Rupp Arena is a basketball palace like no other. It seats 23,000 and, from some angles, resembles an enormous warehouse painted in the shade of brown favored by the man for whom it is named.

From two elegant hotels almost a half-mile away, it is possible to stroll, through a series of tunnels, to center court in the foulest weather without so much as a hair being mussed.

I love the place; I also hate it.

The rapture for Rupp is because it celebrates a game that, when played properly, eclipses all others. Baseball is fine, if you happen to have crawled from the womb at age 50; football justifies itself by keeping rowdies off the street several months a year.

To one occasionally myopic mind, no team game requires quite the combination of grace and force as basketball, or so much imagination so quickly.

What is wicked about Rupp Arena is that it stands as a symbol of something wonderfully pure being poisoned, for when you walk in you walk away from just about everything associated with higher education.

Kentucky basketball and Adolph Rupp are among our enduring myths. They remind us, as the NCAA tournament concludes here this weekend, of what is special about college sport and of what is sick.

For pressure at its lid-tilting tightest, listen to this from the Kentucky school paper about a new coach:

". . .will face the handicap that all new coaches must face -- the critical eye of the students, alumni and fans who are skeptical to a high degree. He will realize that unless he makes good he runs an excellent chance of losing his job . . . "

Aren't these kids being a bit tough on the poor fellow who replaces Joe B. Hall?

Nope. That wasn't current commentary.

It wasn't even the prevailing mood when Hall assumed control from Rupp 13 years ago.

This was the worrisome welcome Rupp got in 1930. Kentucky already was krazy over hoops, and fretted that this unheralded high school coach, energetic as he seemed, couldn't fill the gigantic new gym that seated 2,800.

Kentucky always seems a bounce pass or so ahead of the pack. It has won more games than any school (1,378), built larger arenas sooner and been more spectacularly corrupt.

Before practice today, Villanova was in awe of the mystique and majesty of Memorial Coliseum. . . of the four NCAA banners, of offices the size of tennis courts, of the 13,000 seats.

Villanova's new fieldhouse will not be as large as Memorial Coliseum.

It's Kentucky's throwaway gym.

Also, none of the Final Four teams is likely to match Rupp's best for style. Swift and highly refined, they emphasized sophisticated passing for the simple reason that the basketball Rupp first played with couldn't be dribbled.

"It was made of a gunnysack," he said in a history of Kentucky basketball. "Round and filled with rags and hay. Mother stitched it together. . .You couldn't have had an Oscar Robertson in those days. You had to pass or shoot."

When young coaches from around the country talk tactics, they often are surprised that they think so similarly, that their pet plays are so alike. Then it comes to them: somewhere in life was an association with a man who learned his basketball from Rupp, who got the game from Phog Allen, who was taught by the creator, James Naismith.

It also was Naismith who offered the best advice no one ever followed: "You play basketball; you don't coach it."

Rupp coached -- and sold -- the game. If his players were too good for genuine criticism at halftime, he contrived some.

"Who the hell is guarding No. 10?" he once bellowed.

"I am, coach," said Cliff Barker, one of his Fabulous Five of the late '40s.

"Well, by God get on him," Rupp roared. "He's got the only two damn field goals they've got."

Rupp was furious when pianist Artur Rubenstein wanted to practice in Memorial Coliseum prior to a concert. Before finally relenting, Rupp explained: "If he plays a wrong note, nobody in Lexington will know the difference; if my team does, there'll be hell to pay."

In 41 years, Rupp won 875 games, or 17 more than the University of Maryland in its entire history. Probably, more great players left Kentucky than stayed at all but a few schools.

"Your picture would be on a calendar in every small-town grocery store in the state," said Bob Tallent, who played for Kentucky but left during the 1967 season after an argument with Rupp. "If a player just walked into a bar, someone would be on the phone with coach Rupp, saying: 'Should we get rid of him?'

"He could be so funny, and cutting. I had a class that caused me to be late for Monday practices. The place would be locked, and when I pulled at the doors, he'd stop everything and say:

" 'Hark, Galileo is here. Someone please let him in.' "

Tallent recalls being head coach at George Washington and being in the living room with his brother Pat, a brilliant high school prospect, and Rupp assistant Joe B. Hall.

Hall's pitch to Pat Tallent included a remark that the university president had promised him Rupp's job the next season.

Whoa, Bob Tallent interrupted. The Baron does not want to retire, and he very likely has more power than the president of the school just now, anyway. Tallent was right; his brother played at GW.

The players who gave Rupp his greatest joy, the Fabulous Five, also brought on his deepest sorrow. Arrogantly, Rupp said in the midst of point-shaving arrests elsewhere in 1951, his guys "couldn't be touched (by gamblers) with a 10-foot pole."

Some could.

"He had retired the jerseys of the starters," longtime assistant Harry Lancaster wrote. "He just as quickly unretired them. There was this great big picture of them hanging in the Coliseum. It was there one night. The next morning it was gone.

"It was another 20 years before he even acknowledged that the Fabulous Five had ever existed, the scandal had hurt him so badly."

The NCAA also accused Kentucky supporters of paying players several times during that late-'40s and early-'50s period and canceled the 1952 season.

Two decades later, Kentucky has become more, well, professional than ever. Dozens of others have tagged along. At its pinnacle of popularity, college basketball may also be at its most vulnerable.