"The reason he's an Atlantic Coast Conference fan," Paul Vergara said, pointing to his friend Jim Thorpe, "is that he had such a lousy television for years, all he could get was Channel 7, the ACC channel.

"Last year he got a new set," Vergara continued, while Thorpe choked on a sandwich, "and discovered the Big East on 5 and the Big 10 on Channel 4. He found a whole different world of basketball."

Thorpe finally swallowed and tried to give a more rational explanation: "The first year I watched ACC basketball was in the era of David Thompson at North Carolina State and Elmore and McMillan at Maryland. I defy anyone to watch that kind of basketball, game after game, and not get excited about it."

"Quality basketball," Jay Vivari said. "Last year, the ACC tournament had four of the top 20 teams in the country in it, including two (Virginia and North Carolina) that had been ranked No.1 one in the country at some time during the season."

The three friends, all in their mid-30s, were trying to explain why they consider themselves ACC fanatics, though none of them went to an ACC school; and why they're taking time off from their jobs this weekend to catch all seven games of the ACC tournament on television.

Correction. Vergara said, "Jim and Jay are ACC fanatics. I am a basketball fanatic first and an ACC fanatic second."

They were in the living room of Vivari's Bethesda condominium waiting for the start of a Wednesday-night televised Maryland-North Carolina game. The three have been getting together to watch ACC basketball and Redskins football for about eight years.

During the season, they gather almost every weekend and on weeknights if there's a big game. It's a big game any time one of their favorite teams -- Maryland, Virginia and Duke, in that order -- plays Carolina. The Tarheels, 10- time ACC champions, are the Dallas Cowboys of the ACC.

Since the ACC has allowed all of the first-round tournament games to be telecast, for three years the trio has taken time off from work to see them.

"The first two games are played during work time, so you have to take off," Vivari explains.

"At first, it was kind of iffy whether we could all get off from work for the opening round," Thorpe adds. "But we've had so much fun, now we plan for it in advance."

Vivari, a graduate of Washington and Lee, lived in 19 countries while he was growing up, but he thinks of this area as home. He's now a federal employee.

Vergara, the basketball fanatic, is a carpenter. He's also a New Yorker and he started watching ACC basketball, he says, because "for such a large population, they give you lousy basketball up there."

He even claims he went to college at the University of Dayton "because they won the National Invitational Tournament in 1967 and made the finals in 1968." The NIT is played each year in New York's Madison Square Garden.

Thorpe, who calls himself a typical military brat, is a logistics engineer. He went to Stetson College in Florida, "because I like hats," he says.

He's also the only one of the three who was a college varsity athlete. He played goalie on the Stetson soccer team.

All three enjoy playing amateur sports and that's how they met: They've played on the same softball team since 1971.

"Wait," Thorpe says: "Paul and I play softball, Jay is just . . . there."

The trio isn't alone in its devotion to televised ACC basketball. In its region, ACC games can outdraw network shows, even during weeknight prime time, according to Ken Haines of Raycom Jefferson Productions, which has a three-year contract to telecast the games: "We clear over 90 percent of our network-affiliated stations for ACC games." Raycom Jefferson reportedly paid $18 million to $20 million for the three-year ACC rights.

Among the 10 percent that don't clear their network schedule to show weeknight games is Washington's WJLA.

"They're real losers," Vergara said. "We used to get double-headers on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and now we get hardly anything."

Vergara and friends hope another station picks up local broadcast rights next year.

Raycom expects 10 to 12 million people on average to see each game telecast from Atlanta's Omni this weekend. NBC also will carry Sunday's championship game to the rest of the nation.

Besides Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, the ACC includes Duke, Clemson, Wake Forest, North Carolina State and Georgia Tech.

No matter how good any team's regular-season conference record has been, the tournament determines the championship; and in its 29 years, the ACC tournament has compiled a rich history: wild overtime finishes, individual heroics and heartbreaking stumbles.

Cinderella teams have stolen the tournament -- Virginia did it in 1976 despite a 4-8 seasonal conference record -- and Goliaths have fallen: the 1970 South Carolina team could have won the national championship but lost the final ACC tourney game to a scrappy North Carolina State squad. In those days, only the conference champion got an NCAA bid.

