Just a few minutes before game time Wednesday night, rookies Charles Barkley and Leon Wood were standing in line for the Philadelphia 76ers' lay-up drill, their eyes searching the vast emptiness of the Spectrum.

"I can't believe it," Wood said.

There, stretching to the ceiling, were thousands of empty seats, whole sections full of them. In all, 7,170 fans showed up in the 17,921-seat Spectrum as the 76ers beat the Washington Bullets, 104-97, in the opening game of the playoffs.

It was the 76ers' smallest home crowd of the season and their smallest playoff opening-game crowd since returning to the playoffs in 1976 after a five-year absence.

"At first, we thought people were just coming late," Wood said today after an optional 76ers' practice at St. Joseph's University. Fittingly, no-shows were in the majority for the practice, too, eight to four.

"Charles and I started to figure out what else was going on. The Phillies were out of town, the Flyers were not playing . . . . Maybe people think we're supposed to win, so why come? It was really shocking to me. My first reaction was it was like a high school championship game. In California, that's about what we drew, 7,000 to 8,000, for the state finals."

Why did no one come? Blame the opponent. The Bullets just don't excite Philadelphia sports fans.

"These days, people in Philadelphia gear themselves up for Boston, or the Lakers," said assistant coach Matt Guokas, who has been in this city as a player, commentator or assistant coach for 13 of the last 19 years.

"The Bullets have never been a draw here," said 76ers' General Manager Pat Williams. "If we had played Chicago (with Michael Jordan), we would have done better."

Philadelphia might not seem to be a city loaded with distractions, yet that was another explanation for the embarrassingly small turnout. The Flyers had the best record in the National Hockey League this season, and in selling out tonight for their first game with the New York Islanders, pulled in 10,000 more fans than the 76ers did.

"The Flyers deservedly have captured the imagination of this town," Williams said. "They have become the Cinderella team here."

"I don't think spoiled is the word," Williams said, mulling the description of the Philadelphia sports fan. "They pick their spots. In the NBA, there's two months of playoffs. It's not like 10 days of the World Series . . . ."

This was not the smallest crowd to watch a 76ers' playoff game. In 1981, in the seventh game of the Eastern semifinals against Milwaukee, the 76ers drew 6,704. Across the street at Veterans Stadium, the Phillies were receiving their World Series rings, and it was Easter Sunday.

Everyone missed a great game. The 76ers won, 99-98.

Perhaps the answer is the competition for the entertainment dollar. Long after basketball stragglers had left Wednesday night, six lumpy sleeping bags lay side-by-side near the Spectrum's main office. One moved slightly.

They were fans waiting for tickets. The 76ers? No way. The Flyers? Already sold out.

A Phil Collins concert -- and they'll be there a while.

Tickets go on sale Saturday.