"Lessons learned are like bridges burned, you only need to cross them but once."

Dan Fogelberg Copyright (c) 1977, Hickory Grove Music

The game between the Boston Celtics and the Houston Rockets last week had been billed as a battle between the once-and-present kings and those with aspirations to the throne. For much of the night, it seemed a palace coup was imminent.

Spurred on by a sellout crowd and buoyed by 60 percent first-quarter shooting, the Rockets, undefeated in eight previous games at the Summit, were burning. Burning so brightly, in fact, it was easy to ignore any number of flaws that seemed so minor at the time.

There was 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson losing the ball at midcourt by dribbling behind his back in an attempt to force a fast break through a maze of players. And there was 7-foot center Akeem Olajuwon throwing 40-foot outlet passes that went 20 feet farther than needed.

Eventually, those flaws proved fatal. The Celtics never lost their poise and won the game by 10 points.

When are the lessons learned and the bridges burned? Two nights later, Houston looked nearly flawless in dismantling the Atlanta Hawks, 116-102, on the road, only to return home the following night and lose again, this time, 94-86, to a mediocre Seattle team.

"It's like an apple. You have to let it get ripe," says Bill Fitch, Houston's coach and resident philosopher. "You can be as hungry as hell but if you eat it when it's green, your tummy's really gonna hurt.

"The start we had, opening on national television, going 8-0, even playing the Celtics tough, that's like sunshine beaming on the apple."

Judging from the team's 4-6 record since its surprising opening, it's obvious that the sun hasn't been shining as brightly on the Rockets of late. But there also is little doubt about the extended forecast.

The present problems come from Houston fans who are terribly hungry, as well as NBA watchers who are expecting the Rockets to reflect the credo of former Redskins Coach George Allen: "The future is now."

In Houston's case, the expectations aren't fueled by the thought of winning with a group of veterans. It's very much the opposite. They must win with a team whose key players are almost devoid of NBA experience.

Half the players on the 12-man roster have less than two years experience, including the starting front line. The Indiana Pacers, for example, averaging 23.9 years, are less than a year younger than the Rockets (24.8), but aren't supposed to go anywhere but to the bottom of the Central Division standings.

The Pacers don't have Sampson, a three-time collegiate player of the year, No. 1 NBA pick and last season's rookie of the year, who has teamed with Olajuwon, shot-blocker supreme and the first pick in June's draft. Joining them up front is forward Rodney McCray, "just" the third pick in the 1983 draft.

The fact that Houston does have these talented players can only be attributed to mediocrity and a little bit of luck. An NBA finalist against Boston in the 1980-81 season, Houston had a a woeful 14-68 record just two years later. That cost Coach Del Harris his job, but gave the team Sampson via the first pick in the draft the following June.

"They'll always remember me and love me for that," jokes Harris, now a scout with the Milwaukee Bucks.

But even with Sampson averaging 21 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, the Rockets again finished last in the NBA, albeit with a 29-53 record that was twice as good as the previous season's.

Winning their second consecutive predraft coin flip, the Rockets selected Olajuwon, who chose to enter the NBA after three seasons at the University of Houston. The choice fueled some of the most spirited offseason talk in recent years.

Could Sampson make the adjustment from center to forward, allowing the two men to play together? Would they be allowed to play together, or would the Rockets trade one in order to improve other deficiencies?

There was talk of a blockbuster deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, with names like Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy and Byron Scott being bandied about, but by the start of training camp, the team had decided to make a go of it.

And, according to most observers, if anything made the Rockets this season, it was the grueling two-a-day workouts at Houston Baptist University during the early part of October.

"I don't even enjoy my camps, but coming out in shape has been more important than anything else," says Fitch. "At first, we looked like a bunch of yahoos, but as time went on we got better."

Judging from the early part of their exhibition schedule, yahoos would be too kind a word for what the Rockets looked like. At various times, all too often simultaneously, Olajuwon looked like a wooden Indian out on the floor while Sampson showed no knowledge of where the lane was and no inclination to find out.

"People were talking about how bad they looked, but the coach was just experimenting, finding out what each player could do," says Atlanta Coach Mike Fratello. "Neither of these guys are Larry Bird -- dribbling out into the corner and hitting a three-pointer or working a perfect give and go -- but they do pose a different problem and it took time for them to figure out exactly how to best exploit it."

According to swing man Robert Reid, the only Rockets player left from 1981, that process often was excruciating. "Once we spent an entire 2 1/2-hour practice working on just one play and its options. Whenever something went wrong, he'd make us stop and do it over, saying that's what they did in Boston.

"Some people would go, 'Who cares? You're not in Boston any more,' but then you realized what he accomplished there."

