On the roof of a Cadillac thumped the heels of a lunatic. The car was surrounded by a thick chain of fans shaking their fists and chanting an obscene taunt about the Red Sox. Inside, the driver shrank into a fetal tuck. He knew that he shouldn't have cut in front of the lunatic in the rusted Toyota. Or pushed the button to close his window when the kid walked over to discuss it. Not in a crowded parking lot. Not after a game like that.

The moment the kid had begun to point his finger and shout, the heads of a hundred Yankee fans poked through open windows and a hundred horns began to wail.

Someone pointed to the Cadillac. Massachusetts plates. Another handed the kid a Red Sox pennant and lighted it with a match.

In one bound, the kid was on the hood, dancing, twirling the flame. In another, on the roof, stomping out the syllables as he led the mob's cry.

And for months the kid would tell this story, this great moment in his life.

IF YOU'RE GOING TO ACT LIKE AN ASS, I SUPPOSE 18 IS AN appropriate age. As I look back a decade, I can see why I was on top of the Cadillac. It wasn't the man's rudeness, the Yankee loss or the heat of the Bronx tenement summer. It was an 18-year-old kid moving away from his home, losing his girlfriend, arguing with his parents and screwing up his freshman year at college. Later, I became a sportswriter for The Miami Herald and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and wrote stories for such magazines as Inside Sports, Sports Illustrated and Sport. I thought I was laying the ductwork for a healthy American vent. Now, I loathe it all. I can no longer watch a sporting event -- live or on television. The reason: fans.

The fan has turned sport against everything it is supposed to be: the blended exertion of body, mind and soul. The fan uses sport to avoid living. He uses his team for a fraudulent sense of community; a close game as a substitute for the lack of tension in his life; a victory as salve for his own defeats. Reggie Jackson once said that hitting a home run is better than having sex. That may be. The problem is, for many Americans, watching a Reggie Jackson hit a home run is better than having sex. Walter Mitty is now living through Walter Payton. Some people see sport as a metaphor for life. I see it as a metaphor for death. YES, DEATH. ISN'T THAT WHAT WE'RE TALKING ABOUT HERE? You sleep for eight hours a day, push paper for eight more. Your TV set is on an average of seven hours a day. La-Z-Boy chair? Lazy man's tomb.

Exertion of body? Do you actually compete for a Michelob Light in a game of driveway basketball? Or do you just identify with the commercial?

Exertion of mind? You and your fellow burghers, who, no doubt, are horrified by the behavior of Sun Myung Moon and his following, can be seen en masse on Sundays during autumn dressed in burgundy and gold singing the same songs, chanting the same words, applauding on cue, year after year.

Exertion of the soul? I ask you: Can spirit be fabricated by the decibel leap in Brent Musburger's voice?

Instead, you fill the emptiness with drugs, alcohol, gambling and the fantasy of sport. Is it shocking to find these four elements linked like Siamese quadruplets? It shouldn't be. Look at the sports sections: Stories of athletes in drug rehabilitation centers appear next to point-spread charts, just above the beer ads. At almost any stadium in this country, you'll find sports, gambling and drug and alcohol abuse thriving symbiotically. In a sense, there is no difference between watching a sporting event and snorting cocaine. If you want to snort sport -- fine. But don't delude yourself. It's all a ride in a getaway car. I ONCE INTRODUCED A 13-YEAR-OLD GIRL TO HER HERO -- Keith Hernandez of the New York Mets. During their meeting, she meekly said three words: "Hello . . . Fine . . . Goodbye." I can understand the sagging jaw of a 13-year-old. But not the middle-aged men who have asked me to obtain autographs. Adults pay $425 for the 1963 baseball card of Pete Rose. Lord, this country is in a state of suspended adolescence. One booster hadn't the slightest doubt his six-figure contributions to the athletic department at Southern Methodist University were worthwhile. He received Eric Dickerson's football helmet. Grown men, who have not ventured onto a diamond in decades, pay $3,995 to attend fantasy camps, where, for a week, they hit weak pop-ups in regulation uniforms and drop flies fungoed by ex-major leaguers. Grown men? Buffoons. And one species lower is the flatworm who antes up $1,820 to clink cocktails on a Caribbean cruise during the off-season with the Baltimore Orioles. Do you realize that companies have paid ex-quarterback Fran Tarkenton up to $15,000 to give motivational speeches? And that last year fans bought $350 million worth of sweatshirts, socks, pajamas, slippers, pillows and other accessories bearing team logos from NFL Properties? When people have to buy their dreams and schedule them for 1 p.m. on Sunday -- they're not dreams.

Perhaps this delirium could still be treated if the fan were only paying hard currency for the thrill of association with those who dare to be great. But the price is far greater: The fan surrenders his own capacity to dare.

Take the example of Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon. The National Football League is the most corporate sport in America. Chin straps buckled. Shirts tucked in. Synchronized sock lengths. McMahon once played in a game wearing a headband that advertised a sporting goods company. A scandal! Commissioner Pete Rozelle imposed a $5,000 fine. A week later, McMahon's headband carried a mocking message: ROZELLE. On Monday morning, yuppies across corporate America nudged each other in the ribs by the water cooler. By rejoicing in McMahon's rebellion, the three-piece suit was vicariously flipping the finger at his boss. Of course, there were no consequences. Because the yuppie hadn't really done anything.

