Phil Chenier, The Washington Bullet's bad-backed guard, took his first tentative steps toward returning to the NBA yesterday by firing up a few set shots at Capitol Centre.

"That's really the first shooting I've done since I've been out," Chenier said during an informal team work-out. "I've been getting itchy, so it was good to be out there again.

Chenier has been sidelined since pulling a hamstring muscle Jan. 8 in a game against New Jersey. Then a chronic lower-back problem, caued by a degenerative disc to his spine, flared up and prevented him from doing anything but the simpliest of physical activities.

Three doctors have told Chenier he should undergo surgery on his back. But after coming "within inches of agreeing with them" he decided against an operation.

Instead, he underwent acupuncture and had fuve treatments by a chiropractor. In the last two weeks, the pain has been reduced to what he described as "only occasional morning achiness, but nothing like it was before."

His back has improved so much that he has been able to start jogging. And he feels that, "physically, I could be pretty much back to normal as far as basketball is concerned.

"But mentally," he added, "I'm afraid of a setback. I'm afraid of going out and playing and having my back give out on me again and having spasms return and getting the pain I had before.

"No basically, I feel I have to take things gradually. I'll add a little more activity at a time, run some more and see how I feel. Even when I was shooting now, I felt a little achiness, but that's maybe because I'm using muscles that haven't been used in a while."

Chenier admitted that he is gamling by not having an operation. But he said that doctors told him "there was only a 65 percent chance that the operation would solve my problem. I didn't think those were very good odds either, so surgery was a gamble, too.

"If I got an operation they would have to open up my back and maybe my body would'nt react property. The operation itself might be okay but something else could go wrong.

"If there is something actually wrong with my body structure or the way I move, then an operation would be only a temporary solution. It may relieve the pressure for a while but it would come back."

He said two different back operations were recommended. One would have sidelined him for three to five months, the other up to 10 months.

"Either way, it would have been difficult for me to get back for next season," he said, "and I think it's crucial for my career that I play next season.

"I was really upset with the course of events I was sitting at home and it seemed everyone was telling me I should have an operation. People think cuttting is the cure-all to everything.

"But I went down to the health club (in Columbia, Md.) one day and I ran into a guy who knew massage. He recommended acupuncture, so I took him up on it."

"I want to cover every base. There is a drug I've read about in Canada that they inject into the disc and it's supposed to help. I haven't crossed that off my list, either, if I think it will be beneficial.

"Time will have to determine what is the best way to go, I guess. I know they (the Bullets) are anxious to find out how I am so they can make some decisions in the summer, and I'm just as anxious to see how it works out."

So anxious, in fact, that he plans to play on the bullets' summer league team. "That will be the best judge of what I can do," he said.

Meanwhile, he sits on the Bullet bench during games, trying not to get too frustrated by not being able to play.