The moment when officials of the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament gulped hardest, when order and sanity suddenly seemd threatened, came when a White House aide called a few weeks before the affair in Capital Centre five years ago.

President Ford would like to attend one of the sessions.

Wonderful. The most prestigious tournament this side of the NCAAs would be enhanced even more. Besides, the three-day even resembles a poltical convention/upper-crust society blowout as much as it does high-intensity sport. So the president would be both welcome and comfortable.

Then someone asked the critical question.

How many tickets would he require?


SIXTY? Panic fast-broke through the room. Minds froze. Hands trembled. Had the White House gone mad? Didn't they realize this was no ordinary sporting show, like the World Series or Super Bowl? This was the ACC tournament, the ultimate in athletic religion.

Sixty tickets? Folks with bank accounts larger than Dave Winfield's can get but one sometimes. You'd rather ask fans to surrender life and property than ACC tournament tickets. Maybe we could squeeze the presidential hoop horde into a spare sky suite. Or if matters really got tense. . .

There was another phone call.

The president would be otherwise occupied that weekend.




In truth, the ACC tournament has diminshed in significance the last seven years. Once it was the essence of lunacy, where the regular season meant nothing more than seeding and only the tournament champion represented the league in the NCAA playoffs. The four or five very good teams this year have a fine chance of advancement regardless of their fate in Thursday's first round.

Less obvious has been the change in ACC style lately, from Bob Hayes to Woody Hayes to be overly simplistic, from breakneck speed to grind-it-out-inside, from games where each team might score 100 points to games where neither might score 65.

The enduring ACC tournament game, for anyone who has seen more than a few and can remain mildly neutral, was North Carolina State-Maryland in 1974, the 103-100 classic in which the losing team (Maryland) shot 61 percent and the winning team went on to the national championship.

"Frenzy in a red sea of fans," said Dave Prichett, a Maryland assistant at the time. "Like every ACC tournament, and moreso. Everybody out of control. Emotions taking over. Us against a midget (Monte Towe), a giant (Tom Burleson) and a helicopter (David Thompson). And everyone waiting for the helicopter to fly down and take over, which he did."

If the tournament has become less meaningful, only a few on hand will not tingle with anticipation. One of them will be Bob Ferry, who is paid to be dispassionate.

"A very relaxing time for (pro) scouts," the Bullet general manager said, "because you've got your mind pretty much made up about how good the kids you're watching are. You pretty well know their level. So you just sit and reassure yourself."

The one tournament negative, and a large one, is that very few students get to attend. The Almighty Checkbook Conference, they could call the ACC at tournament time, for few other than those who contribute to the care and feeding of Ralph Sampson, Albert King, Sam Perkins and the rest get to watch the action in person.

You get an idea of the socioeconomic-religious background of the faithful simply by dialing Gilbert's Health Club in Greensboro, N.C., and listening to Clara insist:

"We have never been helped much by the tournament. We've spent right much money on advertising -- and not one call. Yes, we give massages, but there's no playin' around. The people that come to the tournament don't do nothin'. We put ads around, but it's a waste of money."

No one who attends regularly calls the tournament a waste of time.And the last memories tend to connect many of the same people.

"I remember (former Clemson coach) Tates Locke slamming a chair and breaking it," said veteran official Hank Nichols, who worked five ACC tournament finals in a row, "and having to send in a sub right away so he'd have a place to sit.

"I also remember calling a travel on Mo Rivers during that N.C. Sate-Maryland game, which is unsurpassed in my mind for excellence by both teams, and saying to myself, 'I hope I was right.'"

Editor-columnist Bill Millsaps vividly recalls Nichols, late in that game, at midcourt before an out-of-bounds play, lecturing the jostling players before handing the ball to a State player, "No cheap fouls now. Not in THIS GAME."

"I remember a jump ball best," said ACC guru Bill Packer. "North Carolina versus South Carolina in the '71 final, Lee Dedmon against Kevin Joyce in the last few seconds. Dedmon had a big height advantage, and all he had to do for Carolina to win was tip the ball to a teammate. Instead, he tips the ball right to Tom Owens, who goes for the layup that gives South Carolina a one-point win."

The immediate memory of Bill Foster, the former Duke coach now in his first season at South Carolina, is not his two ACC tournament championships but his team missing several one-and-one free throws late in an overtime loss to Maryland during the first round in Cap Centre in '76.

Larry Gibson, the Greensboro police captain rather than the former Maryland center, was one of several who tried in vain to revive the heart-attack victim in the stands at Greensboro Coliseum last year. He acknowledged the highly partisan nature of the ACC tournament but added, "There are more heart attacks after pro wrestling matches here."

Virginia fans will recall Bobby Stokes' steals and free throws as much as Wally Walker's heroics during the Cavaliers' upset tournament championships in '76. But any 'Hoos Who must include the Virginia players arrested for scalping tickets after one of their annual first-round losses years ago.

Two lenght-of-the-court passes against North Carolina linger longest with Wake Forest fans. One pass, which Mitch Kupchak mistimed, was completed and sent into overtime a first-round game the Deacons eventually won. The second also was completed, but disallowed because the officials ruled it had grazed the scoreboard overhead en route, and Carolina escaped with a one-point victory,

"I remember Albert King washing away the tears in the dressing room and going out to receive his most valuable player award (after Duke beat Maryland for the championship) last year," said Jack Zane, Maryland sports information director.

"I remember Gene Banks in the dressing room after that game, tears running down his face, saying, 'They said we couldn't do it. They said we couldn't do it.' And then collapsing," said Duke's sports information director, Tom Mickle.

I remember Mickle, several hours after Duke beat Wake Forest for the title in '78, spirited atop a backroom table in a fashionable restaurant singing the school fight song as some other ordinarily tame Devils wished they had his nerve.

Isn't that how every tournament is supposed to end, with somebody sensible doing something silly?