HINGHAM - Mike Rotondi's season tickets to Celtics games could not be any choicer - four front-row seats at center court - but there were many times over the past decade when he had trouble getting someone to sit in them.
"I'd have to make a lot of calls to fill those three seats," recalled Rotondi, 61. "Now, one phone call, that does it."
That, and one winning team. With the NBA's best record, three electrifying All-Star players, and boisterous crowds at the TD Banknorth Garden, the Celtics are back. But the sweetest vindication belongs to longtime season ticket-holders who never went away.
For them, this annus mirabilis is a reward for enduring many an annus horribilis. They stuck with the Celtics during the wilderness years, when on-court mediocrity prompted off-court ridicule from friends, co-workers, and family members who couldn't understand why they didn't switch their allegiance to a winning local team. After all, while the Celtics were sinking, the Red Sox and Patriots were soaring.
"For the last 10 years, I've heard the snickering behind my back when I would leave work and say, 'I'm going to the Celtics game,' " said John Nucci, 55, vice president for external affairs at Suffolk University and a season ticket-holder since the early 1970s.
Year after dismal year, long after Larry Bird had traded his Celtics uniform for a business suit, these diehard fans ponied up thousands of dollars - a pair of season tickets can cost upward of $10,000 for great seats - to watch a generally subpar product. It sometimes raised eyebrows on the home front or at the office.
"My wife used to give me a hard time: 'You're wasting your money,' " recalled Steve Devine, a 54-year-old Hopkinton architect and season ticket-holder since 1979. Joe Nowlan, a 53-year-old magazine editor from the North End who has had season tickets since 1980, got used to hearing this refrain: "You're still going?"
Yes, he's still going. And these days, he has a lot of company.
The Green are golden again in the eyes of the ever-fickle Hub, and the Celtics bandwagon is bulging with fair-weather fans. Curiously, the diehards do not seem to resent this. They're just happy to finally have some company in the Garden. No longer must they listen to the echo of their own handclaps. No longer must they look up at darkened corporate boxes or down at rows of empty seats.
"This year has been just unbelievable," exulted Devine. "Nobody expected it to be this good. . . . I like it, because the place is now alive." He added jokingly: "It stinks at the beer line, though, because I have to stand there a little longer."
There is an undeniable buzz around the Celtics, thanks largely to a pair of dazzling newcomers, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who have joined with veteran star Paul Pierce to return the team to a long-vanished place of prominence. Not since the fabled "Big Three" of Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale led the Celtics to their last championship in 1986 have the Green generated such excitement.
"You'll have a Tuesday night game against a so-so team, and the place will be pretty full," said Nowlan, in tones of wonderment. "It had been a while since I'd seen that happen."
Rotondi, the owner of Boyle & Chase Inc., a national door hardware distributor, has seldom missed a game since 1981, when he purchased season tickets. Even sportswriters, he says, have voiced surprise over the years that he kept showing up, night after night. No one is asking that question this year.
"This year is the first year that the Garden has had anything like the electricity the Garden had in the 1980s," Rotondi said. "The place is pretty crazy these days."
For all their present jubilation, though, these Celtics devotees are never more than one flashback away from some very bad memories.
The 1996-1997 season, when the Celtics won only 15 games. The shocking deaths of Celtics star Reggie Lewis in 1993 and top draft pick Len Bias in 1986. Bird's retirement in 1992. The dark day in 1997 when Rick Pitino, the head coach and chief of basketball operations, stripped Celtics legend Red Auerbach of his title as team president. The endless palaver about "rebuilding" via a "youth movement." The endless promises about "next year."
So why did they keep going to the games? Out of loyalty to the team, a love of basketball, and a conviction that true fans don't desert even a sinking ship, they say. Still, it wasn't easy.
"When you live and die with the fortunes of a team, it can be joyful, but also incredibly painful," noted Nucci.
Now, the joy is back and the Garden is rocking every game.
As these diehards settle in for Celtics home games, all the seats around them are occupied. But there are some people who will not be sitting in those seats. It's one thing, the diehards say, to grant a general amnesty to the born-again hoop aficionados now filling up the Garden. But it's quite another to share their own seats with fair-weather fans now that the long years of struggle have finally blossomed into a year of triumph.
Declares Nucci: "Now I say 'If you didn't call me then, don't call me now.' "
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.