He didn't contribute much statistically in the 15 minutes he played against Phoenix Friday night, but that didn't matter to the Bullets. They were just glad to see Mitch Kupchak back in uniform.

"Just having Mitch around and ready to play helps everyone," said Elvin Hayes. "He helps to get us fired up with his enthusiasm."

The players were just as surprised as Coach Dick Motta when team physician Dr. Stanford Lavine gave Kupchak the go-ahead to play in the game, the first he has appeared in since tearing ligaments in his thumb Jan. 20 against Los Angeles.

"I had figured he would play Tuesday," said Motta. "I thought if he made his return on the road it would be easier on him than here at Capital Centre where the fans might expect too much of him right away."

Kupchak had figured he wouldn't play today, when the Bullets host the Golden State Warriors at 1:45. And if Lavine had told him Friday that the thumb was still not healed enough to let him return to action, he was willing to sit out "another two or three weeks if that's what he thought it would take.

Instead, Lavine told him that the tissue in the thumb was about 90 per cent healed from a Jan. 23 operation.

"Then why not play tonight?" asked Kupchak.

Lavine agreed and Motta, who was out watching his players warm up before the game, was summoned.

"They asked me if I wanted him to play," said Motta. "They didn't have to ask me twice."

So Kupchak, whom Motta calls "our gusto," suited up and went through pregame warmups. He received a rousing ovation from the crowd and then hit his first shot after entering the game in the second quarter. He finished with six points, hitting three of four shots, and had a couple of rebounds.

"It's still sore," he said, "but I have to learn to live with that. I've got pretty good flexibility in it but I'm still not sure how it will hold up in a game."

He was pleased that the thumb, which is heavily taped, passed its initial test, including surviving one nasty fall to the floor. Until Friday, all Kupchak had done was play one-on-one games with his teammates, in which a blocked shot with his right hand was considered a major accomplishment.

"It's going to take him a while to get back into playing shape," said Motta. "You can do all the running you want but it's not like playing in a game.

"We aren't expecting him to do much at first. He has to learn to shoot with the tape on his hand and that will take time. But it's important for us to have him back, even if he isn't 100 percent."

Kupchak missed 15 games in all. Over that span, the Bullets won only five contests and slipped to within one game of the 500 mark.

Kupchak's return comes at a time when Wes Unseld, the man whom he usually replaces, is playing like a 25-year-old youngster instead of a 32-year-old veteran.

Unseld climaxed a string of splendid games with a 19-point, 24-rebound performance against the Suns that some Bullet observers called his best showing in three years. He wound up scoring the winning basket on a layup with 10 seconds left in overtime.

Over the last nine games, he has averaged more than 16 rebounds and has two contests of at least 21 rebounds. In addition, he has picked up his scoring while acknowledging that Motta really doesn't want him shooting that much. In the last six games, he has averaged 13 points (compared with seven for the season) while totaling 35 assists and hitting 66 per cent from the floor.

"No, I'm not doing anything special," said Unseld, who is about as emotional as Tom Landry. "The only adjustment I've made in rebounding is to jump off a different knee, but I've been doing that for the last couple of years. And I can't get to as many loose balls as I once could."

What Unseld is doing, however, is using his considerable bulk to overpower the likes of Dennis Awtrey, Rich Kelley and James Edwards and team with Elvin Hayes to dominate the backboards.

In the nine games, Hayes and Unseld have been so powerful that the Bullets, even without Kupchak, have outrebounded their opponents by an average of more than nine. Friday, Unseld and Hayes teamed for 44, two fewer than the Suns' team total.

Larry Wright, nursing a sore wrist, remains questionable for today's game. He did not suit up Friday night . . . Hayes' 23 points against Phoenix put him over the 10,000-point mark as a Bullet.