It seemed like such an innocent remark. We were watching a basketball game on television and I asked, "What's an illegal defense?"

Five days later, I could have bitten my tongue out. There is no such thing as an innocent question at our house. You don't get an answer. You get a doctoral dissertation on the subject.My husband pushed the mute button on the TV and turned to me. "Let's back up a bit." (It's like James Michener backing up a bit. I knew I was going to end up hearing how the glaciers formed the Earth to make room for a basketball court.)

"You know how an offensive player cannot stand in the lane for three consecutive seconds, don't you? Well, a weak-side defender - which we know as a defensive player on the side of the court away from the ball - has a similar restriction."

"I got it now," I said. "It makes sense. Turn on the sound."

"I haven't explained the illegal defense yet," he said patiently. "You see, the defender generally cannot stand within the narrower college lane for more than three seconds unless the player he is guarding is within three feet of the NBA lane, so. . . ."

I never learn. The day he found the back door open and the furnace roaring was the day we "backed up" to the history of energy beginning with the water wheel and the oxen.

He droned on. "It's not easy for the referee to make the three-feet judgment. He has to look at the hash marks on the base line. Here, let me show you on this piece of paper." He sketched feverishly. "This is the court . . . ."

My mind drifted. I am probably one of the few women in North America who can explain why cold air blows out of the car heater in winter when you start the car. Not that I get many calls for it. I still have the diagrams.

"However," he continued, "if three or more offensive players position themselves above the top of the foul circle on the weak side, an `isolation violation' will be called on them. This rule limits . . ."

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the players leaving the floor and the final score being flashed on the screen. Whatever an illegal defense was, it didn't kill you.

As the sound came back to the screen, the late-night news began to unfold. Half to myself I muttered, "How come I never heard of the Kurds until a couple of months ago?"

From the corner I heard a voice say, "Let's back up a bit . . . ."