Boston Garden sits like a prisoner on death row, sentenced to obsolescence by the $160 million arena next door.

Hunkered beneath a cloud of dust raised by a massive highway tunnel project and eaten from the inside out by souvenir hunters and workers removing asbestos, the old barn is a dusty shell.This weekend, the final phase of the demolition began. The cranes knocked the last breath out of a place that once roared with life, providing a stage for Bobby Orr, the champion Celtics and everything from rock 'n' roll to rodeos.

With less than a foot of space separating the old building from the new FleetCenter, the destruction will not be dramatic. The building will come down the way it went up - piece by piece.

Those who lived their professional lives there, along with scores of die-hard fans, Garden employees and pigeons, have precious little time to bid farewell to the Titanic place they used to call home as it comes down below the adjacent elevated Southeast Expressway.

"It's ironic, really, that I would have to issue permits for the demolition," said Martin Pierce, the Boston fire commissioner and coach of the Matignon High School hockey team, which won five state titles in the Garden. As a child living in the nearby Charlestown section of the city, Pierce used to sell papers at the Garden.

"You can take down the building, but you can't erase the memories," said Bruin center Milt Schmidt, 79, whose No. 15 was retired and raised to the old rafters.

The memories include a few myths that might as well be torn down along with the building, which opened in 1928.

One is that the Garden was overrun with rats. But, either out of sympathy for the place or because the critters stayed out of sight, no one interviewed for this story would admit to ever seeing one.

The tallest Garden tales involved the Celtics and their cigar-smoking coach, Red Auerbach.

Opponents believed the parquet floor had strategically placed dead spots that gave the Celtics an advantage. Forget it, said John Havlicek.

"There were dead spots, but you never knew where they were going to be," the former Celtic said, "because it depended on how the gang put the floor down on a given night."

The floor, constructed from scraps by the East Boston Lumber Co. during a shortage of materials after World War II, was installed before each game, each section secured by brass screws and bolts. On nights when the crew was a little lax, a square or two might be loose.

But excuses outnumbered dead spots. "If you were dribbling, and you made a mistake with the ball, you would talk about the dead spots," Havlicek said.

The floor survives, having been moved into the FleetCenter in 1995.

So does Auerbach, today a vice chairman of the Celtics' board, who acknowledged that fear of dead spots worked against opponents by "playing with their minds."

All kinds of hoop gremlins sprang from the Garden's bowels. The visiting locker rooms were too warm, and the visitors' showers were cold - a suspected plot concocted by the coach, Auerbach, who also was rumored to have been chomping on the same cigar for about 100 years.

"When the visitors had cold water, we had cold water, too," Havlicek said. "But the other teams always thought Red did it to them on purpose."

"Red didn't dispute any of it. He wanted them to think that he was doing it to them. It gave us an advantage."

Havlicek's - and perhaps the Garden's - greatest moment was when he deflected an inbounds pass by Hal Greer for a 110-109 playoff win over the 76ers in the final seconds of Game 7 of the 1965 NBA Eastern finals.

And that brought another riveting moment: the screaming, gravely voice of late Celtic broadcaster Johnny Most: "Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball! It's all over ..."

The highlight is rivaled only by the image of Bobby Orr flying through the air, lifted off his feet by elation, aided in flight by the stick of St. Louis defenseman Noel Picard, after scoring the winning goal in 1970 to give the Bruins their first Stanley Cup in 29 years.

There is no shortage of memories.

Larry Bird secured a big piece of Garden lore when he stole an inbounds pass from Isiah Thomas and fed Dennis Johnson for a layup and a win over the Detroit Pistons in the 1987 Eastern finals.

A local kid named Tony DeMarco strolled into the Garden from Boston's Italian North End neighborhood on April 1, 1955, and won the welterweight title from Johnny Saxton. After winning, he treated himself to a cab ride home.