"I don't like to use this word -- "

Angelo Dundee, the famed boxing manager-trainer, leaned forward and said:

" -- but this fight looks like it could be a..."

He looked over his shoulder.

"... sellout."

He whispered the word.

Sports salesman have a love-hate relationship ship with the word "sellout."

The layman might wonder what Dundee is afraid of. If his fight seemed certain to sell out, why be hesitant to say so?

The hesitancy comes from a fear that word of a "sellout" will cause prospective customers to stay home when, in reality, some tickets remain.

So the sports salesman never says that magic word until the event is truly sold out.

On the other hand, there is nothing to fear but fear itself, for it is human nature that the customer wants most that which he cannot have. The "sellout" makes the event -- be it a fight, rock concert, play or basketball game -- irresistible. It becomes a status symbol to have a ticket to a sold-out happening.

Which brings us, in a round-about way, to the Washington Bullets and their attendance "problems."

That last word is in quotation marks because, as of today, 16 NBA teams would like to have the Bullets' problems. Of the 22 National Basketball Association teams, only five are drawing more customers than the Bullets.

Through the first six home games this year, attendance was down almost 3,000 a game. But pro basketball generally suffers at the gate as long as pro football is going on -- especially in this city where a ticket to the Redskins' games is dearly beloved as proof of one's superior social standing.

Now the Redskins are out of sight, if not out of mind (an advertisement for a management seminar promises quarterback Joe Theismann speaking on "A Winning Attitude," which is interesting since the Redskins were a.500 club while the Bullets, as world champions, remain anonymous).

After 31 games, the Bullets' attendance is ahead of last year's overall average by 967 customers a night. It is 454 ahead of the team's all-time best in Washington, the 11,408 average of the 1976-77 season.

Yet the Bullets are not satisfied. The current average of 11,858 means nearly 8,000 seats remain empty each night.

The Bullets' management hoped this would be a boom season at the box office.

This team is beautiful example of precise teamwork prevailing with gratifying regularity. Twice in the last four years, it has reached the NBA championship round, the only NBA team to do that.

On credentials no more impressive, the New York Knicks once played to seemingly eternal sellouts of 19,571 at Madison Square Garden. In Portland, the arrival of Bill Walton and a subsequent NBA championship provoked Blazermania, an epidemic of local pride that by this season's end will have caused 100 consecutive sellouts of a 12,666-seat arena.

"We even have reserved standing room," said Art Johnson, a Portland executive. "There are numbers painted on the floor standingroom places." The Trail Blazers sell 300 such spots of concrete.

Such madness has not descended upon Capital Centre, home of the Bullets where, on the average, 40 percent of the seats are bereft of warming behinds.

The Bullets have not been pushy-aggressive in marketing their product. That is a minor point next to two other factors that are beyond the Bullets' control.

One, the entire NBA is suffering at the gate for several reasons.

And, two, in a cosmopolitan city of affluent transients, human nature says those transcients will be attracted to institutions that identify the city and thereby give them identity. The Redskins are such an institution, 40 years in the making and selling of a product that is part of one of America's most successful marketing enterprises, the National Football League.

This is only the Bullets' sixth season in Washington.

Sustained success will warm those Cap Centre seats. Playoff games last season were sellouts once the customers realized something special was up. As defending champions, the Bullets likely will sell out Cap Centre from the start of the playoffs.

"You can talk about 'how difficult it is to get to Cap Centre,' and 'how much it costs to park," said Abe Pollin, who owns the building and the Bullets and has heard all that chatter about why attendance is not astonishing.

"But look at this -- "

He was at ringside for the Sugar Ray Leonard -Johnny Gant fight at Cap Centre. The place was sold out, over 19,000 customers, just as Angelo Dundee had forecast.

The fight was a class event in a nice building with good promotion. Once word got out that the fight might be a sellout, tickets were in heavy demand.

For Pollin, the Leonard-Gant fight was more evidence he is not fighting a losing battle at Cap Centre. This is the Bullets' finest season ever. Both on the court and at the box office, they have never been better. As soon as the NBA straightens itself out -- by making each game meaningful -- the Bullets will share in those benefits, too.

"People will come out," Pollin said, "if you give them something to come out for."