"What if," can be the most fassinating of games -- and especially so during the Baffet Rocket playoff series. Like Kupehak, the Maryland faithful and coach Deffy Driesell can someday avoid considering the impact of Moses Malone as a Terrapin.

"Yeak, I think I'll have got me a couple of those national championship rings," said Driesell. "But I don't like to say it 'cause people'll start saying. "There goes Driesell shottin' his mouth off again. But people see him play and then they think I know what I'm talkin' about."

As followers of local sports soap operas recall, Malone signed a grantin-aid at Maryland three years ago, then opted to jump directly from Petersburg High School to the Utah Stars. Even without Malone, Maryland reached the final of the Midwest Regional in 1975; it has dropped steadily the last two seasons.

"I started hearing about him when he was in the ninth grade." Driesell said, "and I saw him as a sophomore. I was greatly impressed." He laughed, the way one does after such an understatement. One test of greatness in semiamateur basketball is how many schools will risk NCAA probation to sign a player. With Malone, it was two, New Mexico and Clemson.

"He's so quiet," said Driesell, " and the first time I talked with him I tried to draw him out by asking him where he got so good. There wasn't anybody around Petersburg that could make him that good, I told him.

"He said, 'I play in the state pen, man,' referring to the prison at Petersburg."

Driesell continued the dialogue:

"You mean they've got some good players in prison?"

"Yeah, lots of good one. aggressive."

"anybody your size?" See DENLINGER, D3, Col. 1 DENLINGER, From D1

"One guy about 6-8. They call him Milkman."

"Milkman? why do they call him Milkman?"

"Cause he murdered a milkman, man."

"how do you get into the prison?"

"They stamp me when I go in, and then they check it under a lamp when I leave."

"What if you sweat too much and the stamp rubs off? They'd keep you there."

"Naw. They know me."

and so did everyone with more than a passing interest in college basketball and its cast of characters. Howard Garfinkel composed a special version of "The 10 Commandments" that included. "thou shalt not drive the lane" and Honor thy right and thy left hand." Malone was known as "America's guest," because he visited upwards of 20 schools.

"I remember four of us -- Lefty, myself. Dave Pritchett and Joha Lucas -- being in a motel room in Petersburg and Moses wouldn't talk to any of us," said Russ Potts, Maryland's promotional wizzard. "No one knew quite what to do, but finally Lucas broke the tension:

"here's the greatest coach in america, the ol lefthander, and Moses has done brought him to his knees. And here's Pritchett, the greatest recruiter, and Moses has done brought him to his knees. And the greatest promotion man in the business and the fastest-talkin' guard anywhere.

"'and OL' Mo done got us all on our knees.'"

Malone's special skill is offensive rebounding. Driesell said he knows why.

"He goes to the offensive boards better than anyone I've ever seen." Driesell said, "and I think it's because no one ever gave him the ball in high school. I saw him score 50 points one game, and they didn't give him the ball but twice.

"He'd have to grab the ball off the boards and put it back up. That was the only for him to score."

Before Moses, Driesell had assembled a splendid supporting cast. It included Lucas and Mo Howard, Brad Davis, Tom Roy, Owen Brown and Chris Patton. Where Len Elmore had stopped the year before, Moses would continue.

"Tom Nissalke (the Rockets' coach) told me we'd never have lost a game with Moses," Driesell said. "But, of course, you never know. He's a great kid."

Without Malone, Maryland has had three different centers in as many years. And no one capable of consistent dominance inside. Even if he had not been Star-gazing, Malone probably would not have stayed at Maryland more than one year: two at the most.

"He would have left with me," said Lucas, a junior when Moses would have been a freshman.

For Driesell, Malone was the second brilliant player he lost who perhaps could have sealed that elusive national championship. The first was Charlie Scott, who signed with Driesell and Davidson but changed his mind at the last moment and went to North Carolina.

Still, the Scott years generally coincided with the Lew alcinder years at UCLA. The Bruins were a bit more mortal during what would have been Malone's time at Maryland. Indeed, as Driesell noted, the only center with anything approaching Malone's skills since '74 has been UCLA's David Greenwood.

"I'd like to have had him (Malone), but I can't think about it too much." DRiesell said. "What I got to do is get me another one like him -- if another one ever comes along."