What a half-year of the loser it has been -- beginning with the Phillies in October, extending through the Republican wins in November, now about to hit another crest when the University of Virginia Cavaliers take the floor among the final four in the NCAA basketball tournament, appropriately enough in Philadelphia. In all, it's been a wonderful transmigration of fortunes, as if to give promise that God really does intervene in the affairs of men, especially the most forlorn.

Though I've met socially some nice Republicans and though I've been a Phillies fan since I could first open the sports pages, the greatest of the triad of this season's wonders is, for me, the Virginia basketball team. I spent my undergraduate years in Charlottesville, which is a hard place to shake from the heart; but harder still to shake is the notion that, when sports are at hand, the University loses.

Certainly there have been exceptions to that rule. In my years at Virginia, the school boasted a somewhat unofficial national intercollegiate indoor polo championship team. (The game wasn't played indoors but on the smaller dirt field that qualified as indoor; the competition was mostly Cornell University.) But for the most part, the rule was hard and fast; defeat piled upon defeat, sometimes magnificent ones, sometimes by a whisker, but always with the same result -- the short end of the score, save in cross-country where the short end wins.

In consequence, University of Virginians, at least those of my vintage, developed a superiority in other matters. The Maryland Terrapins might trounce the University on the football field; but Maryland was the haunt of known barbarians who, if they were ever badgered into reading, were sure to move their lips. Duke's Blue Devils could have their way on the basketball court, but Duke was unspeakably northern, chock-full of fellow travelers and worse. The University of North Carolina might win at nearly any sport; but Tar Heels said "sophomore" and worshipped some tacky well on the middle of their campus, while Virginians referred to "second-yearmen" and had Mr. Jefferson's academic village to bow down to. As for the rest of the conference -- Wake Forest (dangerous Baptist fundamentalists), North Carolina State (Moo U.), Clemson (Moo U. 2) and South Carolina (then a conference member and the college of choice of the Snopes clan) -- the less said the better. The University spent more on its library than it did on its training table, and therein the difference lay.

University of Virginians, Wahoos in the vernacular, dressed in coats and ties. They promised, on their honor as gentlemen -- which they were, by a kind of circular definition -- not to lie, cheat or steal. And, like gentlemen, they took defeat in stride, as their God-given right, as their special province.

Now along come Ralph Sampson, Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker, Jeff Jones, Terry Gates and Othell Wilson. Now along comes the NCAA Final Four: the University of Indiana (a long string of national collegiate swimming championships, the longtime basketball heroics of coach Bobby Knight), Louisiana State University (national gridiron glory built on halfbacks with two first names), the University of North Carolina (this very NCAA basketball title in 1957), and UVa (an unofficial intercollegiate indoor polo championship, sometime in the early 1960s). Now along comes, however briefly, that sweet whiff of final victory to shake the University of Virginia to its core and, perhaps, change it forever. Like some Italian general whose entire reputation is built on an unbroken string of disastrous ventures on the battlefield, the University has structured its modern philosophy, its whole charm, on the sureness of loss; and for that there is but one enemy -- victory.

Ah well. Go Wahoos