He died quietly, which was not like him, early Sunday in New York City, before sunrise, in the wee hours, when the ratings don’t matter. His heart — which many claimed he never had — failed him at last.

Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, ESPN was preparing for its second full day of NFL draft coverage, over-hyped and over- announced insanity, with the insufferable Mel Kiper Jr. set to prattle on about split times.

No wonder Howard Cosell left us. He probably couldn’t stand it anymore.

Down goes a legend. From his booming, nasal “Tell it like it is” statements to intros such as “Miiiiile High Stadium, Dennnvah, Colahhrado” to live action calls such as “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” there has never been a more imitated sportscaster. Back in the ’70s, every teen wearing bell-bottoms could do a Cosell impersonation.

But looking at sports in the sudden blankness of Cosell’s death, we see that, after all these years, people have been imitating the wrong part.

Cosell was not just noise. He was journalism. He poked. He prodded. He asked frank questions. He dared you to use a dictionary.

“Once again, Danderoo, you have proven to be neither loquacious nor truculent,” he would scold broadcast partner Don Meredith on “Monday Night Football.”

“Aw, Howard,” Meredith would drawl, “there you go with them 20-dollar words again.”

Fans, of course, sided with Meredith. So did sportscasters who followed. Madden, Bradshaw, George Foreman — the list is long — found fame playing the bumpkin. The bumpkin’s easy. You’re no threat. You’re welcome at the party.

Cosell was a threat. He did not attend the party. He knew that the microphone made your voice louder for a reason, not simply for a laugh, and so he attacked when he saw something wrong. He was brash, rude, arrogant, abrasive and condescending.

He was also necessary.

“Oh, this horizontal ladder of mediocrity,” he once said of the broadcast business. He swore he could never do play-by-play at a bowling or golf tournament, that he would rather work as a ditch digger. This was back in the late ’60s, when Cosell and his bad hair, long nose and frequent cigar made him a sight sports fans had never before encountered.

Even then he knew he was better than the rest. For one thing, he was a lawyer. Had been for 10 years before getting into broadcasting.

For another thing, he didn’t love the games. He did not swoon at the smell of a locker room. For a while, he did sports for ABC while also hosting a Sunday night radio program in which he grilled politicians and businessmen. He saw both roles as the same. He had to be clear and entertaining.

And he had to be right.

Cosell didn’t get famous for yelling stupid things like “TIME OUT BABEEE!” He got famous, quite frankly, for his guts, and he often had more than the athletes he covered. It was Cosell who had the nerve to take on white bigotry that wanted Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali squelched. It was Cosell who took on the labor issue hypocrisies in the NFL. It was Cosell who watched Larry Holmes pummel Randall (Tex) Cobb in an inexcusable bloodletting boxing match. Afterward, Cosell walked away. He quit boxing.

“The sport should be abolished,” he said. Never mind that he was doing this, as critics point out, after he’d made a name for himself through the ring. So what? If you keep your eyes open, your opinions may change. He stood for something. Besides, tell me one other broadcaster who ever walked away from a gig.

On that autumn night in 1982, as he watched Cobb’s face turn to jelly, Cosell half-whispered his analysis: “What is achieved by such as this?”

It’s a question too few in his business ask. They don’t ask “What is achieved?” when they make up stupid nicknames. They don’t ask “What is achieved?” when they ramble on with statistics. They don’t ask “What is achieved?” when they put any dweeb with a telephone on the airwaves to vent his spleen.

Noise rules these days. Cosell was more than noise. He had a point. He stood for something. It is amazing when you see the old footage of fans throwing bricks through TV sets in protest of Howard. Nowadays, we sit mindlessly in front of brain- numbing programs, and we don’t lift a finger.

Cosell did nearly 40 years at ABC, including 13 years on “Monday Night Football.” Much of what you see in TV sports today — opinions, brashness — began with Cosell. By the end he was burned out, bitter because he was in a jealous business; his contemporaries quickly attacked.

He died lonely, with many bridges burned. In the hair- sprayed world of TV, you can see why Cosell once said, “My greatest accomplishment may be my mere survival.”

That is gone now. In the end, he couldn’t stop the big machine or lift the horizontal ladder of mediocrity.

Down goes a legend.

Those who follow should imitate his journalism, not his shtick, but as Cosell might put it, that would be asking too much even for a legend like himself. SIDEBAR 10 WAYS WE’LL REMEMBER HOWARD COSELL 1. “Tell it like it is.” 2. Verbal sparring partner for Muhammad Ali. 3. Most impersonated broadcaster ever. 4. Doing his Ed Sullivan impersonation on “Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell.” He introduced “the new Beatles” — The Bay City Rollers. 5. Worst toupee in the business. 6. “Truculent, loquacious” and an endless stream of polysyllabic verbiage. 7. Stories about his drunkenness in the booth. 8. “Look at that little monkey run.” Cosell’s regrettable comment on Washington wide receiver Alvin Garrett. 9. Larry Holmes vs. Randall (Tex) Cobb, followed by Cosell’s refusal to broadcast pro boxing again. 10. Polls that showed him as the most popular and least popular broadcaster at the same time.

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