Washington's love affair with the Bullets is not based purely on esthetic appreciation of Bob Dandridge's jump shots or Wes Unseld's rebounding. The team has presented its fan with more tangible rewards.

Betting on the Bullets has become as popular and profitable a pastime as speculating in real estate. Ever since the late stages of last season, the Bullets have been the bane of the city's bookmakers. The bookies have already been so battered during the current playoff series with Atlant that one of them suggested, "Maybe the best thing I could do is take the phone off the hook for the rest of the season."

Members of the local gambling fraternity had always viewed the Bullets with the same sort of healthy skepticism they would extend to the Redskins or any other team. It was only after the Bullets had advanced to the NBA championship series against Seattle that bettors fell in love with them.

The Bullets did more than defeat Seattle, four games to three. Underrated by the Las Vegas oddsmakers, they beat the point spread in six games out of seven. Even in the final game of that series, after they had already begun to assert their superiority, they were a 4 1/2-point underdog. It was a classic opportunity for local sports fans to bet with their hears and their heads simultaneously.

"I figured I was going to get hurt in that game," Sneaky Pete, the bookmaker, recalled, "but I couldn't have guessed how bad. One customer who never bet more than a nickle ( $500) in his life put $2,500 on the game. Everybody else was betting like crazy, too. I got buried."

So when the Bullets won the title, and people poured out of Georgetown bars to dance in the streets, they were motivated by more than pure local chauvinism. Dollar signs were dancing in their eyes.

This betting fever carried over into the new season. "The Bullets helped put me out pf business," said a now retired bookmaker named Jerry, who folded his tents in mid winter.

"The public loved to bet them, and they expecially loved to take them on the road when they were getting four or five points. And the Bullets played like champs all year.

"In a way," Jerry said, "I'm glad I tapped out when I did. Because if I hadn't gotten buried in the early season, I would have been buried in the playoffs. This Atlanta series has been a bettor's dream, and the point spreads coming out of Vegas have been terrible. The Bullets are going to break a lot of bookmakers."

Washington was favored by about six points in the two previous games at Capital Center, and was rated a three-point underdog in both games at Atlanta. Even a neutral handicapper would have to prefer the Bullets in all these games, and chauvinistic Washingtonians loved them. They have cashed three bets out of four so far, and can make it four for five tonight.

"All the betting in the series has been very one-sided," Sneaky Pete lamented. "On Sunday, to give you an example, I took three bets on Atlanta and 27 on the Bullets.It was murder."

In all these games, the bookmakers have faced the same dilemma. The point spread from Las Vegas reflects the national sentiment, but not the local sentiment, about a game. But local bookmakers cannot afford to adjust the point spread too much.

If Las Vegas makes the Bullets a seven-point favorite tonight, a bookie might anticipate that he will be deluged with action on the home team.

But if he tries to stem the tide and opens Washington as a 10-point favorite, he will surely be buried with one-sided action on Atlanta.

Bettors will take the Hawks plus 10 points with him, the Bullets minus seven with another bookie, and take a chance on winning both bets if the margin falls between seven and 10.

No matter what they do, bookmakers must risk getting into a lot of trouble when the Bullets play. "I don't know any bookmakers who make big money on basketball," said Sneaky Pete. CAPTION: Picture, Larry Wright has given the Bullets an offensive lift in the playoffs with Atlanta. By Richard Darcy, The Washington Post