Conversely, when the athlete fails to dare, he is punished. Take Carl Lewis. The most popular amateur athlete in the world prior to the 1984 Olympics, he strangely did not receive one major American endorsement after winning four gold medals. How could this be? Simple. He refused to challenge the world long-jump record after winning on his first attempt. Fearing injury, Lewis acted like a fan: He played it safe. The fan felt cheated. Rather than confront his own hollowness, the fan glared at the television and snarled: "Screw you, Carl."

Like a trembling addict, the fan will bash open his kid's piggy bank, pillage his wife's pocketbook, excavate the sofa seams for lost change -- anything to snort sport. He'll deny it, of course. Shrieking lunatics light up the switchboards of radio talk shows berating the Los Angeles Raiders management for paying Bo Jackson $7.4 million to play five half seasons. You can hear the fan slap the forehead of his hollow skull when he learns an unproven lunkhead like Brian Bosworth will receive an average of $68,750 for every regular-season game for the next decade. I say, pay the athletes more. A million a year is no compensation for a man asked to bear the expectations and dreams of millions. Athletes' salaries should inflate in direct proportion to the emptiness of fans' lives. "Those high-paid crybabies went out and struck again," the fan bellows. "You'll never see me at the ballpark again." Sure we won't. Maybe you'll hold out for a week or two, but you'll come groveling back -- just like you did to set attendance records in major league baseball and the NBA the last three years. Your appetite for pro football was not sated with games on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Monday and Thursday nights. Now there will be cable telecasts on Sunday nights. Pete Rozelle fertilizes his garden with people like you.

Why the television popularity of sport? Because it is the one thing on that moronic medium with a scintilla of spontaneity. And even that dies with repetition. In order to swallow a mid-season clash between the Atlanta Falcons and the Indianapolis Colts, the fan needs to wash it down with juice. He needs to bet on the outcome. If you eliminated gambling from the NFL, the league would fall -- face mask first. In 1981, it was estimated that $50 billion was wagered on NFL games. That was just a little less than that year's federal budget deficit.

Now, even betting on the point spread has lost its edge. More juice. In the last Super Bowl, bookmakers took bets on the coin toss, time of possession and penalty yardage. I know two guys who bet on who would score more around the league on a particular Sunday -- the brothers or the honkies. Pools flourish in offices where drones seize the slightest excuse to avoid the drudgery of their jobs. Most of these people don't even know what, or why, they are watching.

"That's not true," said a violinist I know. "I watch sports with an appreciation for the esthetic beauty of the athletes and their movements -- the same way I enjoy listening to a symphony. That's why people watch."

The violinist ought to have her strings tuned. A survey of sports attitudes conducted by Miller Lite beer concluded that nearly half of Americans thought they could perform as well as the pros if they had proper training. Surely, the violinist would not confuse herself with Itzhak Perlman.

Appreciation? When was the last time the second cello had to dodge flying batteries during the second movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee," the way right fielder Dave Parker had to during the flight of fly balls at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium? WHAT IS EVEN MORE MALODOROUS IS THE FAN'S POINTING

to athletes as role models for his children. An utter abdication of responsibility. See that man digging into the batter's box to confront a 95-mile-per-hour fast ball, see that quarterback calmly audibling in the face of a ton of frothing linemen -- be like him. Not like me, clanking along in a robotic job, frittering away my energy and free time in front of a television. A game of catch? Here's a George Brett autographed mitt. Go ahead and {popping the top off a beer can} play with your friends.

A few years ago, while eating lunch with Ray Burris, then a pitcher for the Oakland A's, I asked him if he would point to someone he didn't know personally as a role model for his family. He looked at me as if the question carried cankers. "No way," he said.

Once he's relinquished his responsibilities to the idol, the true fan must defend his demigod to the end. When Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka is arrested for drunken driving, the irate fan besieges the police station with phone calls. You can't do that! That's Ditka! When Dwight Gooden returns to Shea Stadium after admitting to drug abuse, 50,000 fans give him a standing ovation.

Those fans may be spiritual derelicts, but at least they're honest. What about all the hypocrites?

Where does the fan drunk in the stands find the gall to condemn an athlete on drugs? In the beer can. How ingrained is alcohol usage in the sporting psyche? In the centerfield seats of Tiger Stadium during lapses in the game, half the fans stand and scream: "Tastes great!" When they sit, the other half responds: "Less filling!" This mock recital of the Miller Lite commercial has gone on for 15 minutes at a time. And they don't even sell that brand of beer at the park.

How dare alumni -- who seduce 18-year-olds to offer their bodies to a university with illegal payments and cars -- ask these same athletes to serve as symbols for honesty, integrity and fair play? CONSIDER THIS: WHAT'S THE MOST COMMONLY USED SOCIAL lubricant in America? Sports. Problem is, the gunk ends up oozing across the entire lunch hour. If it weren't for sports, people would have to actually communicate. A frightening thought, isn't it? I'll bet there are more people in this country who know the names of their neighbors' favorite teams than the names of their neighbors' children.

