The last time we checked in on Howard Cosell, he was broadcasting the American League playoffs while talking about a movie Jill Clayburgh was filming in his--yes, his--living room. Got that? Jill Clayburgh in his living room.

"Enough!" everybody screamed. It was as though the Great Name Dropper had become a parody of himself.

Unfortunately for Cosell loathers, the time has come to balance accounts. His new Sunday afternoon journalism show, "ABC SportsBeat," may be the best thing to happen to sports TV this year. It's lucid, intelligent and informative week after week.

You may not like to hear this, but here goes: Howard himself has been--ahem--terrific.

Somehow, Cosell has been coming across on this show not only as sufferable, but likable. Fans/victims of Cosell know his pompous, self-promoting side all too well. Would you now believe a compassionate, even tender side? Eee-gads. Is Cosell turning into a nice old softie right before our eyes?

The reason "SportsBeat" is an artistic success (its ratings problems are another story) is that it gives Cosell an exclusive forum to do what he does best: ask the right question. Nobody on TV, with the possible exception of Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace, asks bolder or more incisive questions. It's uncanny how people feel compelled to answer.

The half-hour show--part "Meet the Press," part feature, part personal commentary--also relieves Cosell of the self-imposed need to "play" himself, as he is wont to do on "Monday Night Football." He has always failed as an entertainer and succeeded as a reporter, anyway.

"SportsBeat" made its debut last fall, but didn't move to a weekly schedule until February. It's been 10 steps ahead of the sports journalism efforts at CBS and NBC ever since. CBS's "Sports Saturday/Sunday" wraparound show with Brent Musburger does take periodic looks at major issues, but much of its reporting runs to "rip 'n read," scores and highlights.

"Very candidly, I don't see where CBS has done anything in sports journalism," Cosell said. "I don't relate it to Brent Musburger personally. I just view them as sated with the jockocracy . . . All they do is get up there with basketball schedules. They're a big hype. They're a joke. But that's their business, not mine."

"SportsBeat" has stumbled a few times (prime example: a much-touted piece on golfer Jan Stephenson last fall proved to be nothing more than cheesecake). And Howard has developed a newly annoying habit of drawing out vowel sounds for dramatic effect, as in "They're throwing de-e-e-e-e-engerous objects at Dave Parker, and nobody--no-o-o-o-o-body--has such a right."

All quibbling aside, Cosell has explored complex issues in depth and made them understandable to the average fan. Give the guy this: for all his ego, he does have access. And no one ever accused him of being dumb.

Howard's hat size may expand from 10 to 15 after this one, but the fact is his voice still cries in the wilderness of sports TV. No other commentator has stayed on top of the NFL-Al Davis trial, the Pete Rozelle-sponsored antitrust legislation on Capitol Hill, the NFL strike threat, NBA franchise problems and assorted Olympic woes with such hawklike attention.

In fact, Cosell may have seriously weakened the chances of the NFL legislation for antitrust exemption. Two months ago, he reported that Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee had been quoted by the Memphis Commercial Appeal as being strongly in favor of exempting the NFL.

"If that quote's accurate," Cosell said, "it'll be interesting to see if the next expansion franchise in the NFL goes to Memphis. And who was it who said, 'Sports and politics don't mix'?"

The new face Cosell has revealed is more mellow than the ones we've seen in the past. His February interview with Polish tennis star Wojtek Fibak, who is totally cut off from his family and country, was a small jewel of sensitivity. And his March talk with former baseball star Ken Boyer, suffering from cancer and taking laetrile, was poignant.

Cosell found his voice cracking and a tear filling his eye at the end. There was feeling here, and for a long moment neither man talked. "God bless you, my friend," Cosell said by way of saying goodbye.

Still, Cosell remains an enigma. Asked about his ratings, which have been down around those for "Sunrise Serenade" (an average of 3.4 percent of TV homes have been watching since the show went on the air), he turns up the bombast dial the way Bobby Unser turns up the turbocharger boost.

Hear the familiar voice:

"I don't have any question about the success of this show. I think it's going to change the nature of and the acceptance of sports journalism on television . . . I think that unquestionably I pioneered in television, in journalism, in my sphere of influence, and I think I'm nonpareil in that area . . . Do I believe what I do is better than anyone in the world? Absolutely, or otherwise I wouldn't do it."

Told that Musburger, on a CBS Radio commentary, had made a federal case the other day out of "SportsBeat's" ratings, Cosell came up with his best line in years.

"I don't want to be in a position of blowing my own horn," he said. "Then it'll be written I'm egotistical. I want to stand on my own shows."

That he can do, with justifiable pride.