Open practice, October 4, 7:00 p.m., KeyArena: I try not to get my hopes up, I really do, but I can't squelch the fresh memory of that first psychophysical burst of pure addictive epinephrine as I witnessed rookie Desmond Mason soar upward and forward in photogenic slo-mo toward the southend hoop to deliver a backboard-rattling, hinge-bending dunk that sent a ripple of thrill coursing through the 1,000 or so rag-tag basketball junkies seated, all agog and abuzz, in the upper tiers of the courtside bleachers. Yes, that's the game, often enough: reducible to a single moment in stop-time, electrified and amplified by the explosive shock of a body's impossible grace and power. Mason looked good. On the hardwood, he's got that indefinable presence of being (think of Jordan) to which your spectating eyes are continuously drawn.And then, of course, none of us present at that evening's showbiz practice needed to consult the roster to figure out which jersey number correlated to the particular person of Patrick Ewing--the 7-foot, 255-pound, 38-year-old former Knick and All-Star center with hands, I swear, bigger than my whole head, and knees brittle as glass hubcaps. Like Mason and Gary Payton, Ewing is infinitely watchable; huge smiles, he radiates a kind of old-school NBA aplomb. About those knees, though, a few perspicacious words to keep in mind: "The real pro," Bill Bradley wrote in his book Life on the Run, "is... the veteran who tests his body each year to see if he still has it, knowing that some day he won't." So will he, or won't he? Already he's resting sore joints after every practice. If he does have it, what Ewing brings to the Hollywood shuffle of the Western Conference, and the piss-poor rebounding of the Sonics in particular, is the body-banging and unrepentant brute play typical of East Coast hoops.

That said, my second vicarious adrenaline thrill came when Vin Baker--fresh off the plane from Australia, where he and Payton pegged Olympic gold--strolled in late to watch his team run drills. The crowd erupted for Baker, which, considering his markedly less-than-stellar and sometimes downright depressing weeble-wobble season last year, was oddly inspiring. Vin's back in shape, no doubt. Ewing, spotting him, ran right over and gave Baker a big happy hug, and that did it for me. The fix was on. I was locked in. It happens every goddamn season and there's nothing I can do about it. Despite my best efforts, despite feeling burned by the Sonics' chronic recidivistic chumping in post season, despite the endless soap operas on and off the court and the egregious mismanagement of personnel, I get hooked all over again, just sloshed and bug-eyed on the mainline speed and heartbreaking beauty of this game.

Pre-season Vegas odds, last time I checked, put the Sonics at 35-1 for a title. Huh. This means absolutely nothing to me, really. The upcoming season could be a miracle or a disaster, or ugly and gorgeous both, with a finish like champagne or maybe strychnine. But I'm not here to predict. I'm here to attend and testify, because the parameters of the game run counter to the world's mindless chaos, like religion: There's mythological grace under monumental pressure; poetry in motion; unambiguous resolutions when the final buzzer drops like a guillotine on dueling squads. I'm addicted to the sheer heart-attack whiplash unscripted human drama of basketball because I can understand its tensions and triumphs, I can monitor its congested play of individual forces circumscribed by time. I like what Woody Allen said recently in The New York Times: "It's hard to be reasonable about a phenomenon so irrationally joyful as basketball." But I'll try.