It was one of those moments in practice that only a coach searching for keys to better understand his players would appreciate.

"I had finished giving them a quick talk after practice," said Bullet coach Dick Motta. "It wasn't a pep talk or anything, but when I was done, they all clasped hands in a circle and gave one of those college cheers.

"Maybe it seemed corney but I thought it was something. And Tommy started it."

The fact that Tom Henderson initiated this rare display of emotion on the Bullets made it doubly important to Motta. It was an outward sign that Henderson was assuming team leadership, something Motta feels he must do this season if the club is to be successful.

With the Bullets opening the exhibition schedule tonight against Buffalo in Syracuse, Motta also will be able to see how Henderson performs another of his primary duties, running the offense.

"Normally, I wish you would skip exhibitions and go right into the regular season," said Motta. "But this year, we want to use the games to perfect our execution of the offense. We won't kill ourselves to win but if we have a shot at he end of a game, we'll go after it."

If the Bullets' attack is to function as smoothly as Motta hopes, Henderson has to play consistently even this early in the year. It's a responsibility he is eager to exercise.

"I feel really relaxed riight now," he said. "Things have gone well in practice and I don't feel any pressure on me. We are ready to play somebody, just to see how well all the pieces fit right now."

Henderson had to go through a crash course to learn the offense when he joined the Bullets from Atlanta midway through last season. Although Motta was pleased with his performance, he still felt Henderson would profit by a more leisurely learning experience stretching over the length of this training camp.

"He's right," said Henderson. "When I came over here, I knew I was supposed to run things and get the right people the ball. You couldn't get very deep at that point.

"Now I can learn from scratch what he is thinking about with his offense. You learn his philosophy and that helps you execute it better."

Motta, who found himself without a competent playmaker at this point last season, already is pleased with the results of Henderson's influence. "We are at the same stage now as we were at Christmas last year," the coach said.

Becoming a leader is another matter. As far as Henderson is concerned, he isn't seeking that role.

"On this level, these guys don't need someone standing over them and telling them what to do," he said. "You've got 12 guys who can lead when it comes to a tight situation and we need to set up a good shot, I think I can take care of that.

"And I don't think we'll have any problems looking for someone to run us if that's what they need."

Henderson is the Bullets' happy-go-lucky man during practices. If he isn't teasing Wes Unseld about his lack of speed, he's kidding with Larry Wright or laughing about a busted play. He says anyone would laugh now if they once had to play for the Atlanta Hawks.

"After what I went through down there for three or four years, this is a piece of cake," he said. "I spent the time after I came here just trying to get my timing in order and my mind in shape.

"Now I can relax and enjoy myself. I think these practices should be lowkey, the way he (Motta) is running them. Why rush the rookies and try to force the system on them?

"It may take a little longer for them to catch on, but things are looser. I don't think this team cares about who does the scoring or the playing, as long as we win. At Atlanta, people would look at the stat sheet at half-time and complain."

Henderson doesn't have any complaints now, especially about Motta's emphasis this season on increasing the Bulletts' fast-break opportunities. As one of the quickest guards in the league, he thrives on the running game.

"If we want to increase the tempo, great," he said. "I love that style. But I've got to be able to set it up and run the offense when we don't have the break. Otherwise the offense isn't going to function like it should."

With Phil Chenier still sidelined by his ailing back, Motta will be able to get a close look tonight at two other guards, rookie Phil Walker and veteran Coniel Norman, both still fighting for the fourth guard spot.

Motta will start henderson and Larry Wright at guard. Unseld at center and Kevin Grevey and Elvin.

The only Bullets not making the trip are Chanier and Joe Pace, who did not show up again yesterday for practice. Pace was absent Thursday without telling any Bullet officials and they still had not heard from him yesterday.