BOSTON (AP) -- When airline ticket agents and curious strangers asked Jeff Mann what he had in his carry-on luggage, ''a piece of flooring'' was his usual reply.
He wasn't lying, but he wasn't exactly telling the whole tale, either.
In fact, Mann was carrying the most famous flooring in sports, chunks of the parquet surface on which the Boston Celtics played for 54 years, during which they won 16 NBA titles.
The panels of Tennessee red oak, retired from the FleetCenter last December, are smudged with basketball history, the marks of Bob Cousy and John Havlicek and Larry Bird.
On Monday, 20 pieces of parquet, plus a larger panel with the famous leprechaun that marked center court, go up for auction online at Sotheby's, with proceeds going to the team, the FleetCenter and to charity.
To get the pieces ready for sale, Mann spent eight months poring over videos and photographs, trying to match the famous basketball moments to the small individual panels that comprised the floor. The floor's unique panel design helped him find precise locations by counting how many panels stood between the site of famous plays and identifiable markers like the free throw line.
''If it had been a traditional floor, it would have just been a best guess,'' he said.
Mann then lugged the pieces across the country, tracking down the autographs of the men who helped make the parquet famous.
Like most kids growing up in Boston in the 1980s, Mann lived, ate and breathed Celtics basketball. A job as unofficial custodian of the sacred relic of the franchise was a dream come true.
''The parquet floor in and of itself is something else,'' said Mann, 28. ''When I came here to work at the FleetCenter, to walk on the floor for the first time was quite an experience. But then to actually follow through and figure out this is where Havlicek stole the ball (to seal the 1965 Eastern Conference finals) after it being so entrenched in your mind. ... That was exciting.''
The floor has 264 panels, each 1 1/2 inches thick and 5-feet square. Some of the pieces not for sale will remain in storage and possibly be auctioned later, while others will be given away to longtime Celtics supporters.
The starting bid on the center court panel is $75,000, said Sotheby's spokesman Matt Robins. The starting bids for the other panels range from $5,000 to $10,000, he said.
''That's a starting point. I think the fans of the Celtics will place their own value on these pieces,'' he said.
Most of the parquet pieces for auction hold a pro-Celtics bias, but a few mark memorable plays by opponents, including the Los Angeles' Magic Johnson and Phoenix's Gar Heard, whose shot forced a third overtime in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals.
Mann carried pieces of the floor to Los Angeles for the autograph of former guard Dennis Johnson. In North Carolina, he chatted with Robert Parish on the former center's back porch. Mann found Larry Bird in Indianapolis, though he admits he failed miserably to make small talk with the legend.
Once he got Bird's autograph, he was terrified to risk losing the piece by shipping it back to Boston. So he rented a car and drove home, stopping just once for four hours of sleep in a hotel and keeping the piece by him constantly.
All told, he covered 12,000 miles, met nearly all his childhood heroes and got paid for it all the while.
''This floor has pretty much seen every corner of the country,'' he said.
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