August 14, 2000 12:00 PM

Stretched out on sofas in a private suite deep inside New York City’s Madison Square Garden on July 28—but not far from the madding crowds of mostly teen fans who’ve been dogging them since they hit town four days earlier—the five members of ‘N Sync are savoring a rare moment of tranquility. “We’re exhausted,” says Justin Timberlake. “Excited and exhausted at the same time.”

It’s little wonder that Timberlake, 19, and his bandmates—JC Chasez, 24, Lance Bass, 21, Chris Kirkpatrick, 28, and Joey Fatone, 23—are feeling a bit out of sync. Winding up the first leg of a 42-city tour launched in May to promote No Strings Attached, the group’s 12 million-selling sophomore CD, the Fab Five have been playing to sellout audiences at the Garden all week (including a live HBO concert on July 27), schmoozing with the likes of Rolling Stone Keith Richards and MTV’s Carson Daly, and late-night partying with Jennifer Lopez and Sean “Puffy” Combs, rapper Jay-Z and Savage Garden’s Darren Hayes.

On day five, the boys are awakened at 5 a.m. to rehearse for a Today performance before a record-setting 15,000 fans in Rockefeller Plaza—three times the number who turned out a month earlier to hear Britney Spears.

Despite the presence of Spears, 18, backstage—and a sighting of her and Timberlake dirty-dancing at Manhattan’s Lotus nightclub earlier in the week—Timberlake denies rumors of impending nuptials. “I laughed when I heard [the rumors],” he says. “If I was really seriously thinking about getting engaged to anyone, nobody would know about it.” His fellow Syncers also try to keep the lid on their love lives. “We don’t like to talk about the people we date,” says Fatone, “because they catch so much crap for it. They don’t want to be in the spotlight.” “I gotta tell you, I would not want to be my girlfriend,” says Chasez. “I would,” quips Kirkpatrick.

Being an ‘N Sync parent can also be stressful. “This is scary,” says Fatone’s mother, Phyllis, 48, when dozens of girls surround a van carrying band members and pound on the windows as it pulls away from the hotel. “You don’t want to see anybody get hurt.” Surveying the throng, Fatone’s father, Joe, 53, sees only opportunity. “Twelve million one, 12 million two,” he jokes, ringing up CD sales on an imaginary cash register. “Ka-ching!”

The boys find the adulation humbling. “We remember when we couldn’t get arrested,” says Kirkpatrick, who was singing doo-wop at Universal Studios in Orlando when he and the others formed ‘N Sync in 1995. “Now we get our own HBO special. It’s amazing. It’s cool!”

It will be amazing to cool down too. With a two-month hiatus before their tour resumes in October, the exhausted bandmates look forward to a less frantic schedule. In their Garden bunker they consider their options. “Play video games!” suggests Kirkpatrick. “Go away!” shouts Fatone. An even more radical possibility occurs to Timber-lake: “We’ll go to our own homes!”

Steve Dougherty

Sue Miller in New York City

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