There never has been anything that Rick Majerus loved quite so much as basketball, even if it didn't always love him back.

He rarely left the bench as the lowliest walk-on on the Marquette freshman team, and ultimately the game rejected him as a player. He had a body that was all wrong for basketball. But he loved the game nonetheless.

"He was never a good player," recalls Majerus' Marquette coach, Al McGuire. "He was just a gym rat, a guy who liked to play. He played 24 hours a day."

One day, the freshman team was playing an AAU team, and Majerus asked McGuire if he could play. In McGuire's words, "I made a flippant New York reply."

"I'd play the mascot before I'd play you," McGuire said, and then he watched in dismay as Majerus' eyes welled up with tears.

That is what the game meant to him.

They were an odd pair, basketball and Majerus. In some ways, there was just no accounting for the love affair. He was roundish, headed to fat. He was built for football, heavy and low to the ground, an offensive lineman waiting to happen. The only thing he did well on the court was set a wide, sturdy pick - "Rick the Pick," they called him. But something about basketball grabbed him and wouldn't let him go.

It wasn't a love fed by playing success. He had no game, but he did have a keen eye for the game's subtleties, a sharp mind for X's and O's and a knack for teaching. Most of all, he was obsessed and driven. He was VanGogh with a box of paints, Mozart with a piano.

In basketball, he saw beauty and art and gamesmanship and unselfishness and teamwork and some other things no one else could see. Everything about the game he loved - practice, preparation, strategy, games.

"It's a chess match," he explains. "I like that. It's a thinking man's sport."

He was driven to learn everything about the game. He could never know enough.

He tapped the work ethic he learned from his father, who was once a labor union boss in Milwaukee, and the work ethic he used himself while working on the loading docks of the Pabst brewery, and he threw himself into the intricacies of basketball.

His obsession kept him up late into the night watching hours of videotape and cable games. It drove him to spend countless hours huddled over restaurant tables picking the brains of other coaches. It came with a price. It left him little time for anything else, including a marriage. It lured him away from his home in the Midwest to a seventh-floor hotel room in Utah, with its four TV sets and its VCRs and ESPN. Here he could eliminate many things that would distract him from basketball. There were maids to make his bed and clean his room, a secretary to buy his clothes, a maintenance staff to fix the plumbing and mow the yard.

"I spent a lifetime studying basketball," he says. "It began from the first time I played it. I mean it. I'd watch and observe. I'd go to camps. I'd ask questions. I'd watch. I learn a lot just doing TV (commentary) for the Jazz. It's a nice study. Look, I'm a curious guy."

Today, love him or hate him, Majerus' peers revere his knowledge of the game. "The greatest mind in the world of basketball," McGuire once said. Another coach, who loathes Majerus personally, said this week, "No matter what I think of him, I'll never say the man can't coach the heck out of a team."

All that devotion and single-mindedness led him to San Antonio and this week's Final Four, and that only seems right. Has there ever been anyone, anywhere who belongs here more than Majerus?

"What you see is what you get," says McGuire. "He's not interested in showering three times a day. He's not interested in threads. He's not interested in foreign cars."

He just wants to embrace basketball.

Even a fellow coach, North Carolina's Bill Guthridge, his rival in Saturday's game, calls Majerus "a basketball junkie."

Majerus is in his glory at the Final Four. After 27 years as a coach, 14 as a head coach, he has arrived. He has plotted, schemed and willed his way to be here. The road here began the moment he had to quit playing. One day, McGuire stopped practice and pulled Majerus aside. "You're one of the worst players I've ever had on my teams," he said, with typical New York tact. "You should think about quitting."

Majerus finished practice, packed up his things and quit the team, heartbroken, but for the next couple of years he pestered McGuire to be on his coaching staff. McGuire struck a deal with Majerus. "If you go to law school, I'll put you on the staff," he told him.

So Majerus went to law school, and McGuire put him on the staff for his senior year. Six weeks later, Majerus dropped out of law school but not out of coaching.

He has been a coach ever since, and to this day he thrills at the nuances of the game, especially when it's played "the way it's supposed to be played."

He is a purist, a connoisseur of the game. Listen to him describe his idea of a perfect game: "One where the players defend well and share the ball. The mistakes are mistakes of commission, not omission. One where there's good ball and player movement, good spacing, with five guys moving as one. I hate selfishness and bad shots."

Majerus' players play that way or they don't play. They rebound, they defend, set picks, share the ball. Majerus loves it when some of the game's aficionados, such as Don Haskins or Dell Harris or Jim Williams, call him to say, "That was a beautiful game to watch. I love the way your kids play."

Majerus' team is playing beautiful basketball these days and the coach is at the height of his passion. The only way things could be better is if he were playing, instead of coaching. He has never gotten over the desire to play. He has said he would give everything up to be the 12th man on an NBA bench.

Majerus is fat and 50 now, and he still packs a basketball with him everywhere he goes. It rolls around in the back of his Ford Explorer, bouncing off the sides of the vehicle on turns, ready at a moment's notice for a pickup game.

"I do great," he says. "Everyone wants me on his team, because I set picks and I pass. I don't shoot much. I know what I am. I'm a bad player."

He flies to Los Angeles to play with a regular group of lawyers in Brentwood. For years he has had a standing game at the Final Four with CBS execs and several actors, including Kevin Costner.

"It's the only game I play where they have a buffet on the sideline and people waiting to give you Evian water and towels," he says.

A few years ago, Majerus was between game days at the NCAA tournament in Tucson when he broke away from media duties to look for a pick-up game. When a reporter offered to play, Majerus snapped, "No, I want to play with some guys who can play."

After all these years, nothing is changed. He is still the gym rat, a guy in search of a team and a game. His love affair with basketball rages on. "It began when I was a kid," he says. "It was fun, and it's still fun. I can't wait for practice tomorrow."