David Susskind filled his talk show panel one night with beautiful men and women cheek to cheek, as it were with people who considered themselves ugly. Naturally, the beauties spoke of insecurity and loneliness as the high cost of unapprochable perfection. And the uglies said, hey, we'll trade our approachable warts for a smidgen of that pulchritude.

Progessional basketball at playoff time is the most beautiful game of all. Remarkable athletes who make routine the movements that in review seem impossible are caught up in a game of disciplined improvisation. Nureyev knows where he'll step next. Bobby Dandridge invents his art by the millisecond, the beauty of his creation often dependent on the simultaneous maneuvers of Elvin Hayes, all silk, and Wes Unseld, all steel.

Yet nobody cares.

Almost nobody, anyway, if we are, as we must, to judge a sport's appeal to the American public by its reception on national television.

These NBA playoffs were a disaster on TV. Outside of insomniacs and incurable fans of the Bullets and Sonics, only hopelessly smitten basketball lovers watched those late-night telecasts of midweek games in the championship series. I was in Indianapolis for the 500-mile race and stayed up till 1:30 in the morning to see Game 3. The ratings show I was about the only person between Seattle and Washington so afflicted.

The NBA on TV doesn't work, and that is because, as Susskind learned from beauties, a blessing can also be a curse. Too much happens too quickly in an NBA game. Before we can file away for memory Bobby D's latest wonder, Dennis Johnson has performed levitation. It is a waterfall of thrills, and if the cumulative effect is awesome, as yet there is no way to savor each moment, just as it is impossible to appreciate each drop of water rushing over a cliff.

A truck driver in Dubuque may love pro football on the tube. The ratings show he most likely watches every weekend, every Monday night and some Thursdays (God help us.) Why would he watch football, an inferior game, and not tune in the NBA?

Because football is an inferior game.

It is inferior not only in pure athletic ability, but also in terms of sustained drama.

Twenty times in an NBA playoff game, Elvin Hayes might do a trick available to no other man. His work is passed off as routine. But if a 260-pound fat man who can't run 40 yards without risking cardiac arrest bashes his helmet into another corpulent gladiator, causing the clod to tip over, we see the collision on instant replay as proof of skill and courage.

That may be the clod's only nice play of the game, and it could have been done by a hippo on vacation from the swamp.

Truly wonderful athletic feats are performed so rarely in professional football games that they stand out like beacons in the darkness of mediocrity. And because football has so much dead time - time for the armored mastodons to catch their breath - it is ideally suited for television, which caters to an audience whose attention span is a heartbeat long.

Football viewers are asked to keep track of maybe five or six touchdowns a game. Bob Newhart, in his TV situation comedy, once complained of missing all the scoring in a 21-21 game. "I missed six touchdowns," he said, before adding on second thought, "or 14 field goals." In either case, nothing very memorable happened and the story line was clean.

To appreciate pro basketball on television, the viewer must work at it. Football is straightforward violence with an occasional piece of beauty that stands out disproportionately, as if Ann-Margret showed up at a reunion of old defensive tackles. Basketball is more complex. It is a series of small battles, each dramatic on its own account, each battle a thread in the fabric of a war.

Those battles are too subtle for television's coverage, too quickly here and gone. One long pass in a football game can produce victory. TV will replay it from four camera angles and it will be called a miracle. And it may well be, but in basketball the equivalent of that miracle is produced every 30 seconds.

That is why basketball is such a great game to watch - if you are paying attention. It is basketball's blessing - if you are paying attention. But most television viewers bring small investments of attention to their tube, and basketball's blessing becomes a curse, its continuous miracles judged boring by audiences for whom one long pass a game is seen as drama beyond compare.

The NBA doesn't need a better game. It just needs the public to realize how good it is. To do that, the NBA must end the conventional wisdom that teams simply go through the motions in the regular season.

Why should anyone turn on the TV to watch a regular-season game when players and coaches admit it means little? And how can a TV viewer resist pro football when each game is seen as Armageddon.

After four months of ignoring the NBA's regular-season telecasts, few viewers are going to tune in for the playoffs. They are creatures of habit. The NBA must make regular-season games meaningful by reducing the 82-game schedule to 60-odd and advertising a huge money prize for regular season work. That way the world's finest athletes would be rested enough and interested enough to play their own Armageddon. CAPTION: Picture 1, The story of the ending of the season for the Bullets: Mitch Kupchak watches in street clothes; Picture 2, Dennis johnson gets off the game-winning shot for Seattle; Picture 3, Jack Sikma, Lonnie Shelton blocks out Wes Unseld, Picture 4, Kevin Grevey is injured in first half, missing the rest of the game. Photos by Richard Darcey - The Washington Post; Picture 5, Super-Sonic guard Gus Williams drives past Charles Johnson of Bullets in fourth playoff game. By Richard Darcey - The Washington Post