At 10:30 in the morning, before the teams have started their warmups, while Capital Centre is still yawning, four cheerleaders in black and yellow uniforms, looking like The Legion of Super Heroes, practice their tumbles on the far end of the court.

"This floor's too hard," says Travis Elridge, smiling, all the time.

He turns and watches LuAnn Compere flip off Rick Stanland's shoulders and land on her feet on the plywood with a thud. They both come up smiling. All the time.

Darlene (Sparky) Lawrence, 5-foot-2, dressed in white shirt, black tie, black tails and black short-shorts, bounds across the floor. The morning matinee is Wake versus Clemson. Darlene is Wake's head cheerleader. Darlene is also Wake's first female head cheerleader, its first head cheerleader from the District, its first black head cheerleader and its first black female head cheerleader.

Central Casting. With every Wake mistake, her face scrunches up like a cartoon. With every Wake dunk she rises out of a crouch smiling, does a split, tails flying, then lands in a crouch again watching the court, her megaphone standing higher than she. Darlene is her own routine.

While their cheeks lack a certain sophistication ("We are the Deacons and you better step aside cuz a lot of people didn't and a lot of people died"), and their stock repertoire of routines is limited (five people is five-sixths of the smallest possible pyramid), they're Peppers. You can see their teeth in the sky boxes. During timeouts, Darlene jumps and splits diagonally across the court from corner to corner, like a top. A 10. A Nadia.

It was worth it. Wake wins. They bounce up and down on the plywood like grasshoppers.

You can't find him in the program, but you can almost always find him at the game. Bill Hopkins, Clemson '61, has been to Milwaukee and Tucson, and Ogden and El Paso and even Hawaii -- which he pronounces "Hawahyah" -- following his Tigers, so you just knew he'd be at Cap Centre for the Acc tournament.

"He's kind of adopted us," said Clemson Coach Bill Foster. "He's pretty close to being an assistant coach. I don't usually like the fans to get involved, but he's kind of special."

He's a large man, maybe 6-foot-1, maybe 220, with a slow, gentle walk, and a soft, courtly manner. He is 42, divorced, no kids.He owns a couple of restaurents in Clemson, and they say he has a house there worth $250,000. He can afford to do what he wants; what he wants is to watch college basketball.

"I don't know why I like b-ball so much," he says. "Maybe it's because I couldn't play it all that well. See these hands? White man's hands. Too small. You could maybe play guard in football with these hands, but not basketball."

Two years ago Clemson gave him a plaque that read, "Our Biggest Fan." And this year Bill Hopkins gave his alma mater $2,000, gave it to the Clemson booster club, gave it happily. The $2,000, which goes into the athletic scholarship fund, enables Hopkins -- and the other 112 who gave a similar amount -- to buy 10 season football tickets; eight season basketball tickets and four ACC tournament tickets. Forget the football. Bill Hopkins is a b-ball fan.

"You can see them; they don't hide under helmets. I like to watch them grow and develop. I like to see what happens over four years, see them come in as skinny kids and go out as adults. . . I'm in the restaurant business, and on the road I try to scout places where the team can eat. Most of the kids don't like anything but hamburgers, fried chicken and pizza. But what's interesting is how they go from ordering their meat well done as freshmen to prime rib, medium rare, as seniors."

He laughs softly. Ex-officio assistant coach in charge of food. It might be something to think about on the ride home. "I try not to take the game home with me." Hopkins says. "But sometimes with a great victory I make an exception; a road trip can be a helluva lot shorter when you drive the first 100 miles with a smile on your face."

Wake 80, Clemson 71.

No such luck.

Wake-Clemson, the all-important 11 a.m. hoop tilt. V was semiawake and semiscouting. "We only played both teams eight times so far this season," he said. If V's North Carolina State team got by UNC late in the evening, it would get the winner in the semis.

"If we lose," V said, "I'm gonna get up a game in the park. We'll see which team really wants it bad -- we'll play for a Michelob."

Jim Valvano, an excellent coach and recruiter and an oasis of laughter in the grim Sahara mindset of college sports, was coaching in his first ACC tournament. The pressure, as usual, couldn't touch him.

"I was thinking of not coming at all," he said. "I thought it would make a good story."

Did someone say story?

"We'd already lost two three-point games to Carolina when they announced the draw for the tournament. First round? Of course, State-Carolina," V said. "So I get this letter from a State fan that says, 'If we lose to Carolna by one again I'll shoot your dog.' So, the guy signs his name to the letter, and I write him back -- 'Sorry to disappoint you, but I don't have a dog.' The next day they deliver a dog to my house with a note -- 'Don't get too attached.'"