Football is the balm of corporate America. Businessmen are moved around the country like headless pawns on a chessboard, their easiest induction into the community being a blathering interest in the game. Is a group of people sitting together for three hours, screeching at a television set, our idea of togetherness?

America is miraculously adroit at manufacturing superficial substitutes: Is "The NFL Today" any different from Trivial Pursuit, a way for family or friends to feel like they are sharing closeness instead of risking an honest exchange of feelings and ideas?

I can recall returning home from a basketball game by train a few years ago. A man was seated across from me. We talked about sports for close to an hour, laughing, arguing, agreeing, shaking hands and clasping shoulders before departing. Not long after, I thought about getting together with him. I realized I didn't know his name, his address, if he had a wife and children. About this man, I knew nothing at all.

Our bond was a sham, not unlike the myth that sports is a bridge between races. If anything, sport is a dollar-bill-green camouflage for racism. I once saw a tense Mets-Cardinals game in a "white" bar on the south side of St. Louis. When Ozzie Smith, the Cardinals' black shortstop, stepped to the plate, the fans hysterically chanted: "Ozz-ie! Ozz-ie! Ozz-ie!" Moments later, when Mets pitcher Gooden appeared to question an umpire's call, a fan shouted: "Shut up, you stupid nigger!" The crowd laughed and hooted.

In fact, the fan's preposterous inflation of the significance of sport hurts the black man's chances of true success in America. Every time an athlete returns to the ghetto in a Mercedes, fingers festooned with diamonds, he sends 25 kids scurrying to the schoolyard instead of to the library.

After leaving full-time sportswriting, I became, among other things, an emergency-room technician. One night, a man was wheeled in, fully conscious, with multiple stab wounds. He seemed remarkably calm when a naso-gastric tube was dropped down his nose to pump the bilge out of his stomach and a Foley catheter was inserted to drain his urinary bladder. But when a nurse swabbed alcohol on his right arm to administer a tetanus shot, the man nearly jumped off the bed, grabbing the lapels of my white jacket, pleading with me, almost in tears: "Don't let her do it! No! No! No! My game, man! That's my shootin' arm!" IS THERE THE THINNEST SHRED OF GAUZE ANY LONGER

between what is real in our lives and what is not?

So completely have the hype and spectacle of sport gnawed into the public consciousness that a woman tries to organize a gambling pool on when her husband -- a habitual office-pool junkie who has been struck by a car -- will come out of his coma. When a friend of mine demurs, citing moral reasons, the woman is befuddled. "But," she says, "he would have wanted it this way."

The horror.

People celebrating at an electrocution in South Carolina explain their merriment by saying: "We never tailgated an execution before." As the body is carried past the tailgaters to the morgue, they hit their horns and yell: "We won! We won!"

The horror. The horror.

Sport is the clean white bandage we have placed over a festering abscess at the core of this country. Why should we be surprised when a little pus seeps? I'm talking about fan violence, of course.

After the Detroit Tigers beat the San Diego Padres in the 1984 World Series -- a triumph of the emasculated Rust Belt over the prosperous avocado-eating Sun Belt -- fans surged into the streets outside Tiger Stadium to celebrate. Four police cars were smashed, one was overturned and torched. One cabdriver defended his vehicle by brandishing a bayonet. A biologist in town on unrelated business was shot. One dead. Eighty injured. Forty-one arrested. One hundred thousand dollars in property damage. As Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: "It's not whether you won or lost. It's how many cars you burn."

I scan the smoking horizon of sport and see German shepherds guarding the foul lines in Philadelphia to keep fans from dismembering the players and dismantling the stadium at the close of the 1980 World Series.

I see an NFL security director look at a 1981 Monday-night game in Foxboro, Mass., during which 38 were arrested and one was stabbed, and declare it a "success" compared with previous Monday night massacres there.

I see a Harvard freshman suffering a fractured skull when struck by a falling goal-post crossbar during a victory celebration over Yale.

I see Billy Martin managing with a bulletproof vest under his uniform.

I see four New England Patriot fans electrocuted when the goal post they've torn down snags a power line outside the stadium.

I see fans dumping cups of beer on opposing players and scatological insults on their wives.

I see every element of spontaneous combustion jiggling in the palms of lunatics. When you rely on someone else to give your life meaning, when you pack that much emotional dynamite into a game, what's left but to sweep up the rubble? A TAD PERTURBED, PERHAPS? DON'T COME LOOKING FOR ME, you spiritual jellyfish. I'll be in the jungles of Zaire in search of some semblance of civilization.

I decided to go after a Sunday in late January, a day when 122 million Americans simultaneously sat, embalmed, in front of television sets. I took a walk that day, through streets and over lawns, listening to the blades of grass crunch under my feet, looking into the gray sky, the horizon littered with antennas. A dog howled in the distance. On and on I walked through the empty streets. Nowhere was there a sign of human life. ::