Love it or hate it, there's no place like Boston Garden. It's inside a 56-year-old warehouse of a building with fire escapes crawling up its faded yellow bricks. Below it, trains rumble to and from North Station. The elevated Green Line screeches past its front door. To one side, traffic speeds along a curved, raised highway. At the hub of this transportation latticework, at 150 Causeway St., the Garden stands as Boston landmark and last-of-a-kind American basketball and hockey shrine that has, as miraculously as many a home town victory wrought beneath its roof, avoided the wrecker's ball.

On a pure blue Boston morning, it's windy and cool. Causeway Street, shaded by the elevated, features fast food, the Half Time bar, a shoe repair, a bookstore with a front-rack selection that includes "Bill Walton's Total Book of Bicycling," "Flutie," "Power Basics of Basketball" and "Secrets of the Super Athletes." Worn men shuffle past. Younger men wearing black suits and carrying little black cases hurry into a side door, train men on their way to work on the Boston and Maine. It's an area of small parking lots. In the middle of one is a phone booth with the windows knocked out and the line dead.

On game night, crowds swarm the street. Hockey's Bruins have been eliminated but, as usual, the Celtics are alive and in the NBA playoffs. People jam the entrance hall like a human mass in a grainy V-E Day film clip. Got to get inside, got to be there for the tap. A haze hangs, dust raised by tramping feet.

Inside is a labyrinth. Narrow corridors, stairwells, pillars, ramps. Solve the maze and there it is, the Garden (the Gahden!), with its steeply pitched seats and ancient parquet court, white-hot lights, Celtics and Bruins championship banners hanging from the ceiling, the organ playing. Sweet home or unrelenting pit, depending on the viewpoint.

Here come the Celtics for the introductions. The public-address system is drowned in crowd noise. Everyone is on his feet. Talk about a home-court advantage, it's the only place in America where 14 men are on the court as the game is about to start: two teams, two officials and -- two guys from out of the seats! Two revved-up Celtics fans, waving and screaming, right out there on the edge of the parquet.

Only in Boston, only at the Garden.

The Garden?

"Let me put it this way," says Red Auerbach, former Celtics coach and general manager who now is the team's president. The Garden is owned by the corporation that owns the Bruins; the Celtics are the tenants. Auerbach, 67, no longer red- but gray-haired, is sitting at his desk, puffing furiously on one of his first cigars of the morning.

"This building lacks air conditioning, an adequate sound system, it has no escalators, it has plastic seats. There's over a thousand obstructed-view seats (500 to 600 by other counts). Most seats are behind the baskets. So can you think of anything else?"

Auerbach has just gotten in, and his phone keeps ringing. Callers want playoff tickets.

"Havlicek's around," Auerbach says. "Guys like that, they're comin' out of the woodwork."

Another call.

"Going crazy," he says into the receiver.

He looks up. "Hey, Steve," he shouts to an aide in the next room.

"Yeah, boss," comes the reply.

Auerbach's office, an eighth-floor corner overlooking the expressway, is a small museum. Its assorted memorabilia include a faded green-and-gold Washington Capitols warmup jacket (Auerbach coached the team for three seasons in the late '40s); a Dr. James Naismith "Peachbasket" plaque; a Boston Medal for Distinguished Achievement; a hundred or so letter openers, which he collects, and scores of framed photos, among them a smoky black-and-white of big Bill Russell and Auerbach with their backs to the camera, the towering Russell leaning his elbow atop his mentor's shoulder.

The room would be worth reassembling in a new Boston Garden. A proposal to build a new Garden directly behind the old one is scheduled to be considered this year by the state legislature. The building could be up by 1989. Auerbach will believe it when he sees it. He's heard talk before. Asked, "What's the latest?" on a new Garden, he rasps from behind smoke, "There's no latest. Same old thing, year in and year out."

Meanwhile, Boston is left with a cherished relic. Few arenas are anything like it. Philadelphia's Palestra and the Chicago Stadium might be two. The hockey Forum in Montreal is a Canadian version. Old Madison Square Garden had similar character. But what arena evokes the passion Boston Garden does? Its lack of modern facilities was never more evident than during Game 5 of last June's NBA championship series between the Celtics and Lakers. The temperature inside hit 97 degrees. The Lakers didn't know what hit them (121-103, Celtics), but at least they survived with an oxygen cannister; the Celtics eschewed oxygen and cooled themselves with wet towels. The Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said: "It was like going to a local steam bath with your clothes on, and doing 100 push-ups, and then running back and forth for 48 minutes."

But Auerbach has others things on his mind besides a new Garden. The question of the day in Boston is: can the Celtics regain lost momentum and beat Detroit? The answer, of course, is: of course. It's only the quarterfinals, which are tied, 2-2. "Nothin' new," Auerbach says. "I think in the nine championships I coached, I'd say there were two or three times in the final series when we lost the first game."

As if propelled by the horrid thought, he's on his feet and off to practice. Down an elevator to the bowels of the building. Along a hallway, around a corner to the left, then a right. The Celtics are shooting around at both ends of the court. Auerbach sits at the press table, at midcourt. He relights. At this stage of the season, he says, "You play 'em like every game is the living end."

Bird keeps pouring balls into the net. "He just loves to play, loves to play," Auerbach says. "He's the most highly motivated athlete I ever had."

