days, a riveting tale about underdogs with mesquite chips

on their

shoulders, a 12-man football squad from the

Masonic Home just outside Fort Worth.

They were America's Team, long before Tom Landry and his gray fedora, before Roger Staubach's elegance, before Jerry Jones embraced cosmetic surgery, before T.O. and a faceful of popcorn. Dent tells the story vividly, a wonderfully inspiring story that might even chase the gloom for diehard Eagles fans this holiday season.

There's a handful of other sports books out there that would make good gifts for

sports fans in this championship-parched town. Why not start with a nifty book about the last team to win it all, the 1982-83 Sixers?

This one wins in two categories, best book about a championship season and worst title for a terrific book. It appears to be called "Pat Williams' Tales from the Philadelphia 76ers." Williams, a former Sixers general manager who cranks out two or three books a year, collaborated with Allentown's Gordie Jones on this one.

The book is sprinkled with

nuggets. The Sixers wanted to sign Moses Malone, so they

arranged a meeting at the Grand Hyatt in New York. Everyone

assembled on time, except for the coach, Billy Cunningham.

Cunningham had been playing golf in North Carolina. Caught a flight to Newark and found out the cab fare to Manhattan was $70. Took a bus instead, for $7. Arrived an hour late, talked to Malone before a $13 million contract was hammered out. Billy then told owner Harold Katz he had saved him $63.

Good stuff. More good stuff about Andrew Toney. And Mo Cheeks' gaudy dunk in the championship game. And a fascinating, if frustrating, account of Malone's playoff fo'cast, the legendary prediction that the playoffs would go "fo, fo, fo." They went 4-5-4 and there was a huge parade and Katz taunted the fans about showing up the next day to buy season tickets. We have not had a parade since.

Michael Arkush has written a behind-the-scenes book about Ali-Frazier I, called "The Fight of the Century." No fresh insights from Ali, who could not talk to Arkush, or from Frazier, who would not. But you learn a lot about Jack Kent Cooke, who bankrolled the fight, and how Frank Sinatra got that ringside photographer pass and how

actor Burt Lancaster prepared for his role as fight analyst.

Arkush gets Angelo Dundee's reaction to Ali's harsh statement, "Angelo never trained me."

"People took offense," Dundee says. "I didn't take any offense. I didn't make him feel like I trained him, that I was the

governing body behind this big, beautiful fighter. I just got the end result."

Which brings us to Dundee's own book, "My View From the Corner." Dundee explains his

philosophy this way. "Training [the young] Cassius was not quite the same as training another fighter. Some guys take direction and some don't, and this kid had to be handled with kid gloves. So every now and then, I'd subtly suggest some move or other to him, couching it as if it were something he was already doing.

"And every day thereafter, he would repeat his new-found move or punch, proud of himself for coming up with the idea. Later he would say to a reporter, 'Angelo never trained me,' which was technically correct, at least from his perspective."

It's a lively book, crammed with anecdotes and a proper gift for the folks who still care deeply about boxing.

You want light reading? Then riffle through the pages of John Grisham's "Playing for Pizza." It will take you less than 2 days to read it, which is probably how long it took Grisham to write it. It is all about food and football in Italy.

The hero is a battered American quarterback who finds himself playing for Parma. First meal starts with tortellini in meat stock. "The little round pasta balls are stuffed with braised beef, prosciutto and parmigiano . . . legend has it that the guy who created tortellini modeled it after the belly button of a beautiful naked woman . . . the broth is beef, garlic, butter and a few other things."

Interested in important issues? Buy "Souled Out?" the tough book by Shaun Powell

inspired by watching John

Carlos and Tommie Smith raise black-gloved fists on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics. Powell has written a powerful book about sports and race

without being preachy.

Mike Missanelli, kinder and gentler than the caustic WIP talk-show host we recall, has written a poignant book about the 1986 Penn State football team and its perfect season. It's called "The Perfect Season," and it's the perfect blend of hard-and-soft, sad-and-funny that you hope for in a look-back book.

One of the best books of the year, for the second year in a row, was authored by Ray Didinger. It's an anthology of his columns and it's called "One Last Read." There are wonderful portraits of Dick Vermeil, Tug McGraw, Thurman Munson. And there are some strong opinion pieces about Pete Rose, Woody Hayes and Leonard Tose.

Worth reading again for the

elegance of the prose, for the

diligent reporting that went into them, for the looooong hours that it took to write them. *

Send e-mail to stanrhoch@verizon.net.