What's in a name? Well, the Washington Bullets decided to change theirs about three months ago -- and the reaction, even among those ordinarily indifferent to sports, has been staggering. The general response to all five choices, as determined by owner Abe Pollin and the others on a seven-person panel that whittled 2,996 names, has been on the order of: "You've got to be kidding." Even one of the Bullets was disappointed with the possibilities.

"Tell me what they are," center Gheorghe Muresan said the other day.

Wizards.

Dragons.

Stallions.

Express.

Sea Dogs.

And his choice? Muresan turned up his nose and said: "None."

Pollin seems flabbergasted and thrilled over the interest. Some 500,000 ballots were cast at Boston Market restaurants during a 36-day process that began with his Nov. 9 announcement that the team would be renamed because "Bullets" was too closely associated with violence. A half-million people took the time, even if it didn't cost a penny, to register an opinion about a team that only in the past three years has begun to generate regular sellouts since moving here from Baltimore in 1973.

How many times have that many people around Washington been so moved to action? Only 522,885 Marylanders voted in the 1992 Democratic primary. Only 222,998 District residents voted in the 1992 presidential election.

"I see this as kind of unifying the community," Pollin said.

Maybe. But this unity seems decidedly negative.

"No matter what you decide, some people will be looking for the negative," Pollin insisted. "All the choices are legitimate."

Any chance an additional name might be added?

"That wouldn't be fair."

Because few connected the name "Bullets" with violence before Pollin did, might he reconsider, call off the voting and not change the name?

No.

"The name Bullets has been important to me for 32 years, engraved in my life," he said. "But it's also important to remember that changing the name is part of a bigger plan to combat violence. I hope people don't forget that." Fans vote for one of the five names by calling a 900 number. The cost is $1 and the proceeds go to the anti-violence campaign. Voting ends Feb. 20 and the winner will be announced two days later.

If one of the five names will identify Pollin's team when it moves into MCI Center in downtown Washington in 1997, Bullets President Susan O'Malley hinted that it may not be the one with the most votes.

"If we found trademark problems," she said, "we might move to the next name."

Just that sort of problem might arise if Sea Dogs wins, because the minor league baseball team by that name in Portland, Maine, is very possessive.

"We do a mail-order business throughout the country," said President and General Manager Charlie Eshbach. "Two years ago, ours was the top-selling logo in all of minor league baseball. Put it this way, we would not take too kindly" to Sea Dogs being used by anyone else. The Panel, the Process

The most common reactions to the final five names and to the seven-person panel that helped choose them can be found by glancing through the 2,996 different submissions: Savage and Fury for the emotion. Cuckoos, Dunkin' Donkeys and Deal Makers for those who helped pare the original list.

Here are the, uh, culprits, all of whom are feeling the heat from the masses: Pollin; O'Malley; Bob Snyder, general manager of radio station WTEM-570; Jody Shapiro, general manager of Home Team Sports; George Michael, sports director of WRC-TV; Bullets star Juwan Howard; and Steve Quamme, president of Boston Market.

A few steps from Snyder's office, his on-air talent routinely assaults the choices. The fax machine near Michael's desk spits out pleas for Pollin to reconsider. Pollin said he has received "hundreds of letters." Shapiro sometimes returns phone calls by saying: "This is Jody {Sea Dog} Shapiro" even though his top choices were Monuments and Thunder.

This certainly was one of the few times, if not the only one, where a committee was formed to help decide an issue important to Washingtonians but never actually met. Not once over coffee and Danish did the seven members bat about the relative merits of, say, the Court Marshalls vs. the Enchanters or the Aura vs. the Wipeouts vs. the Jam-a-ramas vs. the Light of the Flowers.

"We didn't want someone's personality to overly influence others," O'Malley said.

So the panelists were sent the complete A-to-Z list, which ranged from Accelerators to Zulus and ran to nearly 15 full pages. Each brought a distinct approach to the task, as well as a few prejudices. Pollin and his wife, Irene, pored over the list during a flight to Israel; Howard evaluated it during a Bullets' road trip and, being a Michigan man, was smitten with Wolverines; Shapiro solicited advice from his 14-year-old daughter, Lucy, and his 11-year-old son, Jasper, who he says "is much more hip than I could ever be."

Dodecahedrons sent Michael scurrying to the dictionary. It's a solid figure with 12 plane faces, which meant that there would be a place for a picture of every player on the Dodecahedrons' roster. That seemed cleverly appropriate, but then he thought: "Could you imagine people getting excited about the Dodos? I don't think so."

Dragons appealed to Quamme, because the team of the high school he attended in Kettering, Ohio, was the Fighting Dragons. But Dragons was a turnoff for Michael, because he grew up in a tough area near St. Louis that included a gang by that name. None of the panelists thought of possible racial ties to Wizards and Dragons. They were not alone.

"The notion that people find all kinds of pejorative connotations is ridiculous," said WRC anchor Jim Vance.

"Neither connotation has anything racial to me," said commentator Carl Rowan.

"It's political correctness run amok," said NBA Commissioner David Stern.

The panel was supposed to rate each of the 2,996 names on a 1-through-10 scale, with 10 being the tops. Michael and O'Malley liked Litigators a lot. Michael also was attracted to River Dawgs and Power Cats; O'Malley's list also included Glory, Fury and Cobras. Her only choice that made the final cut was Sea Dogs, which she rated as an 8. Quamme preferred Monuments.

Wizards was the most popular by a landslide -- and it apparently is the entry Pollin likes most. Pollin won't publicly divulge his preference, but O'Malley said: "Mr. Pollin's favorite is Wizards. Or his wife's."

The panel pared the list to 13 names, with Wizards at the top with 44 points. That averages to slightly more than a tepid six from the seven panelists, but only Jaguars (29), Fury (28) and Cobras (25) had at least 25 points. Of the five finalists, only Wizards and Express (21) topped 20. Dragons, Sea Dogs and Stallions each had 18. Power had 16, but the team wanted to limit the final voting to five.

In all, seven teams received more votes than three of the five finalists. But those names, which included Monuments and Howard-favorite Wolverines, were rejected by the NBA for trademark considerations, Pollin and O'Malley said.

Kathryn Barrett, the league's senior intellectual properties counsel, was in San Antonio for the NBA All-Star Game and said she could not be specific about why certain names were rejected. She said that more than legal factors are involved in nicknames, among them input from creative services and team owners.

"We abided by what the NBA said," Pollin said.

Still, if the Bullets were especially enamored with a name, the fact that someone else has it would not necessarily make it impossible to use.

"It's amazing what {the Patent and Trademark Office} allows and rejects," said trademark attorney Bill Chambers. The problem with all the criticism is the same one that hampered the panelists: no overwhelming consensus. Most responses have included the frustration expressed by an attorney in a letter to Pollin: "I was very disappointed . . . especially since none of the five finalists are as good as my entry." The I-want-mine whine seems the only common thread throughout all the fussing.

O'Malley recalls 200 fans writing letters when the Capitals changed their logo and uniform colors last June. "All of them hated it, thought it was the ugliest thing they'd ever seen," she said. "Now, ours is the fastest growing-logo in the NHL." So she and Pollin all but plead for patience. Is there any other choice?