There is a famous Boston story from a few years back, when Phil Esposito was the leading scorer in hockey, Bobby Orr could have been elected mayor, and the Big Bad Bruins were the cat's meow.

A car was spotted downtown bearing a bumper sticker with a footnote scribbled underneath. The message: "Jesus Saves." The addendum: ". . . And Esposito scores on the rebound!"

Boston - home of the bean and the cod, the Cabots and the Lodges, the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins - is that kind of sport town. Passionate and provincial but with a peculiar kind of sophtication.

Boston is not a great sports town in terms of unfailing loyalty and attendance. It could not support two baseball teams, so the Braves left for Milwaukee in 1953. Several pro soccer franchises have come and gone. Boxing has all but died here. Hockey fans have proved fickle.

But there is a certain jaunty atmosphere that pervades the sporting scene. Institutions are preserved and revered. When the public is turned on, its affection is unbridled.

And through it all, the city has had a sense of humor.

In a town long crazy about sports call-in shows on the radio, one popular fixture is the wildly irreverent "Sports Huddle," conducted by three moonlighters from other fields - real estate man Jim McCarthy, lawyer Mark Witkin and insurance salesman Eddie Andelman.

They are astute, knowledgeable and funny, dedicated to exposing local sportswriters and sportscasters as free-loading apologists for the home team and to parodying the blind faith of some fans.

"I could never understand the mentality of somebody whose life's dream would be filled," Andelman once said, "if he could geo to the Red Sox locker room and have Carl Yastrzemski say, 'Pass the Desenex.'"

The trio has a great flair for the outragious. When the New England Patriots were decimated by injuries that left them without experienced guards. "The Huddle" vowed to help and placed an on-air call to Buckingham Palace.

Another speciality is milking sacred cows: the Harvard-Yale football game, for example, which is grandly ballyhooed every year as The Game. Once, on the eve of the contest, the Sports Huddlers made a national phone survey to see whom prominent people were picking to win.

They called the warden of the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan, and asked the consensus of inmate opinion about The Game.

"What are you talking about?" the warden asked.

"You know. The Game," persisted Andelman. "The Hahvands versus the Yales. You must have some old Crimsons and Blues in your establishment. Check among the embezzlers."

Boston is an old city with a young population - students and career prople who have gone to school here, fallen in love with the area and stayed or returned.It is a city that appreciate character tradition, and opportunity to turn an event into a happening.

The Boston marathon - run every patriots Day, a legal holiday celebrated only in massachesetts - is the oldest and most prestigious foot race in America. Last Monday, the 81st running attracted nearly 3,000 entries and something on the order of a million spectators.

The Boston fan is a spirityal descendant of the old vaudevilian who welcomes any occasion to adjust his straw boater to a rack angle and do a spirited little soft shoe.

He was symbolized for many years by a character named Bleetcher Seetz in th drawings of local cartoonist Vic Johnson.he was the ever-present fan - enthusuastic, loving, but capable of raising his moustache disapprovingly at unworthy performances, questionable decisions or inferior opponents.

The Bruins just won their quarterfinal series in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Celtics are in the Eastern Conference senifinals of the National Basketball Association playoffs, but neither has packed the 15,000-seat Boston Garden consistently.

The Celtics drew 453,672 spectators for 35 regular-season games in Hartford, Conn.), and average of 12,962. That was down slightly from last season's record-setting attendance of 484,056 for 36 dates, an average of 13,446.

The Bruins led the National Hockey League in attendance decrease, drawing 103,463 fewer fans for the 1976-77 regular season than in the previous year. Once a guaranteed sellout for every game, they had only two capacity crowds this year and thousands of unsold seats even for three recent playoff games.

Surprisingly, Boston was never infatuated with the Celtics when the team won 11 NBA championships in 13 years between 1956 and 1969. The Celts always played second fiddle to the Bruins and had to lure fans with giveaways and discounts until the playoffs.

The Bruins were the laughingstock of the NHL much of the time, but their drawing power was well established. The all-time record attendance for Boston Garden is listed as "approximatly 17,000" for a Bruins game against Montreal on Nov. 20, 1928. A footnote explains that the exact figure is unknown because the crowd broke down the doors.

Boston once seemed to have an insatiable appetite for hockey. In the early 1970s, the minor league Boston Braves averaged crows of 12,000 and the Boston Whalers of the World Hockey Association averaged 7,000 at the same time the Bruins were selling out.

But the bubble burst, the Braves and Whalers left town, and how the Bruins are struggling.

The Jacobs brothers of Buffalo, absentee landlords of the Garden and the Bruins, have a terrible, somewhat mysterious image in Boston, where they are considered stingy enough to try and squeeze blood from a turnip and sell it as borscht.

The hockey clientele was not, pardon the expression, in a puckish mood when Orr, the damaged local god, was shipped to the Chicago Black Hawks a year after Esposito was traded to New York.

"They got rid of Orr and Esposito but still raised their ticket prices to pay for multimillion-dollar renovations at the Garden," said one insider. "The fans thought the reparirs to the building were long overdue, anyway, and that as long as the club got rid of the biggest part of its payroll it should have given them a break. The press and public turned on the Bruins and really gave them a beating."

The New England Patriots, who struggled in Boston when they were winning titles in th old American Football League, now play their home games at Schaefer Stadium, midway between Boston and Providence.

They have gained acceptance, but attendance and support are inconsistent. When the Pats clinched their first National Football League playoff berth last fall at home against New Orleans, there were 20,000 empty seats.

The Red Sox hit a postwar-low season attendance of 652,201 in 1965, when they lost 100 games, but picked up to 811, 172 the next year, when they lost only 90 and finished in ninth place in the American League.

Then came "the Impossible Dream" - the 1967 pennant - and 1,727,832 spectators jammed Fenway Park, the ancient, charming bandbox of a stadium that is a throwback to the era when ball clubs had home instead of houses.

Since then the Sox have not drawn fewer than 1,444,718 fans in a season. They are truly the Olde Town Team. When they do well, Bostonians embrace them. When they perform poorly, the citizenry reacts like a lover betrayed.

Tom Yawkey, who had owned the Sox for 43 years, died last July, and Boston honored him by changing the named of a major road from Jersey Street to Yawkey Way.

When the executors of Yawkey's estate announced Thursday that the club was up for sale, it became the lead story in local newspapers. The Herald American devoted nearly the entire top of its front page and ran a photo of Fenway park with a red "For Sale" sign on it.

Dick O'Connell, the Sox' general manager since 1965, quickly dispelled any fears that the team might be moved. "This is the most successful francise in baseball," he said. "And it will always be in Boston."