After one especially galling loss three years ago at Duke, when even he was beginning to doubt his ability, Coach Bill Foster inquired of a student on campus: "Where's the tallest building around here I can jump from?"

Expecting sympathy, Foster heard: "If I were you, I'd go to the Chapel. It even has an elevator."

"Do you have to be so accommodating?" Foster said.

When he recounted the incident the other evening, Foster was sitting in a Howard Johnson's but talking from a rather lofty perch. At 47, he may not be significantly brighter than he was at 44, but most everyone at Duke and beyond believes it.

Foster had the most appealing basketball team, amateur or professiona, in the world last year -- and now he was talking about the satisfactions and demands that have come because of it.

He is comfortable wrapped around a vanilla milkshake. Yet an easy, almost casual air and sly wit hide as competitive and driven a man as any in a profession that attracts workaholics. Moments after an overtime loss to Maryland in the ACC tournament three years ago he said: "That's like losing a loved one." Later, he regretted saying it -- or even thinking it.

For years, Foster was highly regarded within coaching (he was president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches two years ago) but not well known to the casual fan.

That was partly because he coached at three schools -- Rutgers, Utah and Duke -- within 11 years and each needed such a massive overhaul that his early records at each stop hardly reflected his skills.

Last year, his fourht at Duke, he realized the sort of dream that dances in every coach's mind but seldom comes true on the court. Duke was special last year not because of its record but because of how it played.

Foster had been both daring and cautious in building that team, adding one immensely talented player each season. One year he signed just one player, Mike Gminski, insisting quality would win over quantity.

Suddenly last season everything came together. His formula had worked -- and Duke finished second in the NCAA tournament. More significant was the style and team sense the players showed, a flair that reminded one of Portland two years ago, the early-1970 Knicks and some of John Wooden's and Dean Smith's teams.

Also, there was a Schmaltz Factor that added to the Devils' charm: they were young. There were no seniors who played regularly; two starters were freshmen; three starters were 18.

But that special season was not without its drawbacks.

"You can't imagine the number of basketballs that have to be autographed," Foster said, not in a negative way but merely to illustrate the demands on a man who a year earlier -- before the adulation -- had spent 216 nights out of one 300-night stretch -- on the road.

"The awards and recognition, the speaking dates. I'm not so sure I'm a year smarter because of it. All of a sudden from maybe having to return a call from the Virginia student paper there'll be somebody from Dallas. And the Los Angeles Times.

"You feel like E. F. Hutton. All of a sudden you say something and people listen. What do I think of a 30-second clock? The no-jump-ball rule? It got to the point where I was lucky to make it to practice on time."

Foster remembered the comparisons that had been drawn between his fun-and-games Blue Devils and the Armageddon mood of Kentucky before the championship game and said: "You say you're not going to let it get to you, like Kentucky, but it really does."

In sport, the fun is in achieving, not maintaining. There was great anticipation before the season, though success had brought Marquette and Louisville to the schedule. But after Maryland scored a two-point upset Friday the Devils' record a two-point upset Friday the Devils' record was exactly what it was after 23 games a year ago: 18-5.

Earlier in the season, after back-to-back losses to Ohio State and St. John's, Gminski's father wrote a letter critical of Foster that appeared in a Durham, N.C., paper.

The Maryland loss produced more what's-wrong-with-Duke questions, to which Jim Spanarkel said: "We need five-man ball movement -- and five men moving without the ball. The shots will come then. We've got to get back to the point we were 2 1/2 weeks ago."

In truth, the more pertinent question would be what went right with Maryland, for the Terrapins were playing tough and smart. Buck Williams grabbed the clutch rebounds, Greg Manning hit the clutch shots and Dutch Morley and Al King made the clutch passes.

And Coach Lefty Driesell refused to allow Duke to slip into a zone defense, knowing the Devils were in foul trouble early in the second half and his best free-throw shooters were on the court.

The game was unusual because Driesell was in the underdog role, in fact needing a victory to keep some alumni snipers at bay. Years ago, Driesell attracted the attention -- and the pressure -- Foster now knows. And the nicest thing anyone could say about Maryland is that it played Dukelike at times.