To borrow from Marlon Brando's plaintive speech in "On The Waterfront," the Washington Bullets "coulda been a contender" in the NBA season opening tomorrow night.
There was good reason for coach Wes Unseld to harbor such expectations in June, when the Bullets acquired a much-needed playmaker and three-point shooting threat in Michael Adams.
Adams was viewed as the catalyst for a fast-breaking team with an imposing front line featuring Bernard King, a much-improved Pervis Ellison and Harvey Grant, with versatile John Williams supplying a spark wherever needed.
But as has been the Bullets' history since losing a rematch with the Seattle SuperSonics for the NBA title in 1979, injuries and salary disputes quickly turned optimism into pessimism.
King, an All-Star who finished third in the league in scoring average (28.4) last season, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery September.
Optimistically, the team expected him to be reactivated by mid-December, but King, 34, said yesterday that he has experienced trouble running and is not prepared to place a timetable on his return.
Williams, the Bullets' most gifted athlete, for the second straight year missed all of training camp while haggling with management over back pay and conditioning.
After seeking arbitration for a disputed $500,000, the 6-foot-9 forward was reported to be heading for Washington to try to settle the issue. But Williams still was missing yesterday, when the Bullets finished preparations for their road opener against the Indiana Pacers.
The team Unseld coached through an 0-8 preseason more closely resembled an expansion team than a conference contender.
One way to evaluate the talent a club possesses is to watch a team pass through an airport and observe whom the travelers ask for autographs. In a recent trip to Albany, N.Y., only Unseld, a Hall of Famer, attracted a crowd, while his players were all but ignored.
The 12-man roster, minus top draft choice LaBradford Smith, the promising Louisville guard who will miss the first five games while his ankle mends, includes five new players and will have a local flavor.
The new faces include small forward Albert King, a former Maryland All-American returning to the NBA after spending the past two years playing in Europe and for the Albany Patroons in the Continental Basketball Association; Larry Stewart, a Coppin State forward with a nose for the ball; and guard David Wingate, a Dunbar and Georgetown alumnus who has played for the Philadelphia 76ers and San Antonio Spurs.
The other new Bullets are Adams and backup Corey Gaines from Loyola Marymount, who will be on the bubble when Smith is activated.
Much of the burden will be on Adams, the smallest man on the team, listed generously at 5-10. Returning to Washington after being traded to the Denver Nuggets in 1987, Adams will be asked to generate the fast break and also harass rivals in the pressure defense.
"I don't think there's undue pressure on me this season," said Adams, who finished among the league leaders in scoring (26.5 average) and assists (10.5 average) last season. "Making it in the NBA after being cut a couple of times, that was real pressure. Nothing can be worse than that."
Adams maintained a positive attitude last season, despite the Nuggets' 20-62 record. But the Bullets, after three straight seasons of missing the playoffs, will be tested to remain optimistic should they get off to a slow start.
"Wes won't allow us to feel sorry for ourselves. He's too much of a competitor," said Grant, who made giant strides last season. "It never crosses our mind that we're losers. We've got a bunch of guys who bust their butts every night. When we get everybody healthy and on the same page, things will turn around in a hurry."
But nagging injuries have not allowed Unseld to get a feel for his team, as he has been constantly juggling the starting lineup. A brief experiment with shooting guard Ledell Eackles at small forward has been put on hold because of Eackles' repeated absence from practice.
For now, Unseld has settled on a first five of Ellison, Charles Jones and Grant up front with Adams and second-year guard A. J. English in the backcourt.
"We're not going to outscore anyone, so we'll try to put our best defensive team on the floor," Unseld said. "But, as you know, everything is subject to change."
How the 1991-92 Bullets evolved
:0Player.. .. .. .. Position .. .. ..Transaction
Darrell Walker .. guard .. .. .. ..traded to Detroit for two
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..second-round picks
Haywoode Workman. guard .. .. .. ..signed to play in Italy
Larry Robinson .. guard .. .. .. ..waived, claimed by Boston
Byron Irvin .. .. guard .. .. .. ..waived
G=Michael Adams. .. guard .. .. .. ..acquired from Denver for
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..first-round 1991 draft pick
Corey Gaines.. .. guard .. .. .. ..free agent
Albert King .. .. forward. .. .. ..free agent
LaBradford Smith. rookie . .. .. ..guard draft
Larry Stewart. .. rookie forward ..free agent
David Wingate. .. guard .. .. .. ..free agent