The college kids on the sidelines can't believe their eyes.

"Without a doubt, the worst basketball player I have ever seen," Geremy Coy says, shaking his head.

"He might be able to play in the WNBA," Andrew MacKinlay adds.

"I don't have much to say about his game, but Mrs. Townsend would have been better to watch," Daniel Houck observes.

Yet Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plays on.

Five minutes into his first game of the night, the 45-year-old jock-turned-politician isn't quite getting his game on. His gray tank top is dark with sweat. He lumbers across the court on thin, reluctant legs. He misses shot after shot after shot. Still, he won't let the trash talk stop him from crashing the boards. For Ehrlich, and the state legislators, lobbyists and staffers he plays with, the weekly games are a chance to grease the wheels of politics with perspiration.

Since being sworn in last month, the Republican governor and his mostly Democratic friends have been tramping down to the gym at St. John's College in Annapolis every Tuesday night. The legislators have been playing together for a decade, since Ehrlich was a delegate representing Baltimore County, though he stopped reluctantly when he moved up to Congress.

Not surprisingly, since the governor started playing attendance has risen from the usual 10 players to more than 20. But Ehrlich, who is mobbed just about anywhere he goes in Annapolis, enjoys a remarkable amount of privacy on the weathered and dim St. John's court. There is no talk of the budget, no glad-handing, no admirers who want their pictures taken with him.

Even the St. John's students don't seems to care that they have a governor in their midst: As Ehrlich's suited bodyguards stand watch in the lobby, a shaggy St. John's gym assistant, unimpressed, reads a copy of Racine's play "Phedre" in French.

Not long after the politicians meet, the court's ancient rafters resound with the bounce of the ball, the scuff of sneakers on varnished wood, the unintelligible grunts and shouts and curses of men (and two women) striving for victory. Members of the group, called the "Astrodons" after the Maryland state dinosaur, occasionally raise money for charity by playing other teams, but usually they just play pickup ball.

Here is Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks (D-Baltimore), surprisingly quick in green trunks and a knee brace. There is Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), pint-size, pugnacious and full of bluster. The court is crowded with two dozen others: senators, delegates, lobbyists, staffers.

And then there's Ehrlich, wearing light gray trunks, low-cut white socks, snow-white Reeboks and a white Wilson headband.

The others are quick to point out that they don't cut Ehrlich any slack because he's, you know, the governor.

"We forget he's the governor when he's on the court," says Del. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore), who is known as "T-Top" to the other players.

"We forget he's a basketball player, too," Zirkin cracks, with a mischievous grin.

"I called him a punk on the radio once," Ehrlich retorts.

Ehrlich doesn't have kind words for his lieutenant governor's athletic prowess, either. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who at 6-foot-4 could pass for a center among the Astrodons, is not present. "It's the major controversy of our administration. The lieutenant governor maintains that fencing is a sport," he says with disbelief. "Smart guy, great guy, friend of mine. Non-athlete."

After the first game, the governor falls in a heap on the wooden bench. "It was a lot easier when I was 35," he sighs. "I used to be a legend."

The next game will be half-court, he insists. It'll make his lack of mobility less of a factor and allow him to focus on the one thing he is actually good at -- getting rebounds. With a strong upper body, the former Princeton football player muscles aside other players jostling around the basket.

The next game begins well. "Jimmy, don't let him score because he's the governor!" Oaks shouts at Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's) after Ehrlich sinks two quick baskets.

It is the high point of the night for the governor. The rest of the evening, he is passing to players who aren't there, having the ball snatched from him and taking graceless jump shots that clank miserably off the rim.

On the sidelines, Nick Manis watches Ehrlich's play through the eyes of a lobbyist hopeful of gubernatorial support. "He has a great shot," Manis says, with a trace of sarcasm, "best form I've ever seen."

After an hour and a half of play, the governor dons a Towson University sweat shirt and walks out of the gym, pointing at his friends on the court on his way out.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. looks for the open man during a pickup basketball game at St. John's College in Annapolis.