THE FORMER POLITICIAN turned basketball star is coming to lunch. He is an old war horse, goes back to the Kennedys, he does,and when he starts to talk, responding to questions, actually, he says right off that he does not believe Jimmy Carter will be a one-term president. Larry O'Brien says that. And then he adds, though, that he is hearing the name of Ted Kennedy quite a bit. People are looking at Kennedy in a new way, he says. Lots of respect. One thing is sure, he says, things sure have changed.

There are two ways to listen to the likes of Larry O'Brien. The first is the non-Washington way, which is simply to think that the man said what he said for no other reason than he wanted to say it. This is the way things are done in the rest of the world. The Washington way, though, is to see something like this as part of a plan, a scheme, a probe, a message, a trial balloon - anything but the simple conversation it probably was.

Me, I simply hang on the words. Me, I have been on the trail of Kennedy for some time. I wonder about him and watch him and care about him. "Me, I'm listening to the noises Washington is making at the moment. The town is talking Kennedy. You can hear it wherever you go and you hear it especially if I am there because I bring it up. I have my questions. I have always had my questions about Ted Kennedy. I mean, who doesn't?

Maybe this latest episode of Kennedy speculation started with the Christian Science Monitor story saying that Kennedy was planning to run in 1980. The story denied, but what could not be denied is the story told by the polls. They show Kennedy clobbering everyone in sight - everyone from Jerry Brown to, natch Jimmy Carter. Compared to Kennedy, Brown is a dark horse with delusions of grandeur. In the latest Gallup Poll. Kennedy has Brown by 24 points. In the latest Gallup, he leads Carter by seven. If you had just come down from Mars you would think that Kennedy was the president and Carter the senator instead of the other way around. Maybe Carter knew something when he said that life was not fair.

At a barbecue party, I talk Kennedy with a former congressional aide. He has seen the man up close. I ask all my usual questions and then I move over to a political type whose business it is to run campagins. He has a suggestion for me. Check with Kennedy's office to see if the polls have generated threats and if the mail is full of ugly stuff and the phone clogged with hate. I do that. That is always a factor with Kennedy. The office walls are covered with pictures of the Kennedy family. This is a business call but . . . but there's Jack and there's Bobby and Rose and Joe Sr. and pictures even of the streets where they were born. This is business, but I feel I know this family. I knew this family.

It is emazing how you care, how there is no neutrality here, how this family has almost bacome your own. Some of this is due to television, of course - all those moments shared with them. We were with them when they came to bury their dead, some of them crying, some of them tight-faced, some of them on their knees, flowers in their hands. God, how you don't want that to happen again.

But the Kennedy office reports nothing unusual. The mail is heavy, but mostly friendly. The secret button to summon the police has not beem used. The calls keep coming in, but the crazies are few - fewer than ever. Maybe O'Brien is right. Maybe things have changed.

A friend comes in from the coast. He's a political type - a couple of campaigns under his belt. He asks about Kennedy. What's this he hears? What's the talk of the town?We talk Kennedy, going over some of the old questions - what James McGregor Burns called "a question of character."

That, after all, is always the question. That's the one without an answer. You have to take that into account that same way you have to take into account how he has more than proved himself as a senator, how he has taken on the tough ones - busing in Boston, Vietnam, ABM. ITT and, of course, Watergate. This, too, is character. This, too, is guts. He went mano-a-mano with Richard Nixon when he was living in something of a glass house himself. Remember the bumper stickers? - the ones that said."No one drowned at Water-gate." Tell me that didn't sting.

My friend and I go over this ground. We are sitting at the dining room table. He tips his chair back and says something. He says it has been Kennedy for 10 years now - always Kennedy. Kennedy in 1968 and 1972 and 1976. Why is he always the alternative, my friends asks, why is he always the one you think of when someone stumbles in the public opinion polls? Something has failed in the system, my friend says. There should be others. Why is Edward Moore Kennedy always Dr. Gallup's alternative for all seasons?

My mind goes back to the lunch with O'Brien. Things have changed, he said. People see Kennedy differently, he says.In a way, he is right. Things have changed, but they have also remained the same.

It is time to move on.