DRIBBLE AND DROOL

Don't let this get around, but any foreign power still interested in invading the United States would do well to try it, say, this Saturday.

Half the nation is already catatonic from watching the O.J. Simpson trial, and by Saturday night the other half will be in college-basketball-induced shell shock. Anytime after 7 p.m., you could probably take Washington, D.C., with a jeep and a couple of BB guns. Just a hunch, but the president probably wouldn't call out any troops until halftime in the Arkansas game.

As the insiders tell it, March Madness (now the designated catchphrase for college hoops' annual orgy of postseason tournaments) wasn't all that mad until March 26, 1979. On that date, a Michigan State team led by Earvin "Magic" Johnson beat young Larry Bird and the Sycamores of Indiana State, 75-64, for the NCAA championship.

For some reason, that one rather anticlimactic contest set off a college basketball frenzy that endures to this day. Every March, millions of grown men (and quite a few women, too) with real jobs, actual bank balances and no previous histories of mental illness think nothing of plopping themselves down on the couch to watch 50 or 100 or 200 straight hours of hoops on the tube.

It's a little like war, and the only civilians allowed in the room are the delivery guys from Domino's. Starved dogs, bleeding children and divorce lawyers must wait out in the hall until the final buzzer of the final game.

But what am I going on about? Most of you already know this part. As a matter of fact, some of you didn't even notice last March when your spouse threw all your clothes out on the lawn with eight minutes to play in the Wisconsin-Green Bay vs. Cal game.

Some of us, though, barely got through basketball boot camp a few years back. Including yours truly. So last week I attended several emergency meetings of the joint chiefs of staff, just to catch up. As a result, I now have in my possession a stack of top-secret documents.

The first one is a cocktail napkin from Rodney's. In the upper right-hand corner there's a scrawled word, in what looks like a dazed version of my handwriting. Swami it appears to say. The cryptographers tell me this means Mark Simko--friend, bartender, man about town. The other markings meant nothing at all to me until Colonel Seethrough explained them. *KY *UCL CT U-MS KS Ark MichSt Wake (Sleep), the message looks like. Translation: Depending on the pairings, The Swami, Mark Simko, thinks the University of California at Los Angeles could play Kentucky in this year's final, but he's not ruling out Connecticut, Massachusetts, Kansas, Arkansas, Michigan State or Wake Forest, which he regards as a tournament sleeper.

The second document--and I certainly hope this one doesn't fall into the wrong hands--is a place mat from Wang's Chinese Kitchen. The boys down in the lab say those are Szechuan beef stains in the lower left corner, but it took the Colonel and his staff a lot longer to decipher the rest of the story. Heels*HogsDeacs* UConn(believeit!)RayUConn, it says in that same disordered hand, right next to a big spot of what the experts tell me is hot-and-sour soup. In other words, the wisdom according to Ray Hess--sometime tennis opponent and full-time basketball fan--has it that North Carolina, Arkansas, Wake Forest and the University of Connecticut will make up this year's Final Four (the sanctum sanctorum of college hoop) and that Ray's alma mater, Connecticut (believe it!), will prevail.

I thought I was getting the hang of these important documents until I got a gander at Rodney's Cocktail Napkin Number Two, which the guys upstairs dubbed, with what sounded like a snicker, "People's Exhibit 5A." Revvvv it appears to say, but in the kind of extravagantly wild handwriting that, after brief interpretation by a decent psychiatrist, can send a man straight to the state hospital. *KY/NC* Wake(sLEEP) aRK UCla'Nova Va KaN this heavily smudged message reads. Colonel Seethrough's curt analysis: "Apparently, you tried to write that your friend the Reverend, aka Bob Jones of The Denver Post sports department, picks powerful Kentucky to beat Wake Forest in this year's final. He likes North Carolina, Arkansas, UCLA, Villanova, Virginia and Kansas to fill out the Final Eight." The Colonel couldn't help telling the rest of the story: "By the way, would you like to know why this report looks like it may have gotten wet? Because it was wet. Lab doesn't lie: Drenched in Canadian Club."

There's no point in going much further, is there? Through these documents, and a dozen others just like them, your correspondent is quickly learning what a beautiful thing college basketball can be. As always, though, one endeavors to get the entire story. Here then, on pristine, yellow-lined paper and in rock-solid penmanship that speaks of Catholic-school discipline and unwavering responsibility, I have this day recorded the tournament choices of two absolute basketball wizards. My bosses.

Ward Harkavy, editor: 1994 winner Arkansas, Virginia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Connecticut and Maryland get to the Final Eight, but UCLA (which won ten of twelve NCAA crowns between 1964 and 1975) returns to greatness by beating Kentucky in the final.

Andy Van De Voorde, managing editor: High seeds Arkansas, UCLA, and Massachusetts go far, along with sleepers Wake Forest, Michigan State and Arizona (the man's alma mater, wouldn't you know it?), but Kansas beats Connecticut for the crown.

Sure, guys. Don't forget to tip the kid from Domino's every day, and when your wives throw you out, you can crash at my place. At halftime, maybe we'll watch the invaders shoot up the White House.

There are plenty of noble qualities inside Richie Ashburn, the great Philadelphia Phillie who was belatedly elected to the Hall of Fame last week by the Veterans Committee.

For one thing, this consummate professional hit .308 over the course of a fifteen-year career with one of the weakest clubs in the National League. Twice he led the NL in batting average (.338 in 1955, .350 in 1958), and four times he was the leader in walks. For another, he was absolutely wonderful to watch in the outfield, although he was overshadowed by three legends in the making only ninety miles away--Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider. For a third, Ashburn once gave Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax the ultimate compliment: "Either he throws the fastest ball I've ever seen," Ashburn said, "or I'm going blind."

But the single noblest thing about Richie Ashburn may be that he spent the last season of his career with the 1962 New York Mets. That fledgling club managed to lose a record 120 games under the bemused leadership of Casey Stengel, and its best pitcher, beleaguered Roger Craig, won 10 games and lost 24.

When teammates weren't crashing into Ashburn on routine fly balls and opponents weren't racking up an astounding 948 runs against the Mets, the 35-year-old center-fielder quietly hit .306 in 1962--31 points higher than any other regular.

"I don't know what's going on," Ashburn said of the Mets, "but I know I've never seen it before."

We won't see his like again.

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