THE Green Line train to the Lechmere Station climbs an incline at North Station, almost like the old roller coaster at Revere Beach. Riders swarm into the cruddy passageway that leads down into the Boston Garden. It's been this way forever. The same grime, probably, as when names like Tommy Heinsohn and Bill Russell danced in my 10-year-old mind. We belonged to the Celtics Junior Boosters Club, my best friend and I. That got us a newsletter, plus 50-cent seats in the netherworld. Once, before a playoff game with the (then) St. Louis Hawks, a priest from Boston College gave us tickets right behind the bench. A great story, but not a great place to sit when you are only 4 feet, 10.
Most kids who grew up around Boston could tell such tales. It's one reason the city's sports culture runs deeper than the present successes. In the last three years, a Boston team has been in the World Series, the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl, and the National Basketball Association finals. This bounty would have staggered us back in the '50s, when the Yankees seemed to own the World Series, and the Celtics were only beginning to roll. The big letdowns of late - the Bruins lost the Stanley Cup, the Celtics didn't make the finals - only show how high expectations have become.
It's easy to love a winner, of course. But other cities love theirs, too. There's nothing special about Boston fans, who can be petulant and unforgiving.
What is special about Boston is a sports culture based on familiarity and tradition - as opposed to efficiency and convenience - of a kind automobiles and televisions have routed from most of American life.
I realized this upon returning to the city two years ago, after a long absence. Boston has undergone the afflictions of prosperity like numerous other cities. The all-night cafeterias and Joe and Nemo's are gone. But When I tuned in to a Celtics game on the radio, there was the same hyperactive rasp - Johnny Most's - that delighted me as a child. Four radio talk shows continue an obsessive conversation that began before my earliest memories. The Red Sox still need pitching. The manager still can do no right. It's like a secret city, which developers haven't managed to efface.
And there are visible signs as well. Baseball's Fenway Park still has ``the Wall,'' with hand-operated scoreboard. The smell of pizza still wafts up into the balcony at the Garden, home of the Celtics and Bruins. The ``T'' train still clanks up to North Station.
The sports-crazed Boston of Roger Clemens and Larry Bird may seem in a different time zone from that of Michael Dukakis and technocracy. Yet the Massachusetts of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers was an athletic capital. Football and basketball began here. Boston had a marathon back when people thought marathon runners were nuts.
Football excepted, Boston's pro teams are among the oldest. The Boston Red Stockings won the first big-league baseball game in 1876.
Dick Johnson, curator of the New England Sports Museum, observes that sports lore is perhaps the only kind that is still passed on from generation to generation. Fenway and the Garden provide an atmosphere for this. Before games you'll see grandfathers and uncles recounting how Bob Cousy could dribble through the opposing team, how line drives crackled off Ted Williams's bat.
The proximity to the ``T,'' moreover, makes both Fenway and the Garden accessible to kids. Many of the yuppies who pack Fenway for Clemens once left home with a couple of dollars in their pockets to eat peanuts in the bleachers on cloudless Saturday afternoons.
At Fenway, fans can almost touch the players. Or torment them, as the left field ``Boo-Birds'' did in the days of Williams. The Garden is an old-fashioned bandbox in which fans practically hover over the court. Bill Walton of the Celtics has described modern arenas, by contrast, as like playing in ``shopping centers.''
Something else has encouraged a sense of connection between Boston fans and their teams: patriarchal figures, who provided a personal identity lacking in corporate enterprises of today.
Tom Yawkey, a timber heir, owned the Red Sox from 1934 until he died in 1976, and his widow is still a part owner. Yawkey was an old-time sportsman. To proposals to add an upper deck on Fenway in 1946 he said, ``I like my ballpark the way it is.''
Similarly, the original owner of the Celtics was a man named Walter Brown, an old-fashioned promoter who once mortgaged his house to keep the team afloat. (Boston was a hockey town.) But the man who defined the team is of course Arnold (Red) Auerbach, former coach and now president. Auerbach established an atmosphere in which being a Celtic - and a Celtics fan - was something special. He rarely traded players, and made the team as close to a family as is probably possible.
The Celtics and the Red Sox have been strangely opposite in this regard. Whereas Auerbach was a motivator, Yawkey indulged his stars to the point where the team became known as a ``Country Club.'' Yawkey had another failing: The Red Sox were the last (in 1959) major-league team to add a black to their roster.
There is no denying a white coloration to pro sports here. There is an eerie absence of black faces in Fenway and Garden crowds. In Spike Lee's movie ``She's Gotta Have It,'' liking the Celtics is the ultimate black put-down; the Celtics are the NBA's whitest team.
Yet, as is oft recited, the Celtics were the first NBA team to draft a black player, the first to have a black coach, the first to have an all-black starting five. The Bruins actually broke the color line in hockey with a player named Willie O'Ree.
This doesn't make Boston a New York or Atlanta. But it's also not the sports Johannesburg that some in the national media suggest. ``I'm a Celtics fan, my man,'' said one ``World Renowned'' Kenny Brown, the day Celtics players dedicated new playground courts in Roxbury.
Thankfully, talk of a domed stadium to replace Fenway is past. Proposals for a new Garden are ensnared in the usual political machinations, demonstrating to many that inefficiency can have its uses. But a new giant video above Fenway's center-field bleachers intrudes like the boom boxes at Walden Pond. The team's radio ``color man'' sometimes spews statistics like a computer terminal.
The biggest threat to Boston sports these days has been their success. The Garden has sold out every game since Bird joined the team in 1979. The Red Sox draw crowds even though mired in fourth place. The price of small scale becomes exclusion, like that of Beacon Hill. Worse, season-ticket policies exclude the kids, who can no longer buy a cheap seat before the game.
There's a distinct absence of kids at Celtics games these days. The second balcony, where we Junior Boosters sat, is now corporate boxes.
Dick Johnson of the Sports Museum worries that children ``have been shut out economically and spiritually.'' At Red Sox games, he recalls, ``little kids would be screaming and banging the wooden seats in the grandstand and screaming, `We want a hit.'''
``I haven't heard that chant in many a year.''