Greg Ballard's mother called him last week from her home near Los Angeles worried that he was sick because she hadn't seen his name much in Washington Bullets box scores.
"No, mom, I'm not sick," he told her. "I'm a rookie."
And rookies usually don't get much playing time on NBA teams, such as the Bullets, that are loaded with veterans. But Ballard is starting to force coach Dick Motta to change his substitution patterns.
During the team's recent four-game western road trip. Ballard turned in his most consistent performances of the season. Motta wound up keeping him in during a fourth-period rally Tuesday against the Lakers. That was the latest in a game he's played this year when the outcome hadn't been decided. Ballard responded with 10 points and a decent defensive job on Adrian Dantley.
There was a reason behind Ballard's breakthrough. This was the first time he had been back to the west Coast, where he grew up (Pomona, Calif.) and went to college (University of Oregon), and he was determined to demonstrate to his fans he could make it in the pros
"The people who know me realized why I wasn't playing," he said, "but I'm sure others were wondering. I wanted to show them I wasn't a flop."
If Ballard had any worries about how he would be received on the trip, they were erased in Portland, which is two hours south of the Oregon campus. He was the first player introduced before the game and Trail Blazer fans gave him a warm, sustained ovation that lasted a good two minutes.
"See," he said afterward, "I didn't think they'd forget me. They loved me up here and I loved them. They remember how good I was in college."
He then went out and played a season-high 19 minutes, scoring five points and grabbing five rebounds. He played 18 minutes in the Laker game and demonstrated the kind of aggressiveness and strength that attracted interest in him from the Bullets last spring.
"At least now," he said, "my mom will know I'm okay. I don't think I played like I was sick."
Ballard was the fourth player chosen in the June draft, the highest choice the team had had in 10 years. The Bullets spent weeks studying the top prospects running personality checks and working on potential trades. They even toyed with a deal that would have allowed them to draft UCLA's Marques Johnson. But they decided Ballard was as good as any available player, so they picked him.
But once the season began, Ballard was on the bench and other players selected early in the first round - Kent Benson. Otis Birdsong, Walter Davis, Bernard King - all were either starting or contributing heavily to their teams' fortunes.
He could read what they were doing and it affected his play. "Early in the season. I was pressing," he said. "I was trying to go in there and impress he said. "Then I'd known what to ex-[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] Instead, I wasn't playing well.
"I realized that if Washington had taken someone else, I'd have been chosen by Phoenix and I'd be in Walter Davis shoes now and playing. But I'm glad now it didn't happen. In the long run, this should make me a better player."
Ballard has one of those storybook attitudes that coaches wish every benchwarmer had. But even Ballard admits he cracked under the strain of sitting, waiting and wondering.
"I've never been a substitute," he said. "This has been a tough mental adjustment for me. Some nights I'm so mad after games, even when we win, that I just want to get out and I burn.
"I finally talked it over with Bernie (Bickerstaff, the assistant coach) and coach Motta and they explained my role to me. They told me to be ready to come into the game, that I would spell Bobby Dandridge now and then and to take my shot when it was there and to hustle and play the way I've always played . . . At least now I understand things better."
Motta would like to play Ballard more. He considers the 6-foot-7, 215-pound rookie an outstanding prospect, but has found it difficult to use him and still give Elvin Hayes. Dandridge, Wes Unseld and Mitch Kupchack the playing minutes they need.
"They said I'll play. Maybe not this year, but I'll play. I'm paying my dues as a rookie. I just can't get too discouraged. I'm learning a lot."
Ballard says the Bullets have assured him "getting Dandridge didn't really affect my future with them.
This season has hurt Ballard's pride. He realizes some felt he was as good or better than Johnson, his Pacific Eight Conference rival, and he knows that Johnson, not Greg Ballard, is starring as a pro. And he is powerless to do anything about it, especially during the five or six minutes he usually plays in games.
To help relieve some of the pressure, he has looked elsewhere for relief. He is now studying the Bible, delving into the mysteries of religion. And he is contemplating doing a bio-rhythmn study of NBA players.
When you are a rookie who doesn't smoke or drink and who lives alone in a suburban apartment, you have time to undertake such projects. But he's sure his on-court intenseness eventually will relieve him of a lot of his free time.
When you are a rookie who doesn't smoke or drink and who lives alone in a suburban apartment, you have time to undertake such projects. But he's sure his on-court intenseness eventually will relieve him a lot of his free time.
"I'm going to be a good player in this league," he said. "Anyone who doubts that doesn't know me very well. I've got something to prove to everyone and I will."