WAIT A SECOND, what's wrong with second?

You can second guess, second a motion, have second thoughts and second chances, be a second, be second to none, get second opinions, and make it by a split second.But don't you dare come in second.

You can catch your second wind, get your clothes second hand, grab a second helping, get a second chance, but never take second place.

Second place is much maligned. No one wants second.

Got a second? I'll explain. Second place is the first loser in a race. Second place is stuck in the shadow of the winner, the one that just missed. Second place is compared to first place. How much did he lose by? A second.

There are lots of reasons for this. First, second is a bad spot to be in. Second, first is better. Third, no one remembers second.

If they do, it isn't for more than a second, unless somebody has made a habit of it. Second place can stick with you. You can be branded by second place. The Buffalo Bills. The Broncos (until they finished first). Tom Weis-kopf. Iraq. Avis. Merrill Cook. Alydar. The Vikings. Adlai Stevenson.

The Bills finished second in the world four times. For that, they became a national joke. They would have been better off in third place, even fourth.

On Sunday, the Utah Jazz finished second to the Mighty Bulls for the second year in a row. They lost three games by a total of

eight points this month. That's all that separated them from first place. They finished ahead of 27 other teams. Just don't tell them about it. Give them a second; they'll feel bet-ter.

The Jazz have finished second in their conference three times in this decade. They have placed second in the NBA twice.

Is that so terrible?

The Utes were second in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Karl Malone was second in the MVP balloting.

Sometimes people are so embarrassed by second, they call it something else. Like runner-up. What kind of name is that?

They come up with clever say-ings for second place. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Translation: Second stinks.

But second place is not so bad. I mean, unless you're George Custer. Sometimes second is last. Sometimes second is a terrible thing. It's no place at all.

I don't mean that kind of second place. I mean the kind of second place that's better than third, or seventh. Better than almost anything. Except first.

Acceptable second places: Wimbledon. Olympics. The World Series. Bowling.

Unacceptable second places: World War II. Prize fights. Desert Storm.

Second place is an honor, or it should be. But you rarely see a runner cross the finish line with two fingers aloft. You never hear a crowd chanting, "We're No. 2!"

Why?

An Olympic ice skater didn't even bother to pick up his silver medal in the last Olympics. The 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team still hasn't accepted its silver medal, either. So much for second place.

Nobody ever aspires for second place, of course. No coach ever started the season by telling the team their goal was to finish second. But second place seems acceptable, although some people couldn't do it if they tried. Al Oerter, for instance. Michael Jordan.

Sometimes people are realistic about it. When Michael Johnson raced in the Atlanta Olympics, everyone was racing for second. Just don't try to name one of them. One of them was Frank Fredericks, who finished second in the 100- and 200-meter dashes in each of the last two Olympics. Afterward, he fretted that it might not be enough for his countrymen.

"Unfortunately, in sports it's only the gold medal that counts," he said gloomily.

But second place can even be advantageous. No one's going out of their way to knock you off. Second place can even make you better. There is still something to strive for. Still something to make you reach deeper.

Second place is not such a bad thing.