A gentleman in the know, Ralph Sampson of the Houston Rockets, is quick to point out that the rise in prominence of basketball Texas-style hasn't reached the frenzy that's found in Charlottesville, on Tobacco Road or elsewhere in the Atlantic Coast Conference, "but it's getting pretty serious."

There were limousines cruising up and down the street outside Reunion Arena today, a sure sign that a big event, in this case Sunday's NBA All-Star Game, was about to take place. Seven weeks from now, the stretch numbers will be out again here, this time for the NCAA Final Four.

But even John and Jane Public, plunking down $12.50 for a midseason Tuesday night game, have become captivated by the sport, especially if the participants include the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets or San Antonio Spurs.

"The fans here have become very demanding of us in terms of victories, but it's even more apparent when we play one of the other Texas teams," said Rolando Blackman of the Mavericks. "And it's affected us, too. There's normally a higher level of intensity when you play against teams like the Lakers and Celtics, but now it's Texas, too.

"You come in after an overnight trip and you're tired and don't want to play the next night. Then you look at the schedule and see it's the Rockets or Spurs and it's like you're alive again."

For Dallas Coach Dick Motta, the league's attendance figures disprove the old notion that the only sports played in Texas are football and spring football.

"We're leading the NBA in attendance (an average of 16,851), and that can't be an accident," he said. "Houston is up there, too (sixth in the league). I think you have to go back to people like Guy Lewis and Eddie Sutton for developing talent and getting them to stay in this area."

Surprisingly, there are more active players from the Southwest Conference -- in which all but one of the nine teams are in Texas -- in the NBA than from the Big East (16-14). Lewis, the longtime coach from Houston who is retiring after this season, and Sutton, who is in his first year at Kentucky after a long stint at Arkansas, would have to be in the forefront of the rise in the sport's popularity in the area.

But their sway doesn't hold in today's NBA. In this case, it's more a matter of geography -- and winning. The three cities are practically a puddle jump away from each other by air, and each is eager to establish control of all the turf in between.

The Spurs, who have served as cannon fodder for the Los Angeles Lakers in recent Western Conference finals, have fallen on hard times overall. A surprising start finds the team with a 27-25 record at the all-star break, but that's only good for third place in this rivalry.

"We're the weak links," conceded Spurs center Artis Gilmore. "It's the other guys who are making all the noise right now."

And like any good Texas shoot-'em-up, each has a traditional place. At one end of Main Street stand the white-hat-wearing Mavericks. With a much-vaunted five-year plan, the team has improved its record in each of its previous five seasons in the NBA and is often considered just a big man away from greatness. The team is third in the Midwest Division, a half-game in front of the Spurs, with a 25-22 mark.

Atop it all in the Midwest Division are the Rockets and their 33-16 mark. They're the bad guys, though, to folks in Dallas, who are quick to contend that the team, led by all-stars Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon, built itself using questionable methods.

Whispers that the Rockets did not exert themselves during the last half of the 1983-84 season -- the better to put themselves in position to take Olajuwon with the No. 1 pick in the '84 draft -- were started by Norm Sonju, the Mavericks' general manager. Dallas also led the push for the current lottery system used by the NBA.

Motta, who also has coached in Washington and Chicago, admits he got a kick out of the charges and countercharges flying statewide at the time. Even now, he says: "There's a different feeling when we play Houston or San Antonio.

"But it's not like Chicago against Milwaukee or the Bullets and Philly yet," he said. "Those were games that you got to by bus, and we played seven or even nine times a year. I mean, I like going against (Houston Coach) Bill Fitch or (the Spurs') Cotton Fitzsimmons, but I can't really get mad at 'em.

"And everything's so corporate now, it's almost like a cooperative we've got going with things like having minicamps together. I'm not sure that the players are motivated that way, either."

Blackman disagreed with his coach. "Every one of us want to be the best, and that makes it intense every time we play each other," he said. "It's always a dogfight."