The NCAA changed its tournament bidding several years ago (See box), and though it's no longer so critical in deciding bids to the NCAA, the ACC tournament is still a grueling, three-day, seven-game minefield for coaches and players and a festival for the fans -- among them, Thorpe, Vivari and Vergara.

"We open the day with Bloody Marys," Thorpe says. "And we'll have some kind of lunch and switch to beer for the long haul. Toward the end, we have ice-cold victory martinis, but if Maryland pulls an upset we could break out the martinis at two o'clock."

Vergara has served them homemade pizza, and on the night of the Terps/Tarheels game, Vivari offered homemade chili.

They even have a special dip for the tournament, a spicy-hot version of Velveeta cheese dip, which Thorpe says is a must. "We have it at most of the games, in fact," Thorpe says. "I don't know what's the matter with Vivari. He should have served it tonight."

When Thorpe hosts the group, he finishes off the session by serving "Screwy Coffee" -- Irish coffee with a lot of extras like Kahlua and rum.

Sometimes, two other guys they also know through softball join them for the games, but they usually limit the number to five.

"We don't like a lot of side conversation during the game, and if you get more than five, you get too much of that," Thorpe explains. "When the game's on, we watch."

Watching also means challenging the officials on bad calls, no matter which team was the victim, cheering for slam dunks and, if the opportunity's there, teasing one another.

One of the things Vergara admires about the ACC is that "it lets the kids do their thing." It's a conference of finesse, not muscle. "If a kid's got a great vertical leap, that's quite a thing he can do. It's like watching Nureyev leap."

Something like flying through the air as the great David Thompson did, they point out. David Thompson: faster than a speeding outlet pass; able to leap tall forwards and, in an era when slam dunks were forbidden, able to walk on air to drop the ball softly in the net from above.

Vergara, Thorpe and Vivari follow Thompson and other ex-ACC players in the pros, usually by following the box scores, but they generally prefer college basketball to pro ball. "It means more to the players most of the time," Vergara says.

"We're talking about kids, you know, 18-, 19-, 20-year- olds. They're under a lot of pressure. The tournament is a real test of their maturity.

"They play three nights before 20,000 screaming maniacs like us and then have to go off to Utah or New Orleans or someplace and do it all over. They're great. They're the reason we watch."

When the ACC tourney opens this Friday with four games, the three will be at Thorpe's house, since he has the best TV -- including remote control, which will allow them to switch back and forth during half times and timeouts to the Big East tournament being held the same weekend.

Thorpe also has a miniature basketball net and a Nerf ball in his living room so they can slam dunk during breaks. "Paul and I have perfected a chin dunk," he says, pushing his chin against his chest. "You drop it in with your chin."

The group was at Thorpe's house for the tournament last year when a miracle occured. Vivari got a call, late in the afternoon, from a colleague who had a friend, who had a friend, who had some tickets to the tournament and a room reservation in Greensboro where the tournament was being held. Would they like to have them?

Tickets are nearly impossible to get for an ACC tournament, even if you're a generous alumnus or a lucky student. The seats are divided equally among the eight schools, which distribute them as a package. There hasn't been a public sale of tournament tickets for 15 or 16 years, according to Skeeter Francis of the ACC.

"Jay was hemming and hawing, thinking maybe we couldn't get there," Thorpe recalls, "and I was standing over there yelling, 'Jay, get the tickets. Get the tickets, Jay!'"

They got the tickets over the dinner break and then went back to Thorpe's to watch the evening games. "We got up real early Saturday morning and drove to Greensboro," Vivari says. "I mean I don't think the tires touched the pavement."

Vergara, who didn't get to go with them, says, "I was hoping they'd get arrested." They didn't, and being at the tournament was the highlight of their ACC-watching.

They would like lightning to strike twice, but they aren't planning on it. It's back to television this year, including taking vacation time Friday so they'll be on hand for the noon telecast.

"You feel almost like a kid getting away with something," Thorpe says, grinning, "Here I'm off work, and I'm watching ACC basketball."