Phill Chenier won't be playing for the Bullets any time soon. His back is bad improving only slowly. Because of pain, he has favored his right leg; consequently, muscles in that leg have weakened and must be rebuilt. It may be three weeks before he's on a basketball courts again. And playing basketball is a heluva way to treat a bad back. Surgery might be next.

In his underwear and sweat socks, Chenier lay on an examination talbe at Kernan Hospital yesterday morning.

"Say when," Bill Neill said. Chenier's right leg was propped against the shoulder of his physical therapist. Neil moved forward, pressing the leg upright. "Soon as we get to any 'wnen,' say it," Neil said.

Three weeks ago, Chenier could not stand up, sit down or lie down. He couldn't sleep. Pain that laid siege to his back sent guerrilla forces into Chenier's right leg. "I had spasms and the leg just kept throbbing," he said.

Like all professional athletes, Chenier has a magnificent body that lifted him above the rest of us. He'd had a sprained ankle, nothing worse. Then, three years ago, the back pains started. Doctors now say the pain is caused by a degenerative disk in the lowe back, the condition aggravated by abnormally small spacing between the vetebra there. Never, though, has it been this bad."

"I couldn't get into any position that would stop the pain for more than 15, 20 seconds," Chenier said.

So he went in to the hospital. They put him in traction. For a man whose body is his work and life, traction can be frighting. Is it all over? Is the glory gone? The mondy?

"It did pass my mind when I was laying on my back: What if I never play again?" Chenier said.

And how did he handle the thought?

"I just pushed it out of my mind."

For 11 days he was in the hospital.

They aimed machines at his back, sending heat and sound against the pain, forcing it into a retreat. And when Chenier left the hospital a week ago Wednesday, he was euphoric. The pain was lessening, he said. And while the Bullets already had written him off as lost for the season, Chenier surprised everybody by saying he'd be back playing inside two weeks.

No way. Since being discharged from one hospital, Chenier has made daily trips to Kernan for physical therapy. He knew he needed more than two weeks when he realized how weak his right leg was. "I found myself dragging it," he said. Now ice packs rae applied to his back and leg. Then Neill massages him, following that with sound treatment, 10 minutes of heat and a few stretching exercises.

Neill, a physical therapist who has helped keep Wes Unseld and Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson in working order, moved Chenier's leg forward until the basketball player said something.

"Uunngh," Chenier said, closing his eyes against the discomfort.

"Now, pull," Neill said.

Chenier forced his leg against Neill's shoulder, a movement that tested the large muscle in the back of the leg, the hamstring. Chenier wahas complained of a pulled hamstring.

The therapist counted. "Two, three, four, " he said. "That's enough, Phil. Relax."

Chenier opened his eyes.

"I think the hamstring is well now," Neill said. "Just a little twinge, right?"

Chenier nodded.

"It's not the hamstring that's hurting you. It's a disk problem. A sciatic nerve problem."

Chenier said nothing. He'd rather have a hamstring poull than a nerve problem. Muscles heal. Athletes understand that. But nerves are mysteries and athletes don't like mysteries about their bodied. They have trusted them too long.

"Let's see if you've fallen off in girth," Neill said. Using a tape measure and a ballpoint pen, he made two marks on Chenier's right leg - one three inches above the kneecap, the other six inches.t's 6 1/4 here," he said at the first mark, "and 17 here."

Measurements on the left leg at those three-and six-inch marks had been 17 inches and 19 1/2.

"We've fallen off," Neill said. "We'll have to build that right leg up. It's not a subtle weekness, either, Phil. It'll be very obvious in your play because it would create an imbalance. It's a vicious cycle. The muscle is weak, so that affects your general efficiency and that affects your back."

Chenier listened in silence.

"We have to build the leg up, both the quadricep and the hamstring. Whenever you're ready, we'll start with strength work. Just let me know when. What we don't want to do is do anything to aggravate that damned back."

Chenier saill didn't say anything.

"We can start tomorrow," Neill said, "or we can wait."

"Let's wait some," Chenier said, and the doctor said, "Fine."

It will take two weeks of work to rebuild Chenier's right leg and improve his conditioning enough for the next step in Neill's therapy.

"That's when we'll put him on a court," Neill said.

Not to play basketball right away, but to do certain calisthenics. Basketball, the therapist said, is one of the most demanding games of all. A football player works maybe five minutes at a time in a game and a hockey player sits down every three or four minutes. Phil Chenier might do 20 minutes of running, stopping, starting, jumping and twisting with only minimal breaks for rest. To see X-rays of Wes Unseld's knees, Neill said, is to see ruin.

So he will bring Chenier back slowly. The player misses the game, the travel, the competition, the excitement. "It's a bitch to lay at home and watch the games on TV or listen to the radio," he said. But Neill says the back has never been this bad, the pain never this acute.

"I don't want him going back out there until he's able to do everything he's always done," Neill said.

"We'll just get him playable. Only then will we find out if the back will hold up. With a disk problem - that's what this is, without a doubt - the way Phil goes up, arching his back for the jump shot, that's a big no-no. It puts pressure on the disk. And if one disk does have a tendency to prolapse, then, blooey! It just goes. We'd have to do surgery."

Chenier didn't say anything. Some nights 17,000 people have cheered the beauty of Chenier's work. Leaving the hospital yesterdday, Chenier limped and seemed to drag his right leg. He was alone.