As pilgrims have for centuries, the world champion Washington Bullets succumbed to the beauty of the Holy City yesterday, standing awestruck at the holiest shrines of three of the world's major religions and concurring collectively with the Talmud that "Eternity means Jerusalem."

Donning yarmulkas at the Wailing Wall of the Second Temple and lighting candles at the Tomb of Christ in the Holy Sepulchre, the Bullets quickly shrugged off first impressions of Israel found in showy Tel Aviv and tried gamely to absorb 3,000 years of history in an afternoon.

"It's very humbling. It's age. It's power. It's thousands of years. It's really something said General Manager Bob Ferry as he watched his players gape at the Old City with uncharacteristic solemnity.

Wes Unseld, a yarmulka perched precariously atop his afro, silently watched small knots of Jews chanting prayers at the Western ('Wailing') Wall and mused to nobody in particular: "I wonder what it's like to have that much faith?"

Elvin Hayes, running through frames of film on his Nikkormat as quickly as the Capital Centre scoreboard flashes his scoring binges, said, "What can you say? It's the birthplace of Christ. It holds so many things close to you."

Led by team owner Abe Pollin, who said the Bullets' pilgrimage fulfilled a 15-year "special dream," the players and their wives arrived in Israel Tuesday for a week of sightseeing and good will.

They played an exhibition game last night against the Tel Aviv Maccabis at Israel's new Yad Eliahu Sports Palace, where all 10,000 seats were sold out three weeks ago.

Pollin said, however, that the game itself was almost an afterthought and that he arranged the trip because "we have a very special group and I have emotional ties to Israel. Besides, we won the championship."

The Bullets, together for the first time since the Fat Lady sang at Seattle, were in a spirited mood as they rode up from Tel Aviv in the morning to meet Israel's president, Yitzhak Navon, at a reception at the presidential residence.

Pollin introduced everybody in sight as "The best in the world," drawing a friendly rebuke for hyperbole from Navon, who nevertheless conceded that any basketball fan in Israel knew the Bullets' roster by heart.

Yielding to the political urge, Navon noted the Camp David summit talks and said, "Maybe not far away you will play a mixed team of Egyptians and Israelis, and I don't care who will win - peace will win."

From the start of their Old City tour, it was clear the players were not anonymous in Israel.

An Israeli passerby shouted, "I saw a plug on you on TV last night." When the players asked if the plug was good, the man said, "It was enough to scare me. You play against us."

American tourists waved pens for autographs and posed with players for pictures, occasionally blurting things like "I'm pulling for you, Elvin."

But it was the sights, smells and sounds of the Old City that fascinated the players from the moment they walked through the Lion's gate and headed for the Via Dolorosa, where Christ is said to have trod on his fateful walk to Calvary.

At the 1,300-year-old Temple Mount (Dome of the Rock), where Mohammad is said to have ascended to Heaven on his horse, the Bullets removed their shoes and watched with intense curiosity as Arab women in white gowns crawled under a rail to touch the Rock of Ascension.

Unable to resist, some players stretched lanky arms toward the rock, which if touched in prayer, Muslims believe, means 1,000 prayers anywhere else.

Rita Ferry, wife of the general manager, was surprised and delighted to meet in Notre Dame de Zion Sister Alphonsina, her fifth-grade French teacher in St. Louis whom she had not seen in nearly 30 years. The two embraced and talked of old times and the Bullets.

From time to time, the players asked their Israeli hosts about the Maccabis, who are to Israel what the Bullets are to Washington.

Next to soccer, basketball is Israel's national sports mania, with new indoor courts springing up everywhere in recent years, replacing the old asphalt outdoor courts.

Israel had one fleeing burst of success in basketball in 1953, when it played for the first time in the European Championships in Moscow. While most fans considered that trip the penultimate in chutzpah , Israel tood fifth place and scored as many points as the second-place team.

But it was not until 1966 when the Tal Brody era - or the American era, as some call it - begin here that Israeli basketball took off in popularity.

Brody, an All-America from the University of Illinois, came to Israel in 1965 to play on the U.S. team in the Maccabish Games (Jewish Olympics). A year later, he returned to play for the Maccabi Tel Aviv team, a semiamateur team sponsored by a chocolate company. In May, 1967, just before the Six-Day War, the team reached the finals of the European Cup and the influx of American players began.

In 1977, Israel won the European Cup for the first time, defeating the top Italian team, 78-77. Nearly 3,000 Israelis flew to Belgrade to watch that game, marking the first time since the 1967 war that an Israeli plane had landed in the Yugoslav capital.

It was that night that then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned in the wake of disclosures that he had maintained an illegal bank account in the United States.

Rabin showed up at a television studio to broadcast his announcement. But, knowing that nobody in Israel would be listening because of the television game, he delayed his announcement until 11:10 that evening. Instead, he sat in the studio watching the game.

The streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem later were filled with happy Israelis, causing some confusion over whether it was the Maccabis' stunning victory or Rabin's political demise that was the object of the celebration.

Besides Brody who retired last year, the most popular Maccabis are Olsie Perry, a 6-11 ABA veteran who last month converted to Judaism, and Jim Bothright of Utah, who also converted.