"A State fan takes me to a bar the other night, a real macho bar, a real man's bar. So I'm sitting there, and the guy next to me orders a bottle of vodka, and he chugs it. Then he orders a bottle of Scotch, and he chugs it. Then he orders a bottle of gin, and he chugs it. Finally, he looks up at the bartender and asks, 'What time you got?' And the bartender says, 'Hey, buddy, you come here to drink or just shoot the bull?'"

"I'm gonna be much better next year. Not my coaching, no. But next year when we get the Southwest Conference refs I'm gonna ride to the game on my horse."

During the Wake-Clemson game ("Actually I'd rather play the 11 a.m. game. It's like getting married early in the morning. If it doesn't work out, you haven't killed the whole day.") V was told by Skeeter Francis, the ACC publicity director, that State would wear white and sit on the far bench. V didn't miss a beat. He looked up at Skeeter and said, "You've got all the answers -- what's the final score gonna be?"

Carolina 69, State 54.

C'est la V.

". . . a French place. Yeah, had the Gran Marnier souff-lay and everything. Thought I'd a had to take out a bank loan to pay for the meal. . ."

Woody Durham got here early -- 9:45, to be precise, time enough to remember his last meal and joke about it. He knew it would be a hard day's night between good meals. He knew he was staring at a 14-hour siege. The Voice of The Tar Heels would have to do four games on Thursday in the ACC tournament, a tournament he calls, "The No. 1 spectacle in college basketball."

Woody Durham, UNC '63, thinks he has the best broadcasting job in North Carolina, despite the hours, despite the abuse he takes from State fans and Wake fans and especially the Dukies who call him Woody Chapel Hill.Thirty-nine years old, with 10 years of experience behind him and the Tar Heel Sports Network (58 radio stations for football, 45 for basketball) stretched out in front of him like a satin ribbon, Woody Durham is Somebody.

He took over for Bill Curry -- "The Mouth of The South" -- in 1971 when Curry moved to Pittsburgh. It was a tough act to follow; Curry's down-home style was revered by Tar Heel fans. Once when Curry was broadcasting a UNC-Duke ACC tournament game that would end 12-10, he said, "This game's about as exciting as artificial insemination." Curry could get away with that; he could get away with talking about his ex-wives and his alimony payments. Durham plays it straighter, and he's proud to say he seldom hears anyone compare him to Curry anymore. He has arrived.

"I'm a Carolina native," he says. "I never wanted to leave, never wanted to go network. It's what I wanted."

He admits he gets a little higher for the Carolina games than for the Virginia-Georgia Tech games. "I tried to look at it the way Coach Smith looks at it when he puts his reserves into the game, that he owes it as much to them to be involved in the game when they're in as he does to the starters. But that game (Virginia 76, Tech 47) was one of the worst five games I've ever had to watch. I couldn't help it. I was telling stories during the game. I never missed describing a basket, but I had to tell the people that if they thought my stories were bad, well, they were better than the game I was watching."

In warmups, the eight Techs in their silt and black are virtually indistinguishable. Accompanied by a rooting contingent of four in a cavern of 15,000, they run through their choppy drills like death row inmates during rec time. There are no magazine covers on this team. Eight men in motion; to stop might risk wholesale ridicule. They all share the stigma.

The rules say five on five; no handicap holes, so three are resigned to the bench. One sits farthest from condemned Coach Dwane Morrison. His face shines with wholesomeness and his ears stick out; Robbie on My Three Sons. He's the lowest sub on the lowest team. You know the creme de la creme? He's the other side.

How bad is his team? If its winning percentage were a batting average it would make Esquire's Dubious Achievement Awards. What does that make walk-on David New, averaging nine minutes and 0.8 points? He doesn't ask himself.

David New runs through the substitute's behavioral repertoire. Look no one directly in the eye, especially not yourself. Stare out from your head-between-your-knees slouch, knees pointing high, like someone eating at another table at the Last Supper. Crane your neck to look at the clock a lot. In the last minutes of the game, with your team trailing by 40, your warmup jacket still draped around your shoulders, you crane so much you almost whoop.

David New plays seven minutes. He takes two shots. On one, he throws up an open two-handed, layup that hits the glass three feet above the rim and bounds wildly away. The other is a 25-foot set shot at the first-half buzzer. It hits the rim like a dead bird.

"I'm just thankful for having played," he says. "I was just reading about two guys in Durham who wanted to play at Duke and ended up at North Carolina-Central. I look at all the people better than me who weren't given a shot. Well, I thank God.And Coach Morrison."

Late for the sky, he takes the ball at the foul line and launches himself onward and upward, pushing the penthouse button on his internal elevator, and doesn't get off until he has gone up so high that his head must surely be in another time zone. A great soaring eagle looking down at the ground, mocking it with his flight of freedom.

