Dave Bing and the Boston Celties.

It is one of those bittersweet winter romances. Both have lost some of their beauty, but the affection is real.

"To be wanted and needed again "it feels awful good," said the 34-year-old Bing, who was given his pink slip by the Washington Bullets five months ago.

Seldom has an athlete at the end of a great career wanted to escape his native city as much as Bing wanted to flee Washington.

"I couldn't bear the thought of coming back to the Bullets and going through it all again. I heard what people said, 'Bing hung around too long. He lost it all overnight. He just can't play anymore.'

"Lord, that's an awful sour taste to end on."

The taste is considerably better now.

"David has been everything I hoped in a third guard and a little more," Celtic general manager Red Auerbach said. "He's been our most consistent player all year.

"He's a hell of a kid," added the 60-year-old patriarch, who thinks Bing is still in his basketball knickers. "A real leader Everyone likes to play with him because he understands the game.

"If everyone on this team were playing like Dave Bing," Auerbach added, with undisguised menace, we'd be 14-7 instead of 7-14 and every body would be talking about that damn Auerbach made another steal under everybody's nose."

"I feel young again," said Bing, who has scored 229 points in 439 minutes in Boston's first 21 games.

"I know I don't do anything as well as I once did," he said, brightening like a born-again Bostonian. "But for 20 minutes a might I can cut loose and play flat out. I can still play like Dave Bing."

Those words burst from Bing like a "free-at-last" declaration. During his two seasons with the Bullets, the man who ranks 15th on the all-time scoring list and seventh in assists felt he was playing with handcuffs on.

"Specialist," Bing said, almost spitting the word out. "Both K. C. Jones and Dick Motta wanted a specialist at point guard to be a ball-handler and jump shooter. They wanted me to play a small-man's game.

"I didn't grow up playing that way. Specialists . . . hey, you can either play the whole game of basketball or you can't. I can do some of everything. Coaches are trying to make the game so hard."

Bing shook his head. "The best part of my game, the thing that sets everything else up, is the drive, I can still get to the basket. Maybe I'll never lose that.

"But in Washington Elvin Hayes stayed in the low post and so that's where everybody on defense congregated. And Wes (Unseld) played a high post. In a clogged, set offense like that how can you drive, or open up the middle or backdoor plays or break down a defense into mis-matches and dish off?"

In other words how could Bing do the things he and the Celtics have always believed in.

In his Detroit days Bing prospered by playing with a mobile center. Bob Lanier, who could shoot from the perimeter, flash from one post to another, or sweep across the lane for a hook.

Now in Dave Cowens, Bing is teaming with an even quicker model of the same agile center.

With the court once more wide open. Bing has his shooting percentage (.456) up to the second best of his career. His scoring average (11 points) is modest, but his all-important points-per-minute ratio - the NBA's true measure of efficiency - is the highest among Celtic regulars and is the third best of Bing's 12-year career.

In a massive shakeup this week, Bing has been given a temporary starting job.

Nevertheless, he has no illusions. The seven-time all-star to be a 20-minute-a-game third guard. After all, Washington gave him his walking papers when all he asked was 12 minutes a game.

In Washington Bing's playing life, after his midseason benching last season was a slap in the face in the face. Even bald, flat-footed Bob Weiss was brought in and moved ahead of him as fourth guard.

"I like Weiss," Bing said, "but he couldn't carry my shoes."

Bing also looked with wounded feelings at first-string youngsters like Tom Henderson and Larry Wright, who played only a fraction of the complete game Bing once mastered.

Now Bing can look at the men ahead of him and still stand tall.

"Jo Jo White and Charlie Scott are great players in their own right. It makes it easy for us to blend together," he said.

Bing is no wonder boy anymore. Once, 10 seasons ago when he led the NBA in scoring (27.1), the lithe guard would take to the sky against anyone - even that bearded pterodactyl, Bill Russell.

No 6-foot-3 player flew so high, stayed aloft so long, nor contorted himself so blithely. Bing's bones were said to be light and hollow as a bird's.

Maybe so. With the years, Bing cracked nearly everything - knee caps, feet, toes, cheek bones, tendons, bones inside one knee.

All the wreckage was just a prelude to the detached retina in one eye that left Bing technically "industrially blind" (20/200 vision) at the height of his career.

Perhaps the Bullets should have looked at Bing's aging physique and seen a launching pad riddled with stress fractures. Instead, they saw an insurance policy for an NBA title.

In time, however, the Bing policy lapsed and he became a symbol of the Bullets' underachievement.

Fortunately, he had long ago grown to a bittersweet basketball life. His almost somber, scholarly face, his quiet voice and unassuming manner fit well on a man whose disappointments have always run neck-and-neck with his triumphs.

That the Celtics should fall on their shamrocks the second Bing arrived seems sadly appropriate.

"It makes it hard to take pleasure in the fact that I'm playing pretty well," he said. "A lot of people are happy the way we're going."

Nevertheless, for Bing, who so recently faced the prospect of entering retirement with a tin can of humiliation tied to his tail, this difficult Celtic season has been a blessing.

"I'm free again to play the way I can. And I know now that I'm not a liability. I can still play my game," Bing said.

"Now I'll be able to do the thing that worried me the most! I'll be able to retire with the respect of my peers."