"I want to know how much profit the Celtics made last year," I tell the friend. "How many millions?"
"Ticket prices," I say. "They're now higher than a Robert Parish turnaround. New England's buried under that parquet there somewhere, and the ticket prices for Celtics and Bruins games are up there over the banners."
This is America, the friend said. "You a Communist or something?"
Soon enough, after the last sparring, the friend found the numbers. Not bad, the friend said. "The Celtics made $ 7.9 million last year. They had a better year than they had on the court."
Obscene, I said. The Celtics had talked about rising costs in defending the ticket hikes, but apparently, the costs hadn't risen that high.
"You are a Communist," the friend said. "The Celtics can't be charging too much because the Garden is sold out. That's how America works. If the fans don't like the prices, then they shouldn't buy the tickets. It's that simple. That's America."
Free market, I guess. Except there is a salary cap that - even if elastic - does limit the prime expense of the Celtics, the cost of labor. Free market for the fans and a little socialism for the owners does add up to weird economics but also $ 7.9 million for the Celtics. Interesting how that works.
So a day later, I ran into another acquaintance, a Celtics season ticket-holder since Larry Bird arrived. He had put together on a little piece of paper his costs of watching Larry Bird since Bird's rookie season. This acquaintance was not smiling.
"I think," this man said, "I'm going to have to take a part-time job at L'il Peach to pay for my tickets this season. And even then, I don't know if I'll have enough money to pay for them."
His Celtics tickets had been rising a solid $ 2 per game for years now, so he had been expecting the usual $ 2 hike. "But I knew they were going to try and milk this chance as much as they could," he said, "because they hiked the playoff tickets so much.
"It used to be playoff tickets cost $ 4 more than the regular tickets - like a year ago, my tickets cost $ 25 during the regular season and $ 29 in the playoffs. But this year they really socked it to us in the playoffs; my $ 27 tickets cost $ 34. When I saw they were going after $ 7 more for a playoff game, instead of $ 4, I knew this was coming."
The man had written his little numbers down on a little piece of paper. His tickets are not the highest, but at least they were once affordable. "Larry's first year," he said, "and it cost me $ 9 a game." It will cost him $ 31 next season, and other tickets will be in the $ 40 range.
To see the Kings?
"Well, that's it," the man said. "If you felt they were spending this money to get somebody who could win them a championship, fine. But I think this'll be the last season for me with season tickets. I can't afford them."
The man saw Larry come in and he'll probably remain to see Larry go out. Which, I surmise, is true of more than a few thousand of the season ticket-holders, whose legions will thin when Larry retires. Celtics crowds of 11,234 - late 1970s numbers - again will be the norm when Bird goes. The Celtics, after all, are the yuppies' team and the yups have had a tough go of it recently; loose change is hard to find.
"I mean," the man went on, "if they would spend this money on players, I'd stick around. But they won't."
Because they can't. The salary cap. This is advantageous business, of course, having expenses that are fixed and income that is freely driven by the market.
So I will add my little bleat one more time. Only out of the sense of fairness. A ticket cap.
The idea may be un-American, but so is the idea of a salary cap. Ticket prices should be capped at . . . well, .0000002 of the salary cap, fixing a Celtic ticket at $ 26 or so. If the Celtics owners can get a break from fixed costs, so should Celtics fans.