Where I grew up, you were either smart or you were interested in sports. My friends and I knew where we stood on that one. We sought out only those who felt as strongly as we did about the Fertile Crescent, Keats and Kerouac, or whatever it was that year.

And yet, despite early childhood disadvantages, I have grown up to be a sports fan. Currently my bedside reading features the NBA Official Guide for 1976-77, so that I can add regularly to my list of active basketball players grouped by colleges attended. (I had never known, for example, that Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney were college teammates at Houston.)

I am handicapped by having arrived at the arena so far along in life. As a result of wasted years, I possess no memory bank of shooting percentages, batting averages or yards gained to call upon. Having never played a team sport, I have no bio-memories to hum me the tune of pick and roll, run to daylight, body check or box out. What's worse, I don't know any sports fans. I married a contemplative sort of person, a man of intellectual sinew and moral strength who says that his loathing for all sporting events is the result of having always, in youth, been picked last.I can understand this. But what it means is that mine is a lonely passion. "So how did it all begin?" people, including my husband, ask me.

The jimmy in the lock was a couple of books I read and enjoyed: Lance Rentzel's autobiography and "North Dallas Forty" by Peter Gent.

Next I tuned in to Monday Night Football, where at first, I concentrated on the initial minutes when the announcers were on camera, looking for aberrant signs. But gradually I began to stay for the game, to try to match the things they talked about with what I could see on the field. It was a challenge akin to learning French by riding around on the Metro once a week. Some things - third and long; loss of down; weak side, offside - were like irregular verbs. They just had to be studied and learned.

I became intrigued by the soap opera of sport, the tidbits of information from the broadcast booth which personalized the running numbers on this folky, ferocious new scene. From there it was only a matter of time until I found basketball. You can't see the players in football, for one thing. There are too many of them, too bundled up and too far away. Often it is just a lot of Brownian movement on four. Hike

Whereas basketball - ah, to watch basketball is to see such extraordinary feats. Basically, I like to be amazed. I like suspense within set limits, and the thrill of astonishment - It could not happen! - when somebody does something absolutely impossible right before your eyes.

And basketbal makes it clearer than football. It is less weighted down with formal compaigns and regroupings, less like a war and more like a contest. The individual players contribute kaliedoscopically to the changing combinations on court. The game moves faster, and the season does too. Teams playing three or four times a week provide a greater volume of primary source material with which to work.

The trouble with all this, of course, is that it is addictive and, as they say, leads straight to the hard stuff. Yes, I want to go to the games. No newspaper, or even TV with its maddening cuts, is ever complete or specific enough for me. I know enough now to know that it is better to be there. The problem is that I have nobody to go with. I have taken my son, but it's an expensive indulgence if one of you spends the game with his back to the court looking for lights and the popcorn man.Right now he loves baseball. I'll give him a few years. And by then I'll have finished the Official Rules Section of my NBA Guide (three times and it is yours) and I too will be able to yell at the referees (Get back on the picket line, Manny!). I hope that together Dr. J and I can outdraw the twin perils of the Fertile Crescent and Little League.