By John Feinstein

IT WAS ALMOST 1 a.m. and I hadn't eaten all day because I had overslept and barely made it to the Dayton Arena in time for the first of four basketball games being played there that afternoon and evening. It was raining in Dayton and the only open restaurant in town, a Denny's, was jammed.

I slumped against a wall while we waited for a table and said to a friend, "Why am I here?"

He looked at me and smiled and, without blinking an eye said, "Simple. You're sick over the damn game."

I nodded. He was right. Sick, in basketball terms, means obsessed, unable to live without the game. That's me. Twenty-eight years old and sick over a damn game.

Every sport's fanatics will tell you their game is special. My game is basketball, specifically college basketball, so let me explain. This weekend, I am in Lexington, Ky., along with thousands of others, many of whom are just as sick over the game as I am. Monday night, our season will end, the NCAA championship will be decided and then we will all turn our attention to recruiting. After all, practice starts again on Oct. 15.

Why this sickness?

Start with the court. Basketball is played within the confines of a 94- foot court by 10 people, most of them much bigger than average. It is, without question, the most intimate of team sports. The crowd is closer to the action and can see it more clearly than in any other sport.

Basketball crowds truly believe they are part of the game, not just spectators to it. In college basketball, the home-court advantage is more significant than in any other sport. Fans feel they have a job to do. Rattle the other team, fire their own team up. Their involvement goes beyond mere rooting.

Being so close to the game also gives fans more of a chance to analyze what they are seeing. No one watching a football game can really tell if the center is doing a good job on the nose tackle. But a basketball fan knows when a change in defense has affected a hot shooter. He knows when a timeout was ill-advised. He knows when a crucial call has been missed.

There is also more room for argument in basketball than any other sport. Every time a basketball player touches the ball he must make decisions. Every possession in a basketball game is rife with questions. Run the ball upcourt or walk it up? Shoot quickly or hold the ball? Go inside or shoot from outside? Play zone defense or man-to-man? Attack the offense or lay back? It is all right there 100 or more times each game and, unlike football or baseball, there is no time to stop and think. Almost everything is done split-second. No huddles, no pitchers peering in for a signal.

What's more, at the college level, small schools can and do compete. Middle Tennessee State can beat Kentucky. Villanova can beat Michigan. It takes 95 scholarships to field a football team, at an annual cost at most schools of around $1 million. Basketball takes perhaps 10. For a mere $100,000 you can compete for national attention.

In fact, three of the four schools in this weekend's national basketball semifinals don't even play Division 1 (top-level) football. Butler can beat Notre Dame. Loyola of Chicago can whip Southern Methodist. In basketball, one never knows who will be the next Texas Western (the out-of- nowhere 1966 national champion). Thirteen years ago, Georgetown was 3-23. Now it is considered invincible.

Finally, there are the coaches. If you have heard one football coach, you have most surely heard them all. When I can't sleep at night, I play tapes of the Joe Gibbs radio show. If I had a dollar for every time the man has said, "The key is execution," or "This is a tough football team we're facing" and "We'll have to play Redskins' football to win" I could buy this company.

Baseball managers are certainly colorful, but unless they're out of the dugout kicking dirt on an umpire, they're almost impossible to see during a game. Not basketball coaches. They are right there, out in the open, their every move and gesture visible. Often, their words are audible.

And, for some reason, basketball coaches are a unique breed. What other sport has such a range in personalities? Where else can you find the Midwestern mind games of North Carolina's Dean Smith; the corn and pone of Maryland's Lefty Driesell; the intensity of Indiana's Bob Knight, and the looming anger of Georgetown's John Thompson?

This is where the sickness comes in. The endless options faced by each coach in each game, seen close up by fans who consider themselves part of what is going on, leads to night-long arguments that carry over not only to the next day, but the next year. Ask a North Carolina fan if Dean Smith should havegone to the four-corners delay in the 1977 national championship game and you will start an argument. Ask a Georgetown fan if John Thompson should have called time out in the 1982 national championship game and you will start an argument.

Finally, there is the emotion.

Tears cannot be hidden on a basketball court, not under a helmet or a cap. When a title is decided, the players do not race to the solitude of a locker room. They stay on the court, winners and losers to receive their awards.

Often, losers are responsible for basketball's most memorable moments. Anyone who saw Thompson hug a tearful Fred Brown after Brown literally threw away the national championship in 1982, had to feel the throat tighten. Monday night, look up and down the loser's bench at game's end -- especially if the game is close -- and try not to feel anything.

It is all there. The intimacy, the emotions, the arguments, the great athletes ranging in size from 5-foot- 3 to 7-foot-3, the looming and loony coaches, all packed into one 94-by- 50 foot area.

Two years ago, when North Carolina State completed one of the great Cinderella stories in sports history by beating Houston in the national title game, I was in Annapolis, covering the state legislature. I sat with a group of friends, watching on television. One minute Coach Jim Valvano was running madly around the court, seemingly trying to hug all his players at once and the next moment, a commercial was flickering on the screen.

I knew that later that night my friends in sports would probably be standing in line outside a Denny's. I was well-fed, in good company, warm and comfortable. But no one wanted to debate Houston's delay offense. No wanted to discuss State's offense on the last shot.

I couldn't stand not being there. I ran to a phone, called a friend at courtside and started yelling at him about how stupid Houston was.

"Feinstein," my friend said, "You really are sick."

Over the damn game.