As the cornerstone of Auerbach's most recent reconstruction of the Celtics, Bird has accepted the most responsibility for preserving the "Celtic tradition" Auerbach keeps mentioning. That "tradition" makes other teams want to beat the Celtics -- does it ever! The Lakers can't wait to try again. But opponents often have been confounded by the finely balanced units Auerbach has assembled. The Garden itself has been another obstacle, and the customary 14,890 in it. "The people here like to win," says Auerbach. "They're used to winning. We sell out here every game. It's a great feeling here."

And that floor, that's another advantage for the Celtics, who've memorized every dip and crack in its crumbling surface. What, by the way, is that piece of floor doing sticking up over there by the foul circle? And all those dead spots you can hear as the Celtics dribble around in practice?

"Every year or so, we put in new pieces," Auerbach says.

Replace it? Never.

"This is probably the most famous basketball court in the world, Boston's parquet floor," he says.

Scott Wedman and Bird are popping jumpers, moving in an arc from the left corner to the right. Rick Carlisle is feeding Wedman, and M.L. Carr is feeding Bird. Wedman and Bird are making all their shots. "They're the two best shooters on the team," says Auerbach, wreathed in smoke.

Wedman misses his 10th and last shot. Bird, right behind him, goes up for his corner jumper. He doesn't get up too high, but hangs suspended an extra second, taking dead aim like a game was riding on this shot, not just a game with Wedman. Swish. "He's the ideal player," Auerbach says.

A visitor to the Garden also can be enlightened by meeting Eddie Lee, who is older than the building. Lee, 76, is the only employe to have worked there since it opened. Finding him is the trick. Nobody's seen him this morning, but a guard says he's back in supply if he's anywhere.

The supply room is under the stands, way under, behind two front-end loaders. There, among cans of wax and rolls of paper, is Lee, standing in dim light given off by a bare bulb.

"What do you want to know?"

A slender man, Lee is wearing a maroon cardigan and smoking a cigar. He says he's a Bruins fan, and loved Eddie Shore. "A tough, great player," he says, mentioning the night in 1933 that Shore fractured the skull of Toronto's Ace Bailey.

The most memorable event in Garden history?

"The Beatles."

The Beatles?

"They were the big thing."

What about the Bruins?

"Shore and (Lionel) Hitchman were the two defensemen."

What about Bobby Orr?

"Good as they come. Shore was tougher."

One night, he says, in the midst of a Bruins victory celebration, some fan "took the goal out of the building. The whole cage. Walked right out with it. It was never recovered. The police looked for quite a while, but never could come up with it."

The Celtics?

"Cousy was my favorite. He was small compared to some players today, but he was very elusive, quick. Dribbled behind his back. Terrific."

Bird?

"I haven't seen Bird, to be frank. I don't come in nights."

So Lee -- who's worked as a timekeeper, in purchasing, as building superintendent and, now, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. in supply -- hasn't quite seen it all. But he's seen enough. "We had the rodeo here. Boxing, of course. Home shows. A ski show. They built a ramp from the second balcony, they'd come down and take off in the middle of the arena and land in bales of hay up against a wall."

He's sitting, now, behind a big dusty desk, thumbing through sheets of yellow paper on which he's kept a list of events and dates. "Hell Drivers, that was 1937. Lucky Teter. You wouldn't have heard of him. He got killed somewhere.

"Let's see, 1930, '40, '50, '60. Long time.

"What else?"

When are they going to tear down the Garden?

"Never. This Garden'll be here when a lot of people are gone."

The Garden was silent when it was empty but now it's filled for the Celtics-Pistons. Cousy, still around, is up in the balcony, doing TV. A banner: "Bird's Nest." A sign: "Larry Bird, Nobody Does It Better." Many wear Celtic green; a man has on a green "Indiana Bird" jersey. Another has a big green No. 1 finger, which he keeps waving.

The Pistons are booed. The officials, too. The seats are so close to the court it's like a hundred people sitting in your parlor, yelling.

Amid the din, the Celtics play like a symphony.

Carr comes in briefly and goes out without scoring and you'd judge by the twin ovations that Michael Jackson or the Pope, or both, had passed by.

Yet, there are doubters. The Celtics lead by only one at the half; it's as if they're trailing.

"I've never been a fan of (Robert) Parish's."

"They may lose it."

"I tell you, you've got to blame (coach) K.C. (Jones) a little for this. He thought it was so important to win the most games. Now they're tired."

To start the fourth period, Parish, the Celtics' center, deposits a one-handed jam devastating enough to make a believer of the skeptic. Bird gets 17 points in the period alone, a playoff career high of 43.

Then comes one last, mighty roar, matching the one given at the introductions, as Bird rebounds, races down the middle of the court, dribbles behind his back, passes off to Dennis Johnson for an open jumper. This is one of those shots that can't miss: If it's not true, it'll be willed in by the crowd.

Final: 130-123, Celtics. Cars are bumper to bumper under the el. Horns blare, but nobody's in a hurry. A man standing out in traffic unfurls a large Boston Celtics banner. Sidewalk vendors hawk Celtics wares. Bostonians go home happy. Of their last 20 playoff games in the Garden, the Celtics have won 19. It's love in the ruins.