This is a basketball story. It will tell you how big the game is in Kentucky. This is a love story, too, of a high school coach named Jack Sutherland and the prettiest girl he ever saw. Theresa May Dudley, his wife of 30 years. For them, basketball was love.

Jock drew the Xs and Os, and Snooks, as he called her, was every player's mother -- washing uniforms, cooking meals, hearing their girl problems. "She was the coach. I just sat on the bench," Jock said. He keeps her picture on his desk now. She was a tiny, laughing brunette.

As a skinny kid in the mid-1930s, Sutherland sneaked into Alumni Gym two blocks from his house to watch his heroes practice for Adolph Rupp. "Get that little s.o.b. out of here." Rupp often said Jock always found his way back in. For every home game of Kentucky's "Fabulous Five" in the mid-40s, Jock sat under the scorer's table, certain that heaven could be no finer place.

Although he was an all-Kentucky player at Lexington's Lafayette High, Sutherland wasn't good enough for Rupp. That was fine with Jock, for in the 10th grade he had decided to be a coach. After graduation from Kentucky and service in the Army, he took the only coaching job anybody offered at Gallatin County High School in Warsaw, Ky., an old river ghost town not far from Cincinnati.

For $3,216 a year, Gallatin County had itself a basketball coach and science teacher. "I looked at our schedule and told Snooks, 'We're gonna win 'em all here,'" Sutherland said.

"Came Jan. 2, we lost our 10th straight."

You would like Sutherland. At 52, he is the world's oldest elf. Mischief and delight do battle for his face. Somehow he drawls in a hurry. He walks like a bantam rooster scratching for a fight. As his wife did, he laughs every chance he gets. A referee once threatened a technical foul for each step it took him to get back to his bench -- and so Jock signaled to his players, who came and carried his off in their arms. If he didn't like the way things were going, Jock sometimes left the gymnasium. He returned once with a nice doughnut, munching it as he walked past the game in progress.

"I wasn't doing 'em any good on the bench," Jock said. "Besides, I was hungry."

The man can coach. He created a series of zone defenses that he called "Jailhouse Junk," meaning you were in a whole lot of trouble when you got in there and you weren't going to get out easily. In 24 seasons, he took six teams to the Kentucky high school state tournament (including Gallatin County, where in his fourth season he was 30-1).His teams won 465 games, lost 190. For three seasons an assistant coach at Alabama, he quit the colleges in 1970 to come back home, back to the Kentucky high schools.

"For me, a skinny no-account wise guy kid who wasn't supposed to amount to anything, getting your state tournament passes and badges was like shaking hands with St. Peter going through the pearly gates," Sutherland said. "Basketball in Kentucky has changed for the worse. Nowadays, the only thing that matters is the University of Kentucky. The high schools have been squeezed out by the economy, vandalism and vulgarity in public places.

"When I was a kid, though, and when I was starting out coaching, everything Snooks and I did was with the goal of someday winning the state tournament. I'd rather win one state tournament than go to UCLA and win 10 NCAAs.That sounds stupid and crazy, K know. But, well, it's like making love. If you make love with somebody you care about, afterward you can't get close enough. But if you make love with a stranger, ,you can't get away fast enough. The way I loved Snooks. I almost loved Kentucky basketball that way."

In the late 1950s, nearly 450 high schools played basketball in Kentucky, each of them dreaming the dream of success that Adolph Rupp had made real at the university. This is a poor, rural state of villages and small towns. Rupp's teams gave Kentucky something to be proud of. They won NCAA championships in 1948, '49, '51 and '58. What football did for Alabama and Oklahoma, basketball did for Jock Sutherland's home.

Kentucky won another NCAA championship, this one only three seasons ago, and the University of Louisville won last year's NCAA. Kentucky's 23,015-seat Rupp Arena is sold out for the season. There are only 1,905 seats available for the season in Louisville's 16,613-seat Freedom Hall. Not counting student seating, the two schools sell 27,777 season tickets.

"A Way of Life," says the legend above a current Kentucky basketball calendar.

"Women who won't drive a block in the snow to get a loaf of bread," Sutherland says, "will drive 40 miles down a crooked road in the snow to see Kentucky play South Korea, and South Korea only has one guy over 6-1."

