Basketball officials are what Don Rickles would come up with if somebody demanded he create a species of sport. They are to be laughed at and abused, a convenient crutch for teams and their fans in defeat.

What else should Manny Sokol be doing?

What he should not be doing today is pacing back and forth on a picket line outside arenas during the NBA playoffs. Sokol and 23 colleagues are calling a technical on the NBA -- and they are right.

The NBA telling us its best show hardly will skip a beat without all but two of its 26 officials is like the Bullets trying to convince themselves they can beat the Cleveland Cavaliers without playing defense. Evidence for both was offered last week -- it smelt.

The Washington-Cleveland playoff returns to Capital Centre today at 1:30 p.m. in part because Tom Henderson played like he was wearing cement sneakers whenever Foots Walker came his way with the ball Friday and hardly anyone bothered to block out under the defensive boards.

So Cleveland bricks quickly became Cleveland baskets. The Bullets' small forwards were 0-for-15 in Cleveland. And for the third straight year the Bullets are showing all the knockout instincts and court savvy of a pickup team. Where is Tommy McVie? At least his guys worked all the time.

In addition to giving the Bullets another chance, their faithful will endure, although hardly appreciate, another session with at least one minor-league official trying to overcome a case of awe and stage fright amid 10 oversized egos who, in their own minds, have never committed a foul in their lives.

This is another classic example of pro sports, where everybody pays more for less.And the NBA has shown an uncommon grasp for greed, passing off as meaningful an 82-game schedule that fails to eliminate even half the teams from the playoffs.

Now the league is saying a collection of minor-league officials are capable of doing what its own very top men often find frustrating. For when NBA teams care, as they do in the playoffs, their speed and quickness make officiating the toughest job in sports.

There are so many instant decisions, so many angles to watch and so much of the court to cover so quickly. And so many overwhelming men to keep relatively tame. If Moses and Solomon, in Pumas, could not adequately oversee everything in a heated NBA game, the playoffs are not the time to break in such as Roger McCann.

Probably, the best of the minor-league officials -- and McCann apparently is one of them -- are not drastically worse than the low-level NBA referee. The point is that neither should be trusted with the playoffs.

In the Bullet-Cavalier first game Wednesday night McCann, who had "homer" tendencies, suffered much abuse, something that might have been corrected with one or two early technical fouls.

Then, midway through the fourth quarter, when McCann finally seemed to be exerting himself, a longtime NBA official, Richie Powers, spoiled it all with as tasteless a gesture as one can imagine.

Powers hit the height of his profession in game five of the Celtics-Suns championship series last year, when he had the courage not only to make a gutsy call in Boston but also to face an angry crowd immediately afterward.

When he pulled McCann by the belt away from an argument with Elmore Smith Wednesday night, Powers hit the pits. When McCann needed all the help he could get, Powers had to refuel his own considerable ego.

"Trying to talk to Richie Powers is like trying to get an audience with the Pope," Cleveland coach Bill Fitch said later.

The important point to remember in the fuss between the NBA and its officials is that Sokol and his gang are paid generously in relation to ordinary workers -- Jake O'Donnell drives to picket duty in a Cadillac -- but terribly in relation to the men they are supposed to police.

There are splinter gatherers scattered throughout the league, players nearly rivited to the bench, that make three times as much as most of the good officials in the NBA. If the teams can afford six-figure salaries for players of little consequence, the league can afford to better pay the men to whom it trusts much integrity and authority. And give them more security, so other competent men will be attracted to a nomadic existence with little appreciation.

"I've gotten tired of people like Tom Heinsohn and other coaches saying the officiating by these new guys is great," said Denver's Larry Brown. "It's not. It reminds me of the early days of the ABA, when they picked guys off the street."

In his brief tenure as NBA commissioner, Larry O'Brien has done much to be admired. Too bad he now is being upstaged by Manny Sokol.