During four seasons with the Celtics, all Fitch did was average more than 60 victories per season and beat Houston in 1981 for the club's 14th championship. Known as a jovial jokester while coaching the woefully inept Cleveland Cavaliers during their initial five seasons in the NBA, Fitch seemed to tense up with each year in Boston until he resigned -- some say he was forced out -- after the 1982-83 season.

Today, Fitch says he's having as much fun "as is possible in this business," and watching him seems to bear that out. Unlike in Boston, the coach is rarely off the bench to scream at officials or players, explaining, "Sometimes I see Akeem in the middle of something but I'm not able to help him out of it. There's nothing I can do for any of them at that point."

But if Fitch at times appears to be preoccupied with the Celtics in his job with the Rockets, it's because he's trying to fashion a team in their image, and with noticeable success.

"They're going to be good because they have the perfect team for the Western Conference," says Boston's Kevin McHale. He bangs his forearm against a brick wall. "We're used to it in the East but no one here plays as physically as they do."

Adds Fitch, "That's how you have to play to beat the Bostons and the Philadelphias. Not to take anything from the teams out here, but in the long haul that's what you need to win the championship."

If that's the case, the Rockets are well on their way. So far this season, the team is outrebounding opponents by 10 per game and holding the opposition to 45 percent shooting from the field, the fourth best mark in the league. The Rockets also are blocking an average of nine shots per game; with a fifth of the season gone, the team is second in the NBA in blocked shots, but at a pace ahead of the record 655 set by the Hawks in 1982-83.

Excited by the team's potential, the fans also are on their way to some records. There have been six sellouts in 10 home games and the next full house will equal the team's regular season mark set in '81-82. The average attendance of 15,521 is 96.9 percent of the Summit's capacity.

Most of those fans are coming out to see the Sampson-Olajuwon combination, one that can only get better as time goes by. In Olajuwon's case, that means getting accustomed to life in the NBA. As early as the exhibition season, Olajuwon (a native of Nigeria who has been playing organized basketball for just five years), was complaining of fatigue, a beef that has yet to subside.

"I'm getting used to playing but there's just so much travel," Olajuwon said after the Boston game. "We played the night before in San Antonio, here tonight, travel tomorrow and play Friday, come back and play Saturday . . . I get very tired."

Yet, he averages 18 points and 11 rebounds a game and is not too worn out to experience some of the largesse afforded by his six-year, $7 million contract. When at home in Houston, Olajuwon drives a $65,000 automobile (the license plates spelling "Dreem"). Life on the road provides other wonders. Last week in Atlanta, he spent over $800 on 13 pairs of shoes. When asked if the salesman had thrown in a free pair, Olajuwon said no but then smiled: "I got big discount."

Sampson didn't participate in the footwear extravaganza, instead buying a mere six pairs for his sister Joyce, a sophomore at Radford College near Roanoke, Va.

A basketball player herself, Joyce had instructed her big brother to avoid flashy styles. "I guess she's in a Plain Jane stage right now," said Sampson, who, noting the lack of any kind of heel on each of the pairs purchased, added, "She's 6-2 and I guess she doesn't want to be 6-8."

Leading the Rockets with over 20 points a game and getting nearly 10 rebounds per game, Sampson obviously has adjusted well to his height and life outside the lane. Once he was hesitant to express his thoughts in the presence of veterans like Calvin Murphy, Elvin Hayes and Caldwell Jones. Their departure has given Sampson the opportunity to become team leader, a role that he is coming to relish.

"With those other guys, there was no way I should have come in and taken over," says Sampson. "Everyone follows their own path but I want to be the satellite that they all revolve around."

With his arms spread wide, directing traffic on both offense and defense, Sampson, the team's captain, often resembles exactly that. When things like dribbling behind his back are going right, as they did in a 30-point effort against the Hawks, opponents probably would compare Sampson to some sort of futuristic nightmare.

"If I'm having more fun this season than last, it's because I know what the deal is," says Sampson. "What is it that people say, 'Becoming part of the program?' It's true. People see young legs, a young body and think you can just go out there and play. I did, too. I tried to do everything in the first quarter and didn't have anything left over by the end of the game."

That has rarely been the problem this season. Now, according to Sampson, it's time for the Rockets to learn that same lesson. "We have to be more like Boston. They'll stand by the door and stand by the door and then when the fourth quarter comes, they let all the horses out and bust things wide open."

Reid thinks that the Sampson-Olajuwon combination will allow the team to do just that. "What's going to happen is that a mystique will develop around the two of them," he says. "Then, when the team gets better, it will be like the New York Knicks in the early '70s.

"Remember how there always was Reed, Bradley, DeBusschere, Frazier and Monroe? You knew what they would do and you couldn't wait to see it. That's how people will start thinking about Houston."