The call to Ledell Eackles' hotel room in Milwaukee was interrupted by a loud, chomping sound.
"I'm eating lunch right now. Can you call back?" the Washington Bullets guard said.
"Fifteen minutes?" the caller asked.
"No, better make it a half-hour," he said. "I enjoy my food."
That hardly was a secret to the Bullets' coaching staff. After a contract dispute caused him to miss all of training camp and the first three weeks of the season, Eackles was activated Nov. 27, still 15 pounds over last season's playing weight of 215.
But Bullets coach Wes Unseld took no pity on the player earmarked to replace traded scoring leader Jeff Malone as the starting shooting guard this season.
Instead, Unseld all but forced Eackles to play himself into shape, using him 26 and 22 minutes in games his first week back on the roster, and the beefy, 6-foot-5 guard played as though he were only a dribble away from dropping from exhaustion.
"He's rounding into shape now," said Unseld, no pun intended. "This is what we planned from the start. For a while, I'm sure he thought pushing him hard it was some sort of punishment for reporting late, but I believe now he understands."
Eackles has been one of the big reasons the Bullets, who play the Bucks in Milwaukee tonight, have won six of their past eight games and climbed back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Regaining his shooting touch and aggressiveness in attacking the basket, Eackles has averaged 14 points in his past six games. Friday in Minnesota, he scored a season-high 22 points in 26 minutes to trigger the Bullets' 111-100 victory over the Timberwolves.
With Eackles, rookie guard A.J. English and forward/center Pervis Ellison providing firepower off the bench, some of the offensive burden has been lifted from National Basketball Association scoring leader Bernard King and forward Harvey Grant, who has become a consistent 20-point-a-game contributor.
"I'm getting there," said Eackles, still being used in a reserve role as Unseld sticks with his starting backcourt of Darrell Walker and Haywoode Workman. "My shooting rhythm is back. Early on, my legs weren't under me. But now I'm playing loose and free again."
Eackles said the prodding he got from his coaches and Walker, the team captain, to push himself harder proved beneficial.
"It helped because it made me see for myself what I had to do to get back into playing shape," he said. "I wish I hadn't missed training camp. I would have used that time to get into shape. I had a lot of catching up to do, besides getting used to the new players. Everyone had a leg up on me."
Eackles' improved play has left Unseld with a pleasant problem. He must decide between playing Eackles and English, who has displayed the ability that made him the nation's leading Division II scorer at Virginia Union last season.
"It really is determined by who we're playing that night and which one I think will be more effective," Unseld said.
"They both have a scorer's mentality and get that wild look in their eyes whenever they have the ball. Ledell is probably better at getting to the basket, and A.J. is more effective in the open court."