BOWIE -- During this NBA season, Derek Strong has periodically telephoned Golden State's Tyrone Hill, his former Xavier University teammate.
"Tyrone keeps telling me to hang in there, and that my day will come," Strong said. "I just hope it's real soon."
That could come as soon as tonight when the 6-foot-8 forward may make his NBA debut for the Washington Bullets against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Capital Centre.
Strong, 24, signed a 10-day contract enabling him to audition for coach Wes Unseld over the next six games.
Desperate for rebounding help, Unseld likely will give Strong, who averaged 9.9 rebounds his senior season at Xavier, a chance to impress him.
"It's difficult judging a player with a 10-day contract," Unseld said. "We won't have many practices, and I can't say how much playing time he'll get. It depends on the flow of the game, but I'm still primarily interested in winning."
Strong is just interested in playing. He sat out the first four months of this season after the Philadelphia 76ers placed him on medical suspension in October after he underwent arthroscopic knee operations in July and September.
"I'm just looking for some exposure," said the California native after passing the Bullets' physical yesterday. "The 76ers pretty much buried me."
Strong said he is not bitter over being hidden by the 76ers on the suspension list, but said he was ready to play as early as November.
"Philadelphia kept me in the shadows," he said. "I understand it's business and I wasn't about to take legal action, but I couldn't keep putting my life on hold and hope that the 76ers would give me a chance to play next season."
After the 76ers released him last week, Bullets general manager John Nash quickly offered him a 10-day contract.
Strong has waited two years for this chance. He was drafted by the 76ers on the second round in 1990 after joining Hill in leading Xavier to the NCAA round of 16, including an upset of Georgetown in the Midwest Regional. He opted to play in Spain when Philadelphia refused to guarantee his minimum contract.
"I really didn't want to play overseas," he said. "If the 76ers had even guaranteed half of my salary, I probably would have stayed, but it boiled down to my going to Spain strictly for financial reasons."
Strong remembers his season with Huesca La Magia in the Spanish League as bittersweet.
"Playing there helped me to work on weak parts of my game like putting the ball on the floor and moving without the ball," he said. "But when you're an American player, the foreign fans expect you to be the team savior.
"I tried my best, but Huesca didn't have that much talent. We were always hanging around .500, and the fans tended to make me the scapegoat. That's when I decided playing in Europe wasn't for me."
NOTES: Guards A.J. English (sinus infection) and Ledell Eackles (upset stomach) missed practice, but both are expected to play JTC tonight. . . . After practice, a physician from Johns Hopkins Hospital lectured the team on the AIDS virus. . . . Timberwolves top draft pick Luc Longley, a 7-0 center from Australia and New Mexico, is averaging only 4 points and 3.9 rebounds. . . . Playmaker Pooh Richardson sought a trade before Feb. 20 deadline, but deal with Miami for G Brian Shaw fell through. . . . Tomorrow's game against the Lakers is sold out.