LANDOVER -- When looking at Washington Bullets general manager John Nash, there is little doubt he is a man with a wearing job.
His brown eyes are puffy, with dark circles ringing them. He sits down for a 4:30 p.m. interview at 8 o'clock and apologizes for having to make it so late.
His schedule is like that. He is a man on the go. Coach Wes Unseld said last night he fears for the man's ears. "He has a phone growing out of one of them," Unseld said, only half in jest.
Nash is the man who has accepted the responsibility of rebuilding the Bullets into a title contender.
When he took the job last summer, he knew it wouldn't be easy. What he may not have expected was that it would get harder overnight.
But John Nash won't say that.
"It's the same job," he said. "When I signed on, I talked to [team owner Abe Pollin] about philosophy, about how to build a team . . . He indicated to me that he is very competitive and wanted to be as good as possible, as soon as we could be.
"I accepted that, and I'm still attempting to follow that directive, but I did tell Mr. Pollin that sometimes you have to take a step backward before taking a big step forward."
The Bullets are coming off a 31-51 season. Pollin and Bullets fans already considered that a step backward. When Nash arrived in June, he immediately made a startling trade. He swapped the team's leading scorer, guard Jeff Malone, for the 1989 No. 1 overall draft pick, unproven center Pervis Ellison.
A bold move by any standards, and one that later became magnified with the holdout of Malone's expected successor, Ledell Eackles, who is unsigned, and John Williams, who reported yesterday but is so out of shape he won't be of any help for at least a month.
"This team needed to make some changes in order to improve," he said, noting the average age of his players has dropped from 26 to 25. "I would hope the fans would judge the Bullets when we get Ledell and John here and in shape. Until then and thereafter, I think Wes will maximize the talent we have."
Nash does not want to put too much pressure on Unseld, but at the same time he said he believes the talent of his coach can be assessed.
"I believe if winning is possible, Wes will extract it," Nash said.
But right now, some NBA observers believe the Bullets could finish as the worst team in the pro ranks.
Nash hopes not. He said this is a key time for the Bullets, but adds he is not after instant gratification.
"I'm looking for the Bullets to be among the better teams in the NBA in the '90s," he said. "When I say that, I hope it is the early '90s. With Ellison, Williams and Eackles, we have every right to have some success. Now, I just have to get them here."
It is this snail-like pace that has fans worried. Last week eveWilliams criticized Nash's trade of Malone for Ellison and questioned the Bullets' desire to improve.
The questions do not worry Nash. In Philadelphia he got used to criticism. No one liked it when he traded Maurice Cheeks. No one liked it when he gave up a draft choice for Rick Mahorn.
He is no quick-fix artist. If the goal was to win a few more games quickly, he could do that. Nash is working on something bigger.
"We do want to address our present need, but we don't want to mortgage the future," he said. "So far, we've gotten Ellison and Byron Irvin [acquired Tuesday in a trade for Steve Colter]. Those two guys are 23 years old and they've got their futures in front of them.
"If I could get Magic Johnson or Larry Bird I could alter my plans, but I'm not optimistic enough to even try."
Nash is happy he has a team under the salary cap. While some view that fact as part of the Bullets' problems, he sees it as an advantage. If a top salary player becomes available, Nash has room to go after him.
His dream is to mold a team for the future. His favorite example of what he envisions for the Bullets is the Detroit Pistons, who have used three No. 1 draft choices -- Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and John Salley -- along with Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer to fashion back-to-back championships.
"Those guys have been together for a number of years and they've gotten better as a result of it," said Nash. "They've matured together. I think what we need to do is add some pieces and let them grow . . . but, it sometimes is a slow process."
His self-imposed deadline: three years.
"That's the length of my contract," he said. "I'm not saying we'll win a championship by then or even be in the finals. I think what Mr. Pollin and the fans want is to see progress. I think knowledgeable basketball people do not see progress as winning 35 or 40 games and getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs five-zip. We need to see a future we can be optimistic about."
Nash was the mastermind behind the rebuilding of the Philadelphia 76ers. He recognizes this project is "different."
But John Nash does not fret over negatives. He doesn't have time for them. He needs positives. He needs fans to understand he is dealing for the future, more than the present.
As to telling Pollin the Bullets may have to live in reverse before finding fast forward, Nash sighed.
"Mr. Pollin heard me," he said. "But he didn't want to."