An FBI witness, temporarily disoriented by a flurry of questions, referred to his courtroom interrogator as "Mr. DeLorean."

"No," said the freckle-faced attorney with a smile, pointing to his silver-haired client. "I'm Mr. Weitzman, considerably younger and shorter."

The 5-foot-8, 44-year-old Howard L. Weitzman bears little resemblance to the 6-foot-4, 59-year-old John Z. DeLorean, but after three months of jury selection, testimony and daily press conferences, the genial, workaholic attorney has become an alter ego for the celebrity millionaire. He spends his days explaining DeLorean's motives and excusing the excesses that led the former automaker into a $24 million government-arranged cocaine deal and a nine-count indictment for drug trafficking and conspiracy.

In Weitzman, DeLorean has found a risk-taker like himself. Destined for major-league fame because of this trial, Weitzman as a youth wanted to play professional baseball and only entered law school on a whim. He took the perilous course of setting up his own law office early in his career and has now committed all his time, energies and much of his own money to limiting the damage from one of the most publicized personal and financial disasters of the decade.

Drinking Perrier and pacing back and forth behind the podium in Courtroom 22 of the federal courthouse here, Weitzman has punched several holes in what seemed like an airtight government case against DeLorean. The government has dozens of audio and video tapes of DeLorean discussing cocaine and heroin trafficking with federal undercover agents, but Weitzman has compiled a mountain of material discrediting the key informer who said DeLorean first approached him seeking drug profits to save his faltering automobile company.

Already a veteran of front-page trials, Weitzman is extremely adept with the press. He has managed to keep his client relatively quiet while providing a steady supply of his own humorous asides and highly quotable denunciations of the government and its informer.

At the urging of reporters, he has fallen into a routine of at least two afternoon press conferences a day--one in the courthouse press room for print media and one on the courthouse steps for television and radio. He helpfully puts his more obscure courtroom questions into context, indicates his current strategy and delivers small homilies on the dangers of a government entrapment operation gone wild.

DeLorean said he first heard about Weitzman from a fellow prisoner during a short jail stay after his Oct. 19, 1982, arrest. He said he became convinced that Weitzman and Donald Re, Weitzman's Princeton-educated partner, who drafts most of the motions, would have no fear of exposing any improper behavior by federal agents and prosecutors in the case, even if it hurt their future cases. "To find two people as courageous as Howard and Don was a real break for me," DeLorean said.

Weitzman was born in Los Angeles and worked in his parents' grocery business before enrolling at the University of Southern California as a physical education major. He played second base for a team that won the national college championship in 1961. He is unabashedly sentimental about old friends, such as fellow former Dorsey High School baseball greats and current American League managers Rene Lachemann and Sparky Anderson. Each Thanksgiving morning they gather here for a nostalgic game dubbed the "Turkey Bowl."

When a major league career seemed unlikely and he was turned down for graduate study in physical education because he knew no foreign language, Weitzman took a friend's suggestion to try USC Law School. "I had never met a lawyer or judge in my life," he said. He liked the discipline; his natural congeniality led to election as student body president his last year.

To his many admirers and occasional critics, Weitzman's unshakable friendliness, as well as his doggedness and competitive baseball instincts, have been key to his success. "Howard has a kind of boyish charm," said another veteran defense attorney who called him "a good but not a great lawyer." "He's charming," said Weitzman's associate, Mona Soo Hoo. "Jurors tend to like him and they follow him." Whatever DeLorean thinks of Weitzman's willingness to offend federal agents, even they speak highly of the lawyer's honesty and ethics and trade jokes with him in the corridors.

"We got some good cases coming up for you," said FBI agent Jerry West, one of Weitzman's targets in the DeLorean case, giving Weitzman a friendly pat on the back.

Weitzman lives in Pacific Palisades with his wife Margaret, 29, who sits with DeLorean's wife Cristina every day in court. They have a 5-month-old son, Armen. Weitzman's 12-year-old son Jed lives with his first wife, who is now married to actor Henry Winkler.

Weitzman's courtroom successes include Mary T. Brunner, the only member of the Charles Manson family charged with but not convicted of murder, and Louis Tom Dragna, who escaped with a two-year sentence after being charged with four other men in a notorious 1980 racketeering, murder and extortion case. Weitzman lost his most recent case, defending one of a group of grandmothers convicted of cocaine trafficking, but shrugs it off as an inevitable setback when faced with a well-funded federal antidrug program.

DeLorean interviewed other well-known defense attorneys here, but Weitzman and Re had handled some early motions and were willing to give DeLorean 100 percent of their time. "That's something I wouldn't give God if he was being judged," said one attorney to whom Weitzman referred a case he could not handle. In return, DeLorean signed over to Weitzman whatever interest he has left in a San Diego ranch and in a New York apartment worth $6.5 million. Weitzman said he and Re have paid more than $300,000 of their own expenses while the properties are tied up in legal challenges.

Asked why he is extending himself so far for DeLorean, Weitzman discards his usual jokes and rehearses a speech he will someday make to the jury: "If the government can do what it did to John, then God help us all, because we're all next."