One helping of Celtics-watching and there was no turning back

It was love at first sight. That night of oppressive heat in 1984, I came back from a writing assignment in Spain almost devoid of energy, fell onto the couch, and flipped on the television. There, for the first time, I saw the Boston Celtics play basketball.

Anyone with a sense of the relentless narrative flow of the game knows that a fondness for it puts things like reading and sleep at risk. Wisely, I had avoided watching even 10 minutes of pro action. Ever.

I had seen enough of my time consumed by baseball and football, both games that I could at least turn off when I wanted to until the championships came along. But after moving from New York to Boston and seeing Celtics film clips at 11 p.m., I sensed that here was the game that could keep me frozen to the tube. I vowed to stay away.

So this is the beginning of a resisted romance, or how one reluctant fan fell for the game of basketball. The outcome has left me eager to spend my nights and days feasting on the court feats of Larry Bird.

Just the other night, for instance, against the Chicago Bulls, three-quarters of the way through the season, a playoff berth assured, home-court advantage all but locked up, Bird was out there in a game that counted for zilch, acting as if his life rode on the outcome, his quick hands lunging and grasping for rebounds, his genius for being everywhere that counts very much in evidence.

I find myself musing at such times about the incredible intensity of the game, especially as the Celtics play it. Also, I wonder about the team's uncanny ability to grab players of like-minded persistence, the latest example being Bill Walton, an eclipsed star who has burst into a second youth, slamming the boards and holding the low post like a sumo wrestler.

Somehow, a Celtics game is a building in progress. You see all the joints and rivets, and you can guess at the precise technical calculations that make the whole thing stand. In the end, you appreciate not only the sheer virtuosity, but also the X-ray glimpse into the skeleton of the sport.

The game with Chicago was an unbalanced match with a team that was missing three key players, but it had for me the same poetic power as that first game I viewed in 1984, when the Celtics and Lakers spilled back and forth before my eyes in the sweltering Boston Garden, an ancient arena dripping in 97-degree heat.

As they sweated and pirouetted and sucked on oxygen masks in that unforgettable playoff match-up, it looked more like some kind of weird street theater-cum-ballet than a sport. Normal laws of gravity were held at bay. They traded baskets in a sensational series of can-you-match-this athletic drama. Then, slowly, slowly, the Celtics began to take the game away from their opponents. In more ways than I could count, the National Basketball Association championship was in the process of being won. With teeth clenched, wills stretched to the snapping point, endurances surpassed.

This was the story of basketball as told by the Boston Celtics, the working-class heroes of New England, who caught the Lakers, and me, flat-footed with knife-edged intellect and brute endurance.

I've never seen anyone work so hard. Or so gracefully.

That's how new icons became enshrined in my life. Figures that resemble gargoyles more than angels.

In the heat of battle, the Boston Celtics look as if they were recruited from a 1950s horror movie. These are faces only a basketball fanatic could love. And I qualify. I'll wait all through a game for one loving close-up of the Chief, Robert Parish, scowling as though someone had just crimped the fender of his sports car.

I think basketball stadiums are undecorated without the knobby shoulders of Kevin McHale. More recently, the uncomprehending glare of Bill Walton has become to me as the granite gaze of Abraham Lincoln.

And, of course, Larry Bird.

In my hazy, heat-misted memory of that fifth game of the '84 championship series, I most vividly recall the incredible force of Bird, who was like a white-capped blur intruding into every particular of the contest. The image is something like Ishmael's dream on the eve of his voyage after Moby Dick: ``In the wild conceits that swayed me . . . two and two there floated in my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.''

Now, I am well into my second full Celtics season. This is the team that some call the best Celtic organization in history. This is the season that Sports Illustrated canonized Bird as possibly the greatest player ever. Are the Celts going to do it again? Of course they are.

But the beauty of the thing with the Celtics is that it really ``ain't over till it's over.'' They dwell in some kind of constant cliffhanging land where it often looks as if they haven't a shot. They work for their victories. They make you grateful for all the sweat and talent.

You walk away from a game saying, ``Who are these guys? When can I see them again?''

As I say, it was love at first sight.

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