When you're talking Life At The Top, you're talking Ralph Sampson. Seven-4, the collegiate player of the year on a team that could end up national champion. He is the yardstick, the one they measure their talents and their hopes against.

They can't stop him. They can't touch him. The Force is with him.

They are gathered around him in the locker room, pressing him into his stall until his back is up against the wall and his elbows rest on the top of the dressing stall, like a general on horseback surveying his troops.

There is no anger in his voice, no threat in his manner. He answers all their questions patiently, trying his best to give them what they came for. It is a different Ralph Sampson this year, a more convivial Ralph Sampson. It is as if he has grown into his; role as well as his body and his talent.

It doesn't matter what he says, but that he says it, and the way that he says it. This year there is joy.

"Better," Sampson says. "It's coming better. The more experience I get at it, the better I get . . . I just had to get used to it. Once I got used to it, it wasn't any problem. You know, sometimes I even like it a little . . . It's been a good year," he says. "I'm having more fun. I'm playing better. The team is doing better . . . But satisfied? No, I'm not satisfied. I mean I think I could have played better."

The look of the eagle again. To fly.

"You know I want to. I want to be even better. I want to be the best. I think I can be."

Minutes before Maryland and its corner men leave their locker room for the main event, two Park Police appear in the tunnel with skintight stretch khaki uniforms and pistols strapped onto their belts. Cap Centre being on public land, they've been riding horses. They're working 5-to-1. It's a good shift. They're Maryland fans. The crowd is a good deal more docile than the Ted Nugent legions.

"Go on," says one, "tell him what you said on Sportscall."

"Yeah," says the other, "Well, it was the first time I ever called. I told him that Lefty, you know, was taking a bad rap.

"I mean, how many Carolina guys are in the pros? Then how many Maryland? They're supposed to have new uniforms. I want to see those new uniforms . . . "

The finale begins. Both Maryland and Duke have overdosed on adrenaline, ramming into each other on layups, sweat flying in waves onto press row.

In the good seats, though, in the Sunbelt seats for the alumni, the play on the court has little bearing on the action in the stands. Pipes and tweeds renew acquantance, stretch blazers shake hands. As a day's cigarette smoke starts to hang in the spaces above the scoreboard and the evening rounds into alcohol, a diamond ring catches the reflection of the Tel-Screen; a school ring with a large red stone glints back.

"Honey, did you bring a ham?"

"Well, Tysie said she had one at home."

"So she brought one."

"So we both brought one."

Two gentlemen lean to talk over their wives. Both have haircuts you could putt on.

"If you don't do it now, you know, they'll take your franchise away."

"Maybe. That's the bank you're with? Good bank."

"It's a volatile market."

High, high above, in the stratosphere, in the seats you had to buy yourself, the others have come for basketball.

The most innovative fans?

The Dukies. No question.

It's the Dukies who wear the skinheads with the gas gauge pointing to E when Maryland and Lefty Driesell come in; the Dukies who named Mike O'Koren to both starting forward positions on their All-Ugly team and chanted, "U-G-L-Y, you ain't got no al-i-bi;" the Dukies who showered Mo Rivers with asprin tablets when he was accused of shoplifting aspirin while he was at N.C. State; the Dukies who waved underwear at Tiny Pinder when he was accused of switching price tags on underwear while at N.C. State; the Dukies who wore dunce caps when four Maryland players were put on academic probation.

"They're the best," says Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. "They're part of the program. They're us."

And the wildest, the most maniacal, the Dukiest of the Dukies is James Armstrong, a 20-year-old junior from New Jersey.

Introducing, Beard-o the Weirdo.

"I'm the No. 1 basketball fan in the country," Beard-o (it's thick and sort of rust colored, like a designer soap pad) says. "Why? Because no matter where I show up, I stand and yell all game. I tell players that their mothers were frat dogs; I call them freaks; I scream they're ugly. I do it all."

Beard-o goes to all the Duke home games, sitting center court, screaming his lungs out ("I got two warnings for technical fouls this year -- that good enough?"). He has been known to get in line for tickets to a Saturday night game as early as Wednesday afternoon. It was Beard-o who, in response to the Maryland fans T-E-R-P-S cheer, led the Duke answer: J-E-R-K-S. But his ticket to the ACC tournament was up in the nosebleed area.Oh most traumatic.

Still, undaunted, Beard-o faced his future head on. What to do when he graduates? When he uses up his Weirdo eligibility?

"I want to go to grad school in England," Beard-o said. "I want to get into cheering for the soccer teams over there. Their fans are the closest thing to Dukies. They have brawls in the stands; they're my kind of people."

Maryland 56, Duke 53.

And somewhere in the night Beard-o was snarling.