Fact: When the Soviet Union's national team pulled out of a preseason game with Kentucky, South Korea filled in -- and 15,096 people came to Rupp Arena to see these teeny-tiny fellows go against the beloved Wildcats.

Sutherland could see his world changing.

Consolidation reduced the number of high schools to 314. There is talk of dividing the schools into classes. Sutherland hates the idea. "Kentucky would be just another state then," he said.

Jock and Snooks knew the time to quit was coming. After the 1981 school year, Jock would have 30 years in. The good pension would be there. He owns a third of a real estate firm. He does coaching clinics, makes speeches, writes a weekly newspaper column, works as a radio and TV commentator on games.

"Snooks and I were going to let the Winnebago and see the world together," he said.

But first he wanted to win a state championship, and in 1979 he had a team at Lafayette High that was good enough to do it. "Zazu Pitts could win with these guys," he said.

At the start of the season, the coach told his wife -- Snooks was his buddy, his partner, the woman who rode with him in the buses to every high school game for 20 years -- that he wanted her on the team's bench every night. "I think we're going to win it," he said, "and I want you to keep the scorebook."

Jock's team was 35-1 going into the state-championship game.

The afternoon of the game, he and Snooks laid by the motel pool.

"I had my eyes shut because of the sun," Sutherland said. "And, suddenly, for what reason God only knows, I really truly thought, 'If we lose, I'll kill myself.'

"Sounds stupid, doesn't it? The pain of losing that game would be such I couldn't stand it. I used to whine and sulk around after losing games. It hurts to lose; it hurt like I'd had a son killed in an automobile accident. Snooks would snap me out of those pouty moods. She would kick my rear end. She would say, 'Stop crying and start doing something about it.'

"So I was laying by the pool and I have this flash. 'I'll kill myself.' It had been a lifelong dream. I was one step away from the mountain I always wanted to climb. It would hurt too bad to lose."

He won. The score was 62-52.

With a minute to go, he walked to the end of the bench and hugged Snooks.

Back at his seat, he wept for joy.

And he quit coaching right then. "The job is yours now, Donnie," he said to his assistant coach, Don Harville.

This summer, on July 7, for their 30th wedding anniversary, Jock gave Snooks a swimming pool in the backyard of the house they had built in his first year out of coaching. He is Lafayette's athletic director. "It was the house of our dreams, on an acre of land, with everything Snooks loved," the old coach said.

On Sept. 5, Sutherland left the dream house without saying goodbye to his wife. The night before, she had said she was tired. They held hands a half hour in bed until he felt her pull away. He watched her walk to the bathroom. It was the last time he saw her alive.

In the morning, the bathroom door was closed. The coach opened it.

She was dead there.

Cerebral vascular accident the doctor said. A stroke. Dead instantaneously, death occurring about 6 a.m.

Hell came to the coach. He drank to forget. He only remembered. The draperies were her idea, the furniture, the trees in the backyard, the house itself. He woke up one day liking the new freedom. No deadlines for supper, no errands to run, no longer did he have to pay her way. And then he lay in bed, horrified by his thoughts, trembling in his loneliness, and he would see her coming through the door. He drank some more.

He drank until he remembered what she told him about losing. Stop crying, she always said, and start doing something about it.

"I said to myself, 'You're a cheap, conniving, sniveling s.o.b. Surely to God, living with that woman for 30 years made you some kind of person. You better prove it right now. Or she'll kick your rear end some more.' I had to face it that she was gone."

It has been only three months. On his car's stereo system, he plays a tape of himself saying, "My wife is dead, she won't be back. We had 30 years, 30 great years, but she's dead, she won't be back."

Sutherland has two sons, Charles Jr., an attorney here, and Glenn, a third-year dental student. He asked them and they said yes, he should find a girlfriend. He did. He works at school, does the radio broadcasts and column, makes speeches and gives coaching clinics.

He is doing something about losing.

"People ask me if I'm going back into coaching now," Sutherland said. "I won't coach again in high school. I did that out of desperate love of doing it. It doesn't seem like it would be any fun without her. If I coached, it would be at the college level, someplace like Eastern Kentucky. This time I would coach for the money."

The other day, the coach went into the backyard of their dream house and cut a single branch from each of her trees. He formed the branches into a large wreath and tied a red ribbon around it. He hung four or five of her favorite Christmas ornaments on it and put the pretty thing on her grave.