He realizes the job is the one of the most demanding in sports - and one of the least secure. Yet the dream will not stop for Bernie Bickerstaff. He wants to be a head coach in the NBA.

"I think I owe it to myself," he said, knowing that if the Bullets could win the NBA championship with victories here today and Wednesday in Seattle his chances would be solid.

"If you make it out of where I came from, down in the mountains of Southeastern Kentucky, you can survice," he said. "The basics are all there for me. My high school football coach taught me attitude, my coach at Rio Grande taught me what not to do.

"I've taken every situation and made something out of it."

The hometown was Benham, deep in the coal fields, and it may have swelled to 1,000 by now. Many winter nights of his youth were spent a few inches from the radio, listening while such as Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey brought glory to Kentucky and only later realizing he had been born ineligible to be a Wildcat.

"I'd almost cry when Kentucky lost," Bickerstaff said. "I'd keep the point totals of each player on a blackboard, and the next day I'd go out and play the game over, imagine I was Hagan or somebody else. I don't look back at those days with regret because they did bring me pleasure at the time."

At 34, Bickerstaff can be patient about taking the next logical step in a career that included being the youngest major-college coach in the country and five years as a Bullet assistant. Also, he has helped guide relatively mediocre talent to much success in two seasons of summer-league coaching in Puerto Rico.

After high school, Bickerstaff assumed he would join the Army. But a month before school began in the fall an aunt and uncle he had lived with in Cleveland for two years talked him into accepting an athletic scholarship at Rio Grande in Southeastern Ohio.

"I was the only black in school," he recalled. And those were trying times. On road trips, the coaches would leave the team off at a filling station and pretend like they were going off on a little errand.

"We all knew what going on. Or at least I did. They were trying to find a hotel that would let me stay. Also, I started as a freshman, but every time a relative of one of the nonstarters showed up for a game he started."

After about 18 months, Bickerstaff quit Rio Grande and began work in a Cleveland steel mill. That rekindled his interest in college, so on the suggestion of a friend he drove to California in a '56 Mercury, prepped a semester at a junior college and enrolled at the University of San Diego.

"I got lucky," he said, "because Phil Woolpert, who coached K. C. (Jones) and (Bill) Russell at San Francisco was the basketball coach and athletic director. He turned me around.

"I'd come with a chip on my shouler, got into fights at practice. And even though I knew the game and the plays I just was not a fundamentally sound basketball player. He made me one.

"I remember playing behind this kid who I knew was not as good as me. I went to Woolpert and told him I couldn't keep this up, and he said: 'That player starts because he does the things I want him to. I appreciate your attitude, but if you want to leave go ahead.'

"Something snapped. I wanted to prove I could play the game this way. And I did. I didn't graduate on time, though, but I turned down an offer from the Globetrotters to get my degree and work as a graduate assistant."

Then Bickerstaff got lucky again, for in three years Woolpert resigned. At 25, Bickerstaff became the youngest college coach in the country.

"And one of the few black coaches at a mostly white school," he said.

Bickerstaff stayed four years and cemented a friendship with Jones that began when they met at a coach's convention here the year UCLA beat Jacksonville for the NCAA championship.

In 1975, Jones left San Diego of the ABA for Washington of the NBA - and Bickerstaff came along as his assistant. Two years later the Bullets were in the championship round of the NBA playoffs, losing to Golden State in four games. A year later Jones was fired.

Bickerstaff also was let go and spent the summer winning a championship in Puerto Rico he could not savor because of no job prospects in the fall. The only offer came from Jim Lynam of American University. Then, suprisingly, new Bullet Coach Dick Motta asked him to assume his old job.

"I've paid my dues," Bickerstaff said, realizing that others, mostly notably Joe Roberts at Golden State and John Killilea at Milwaukee, also are highly qualified assistants but who have been passed over for recycled losers.

"At first I worried about (player) respect, coming from a small town and not playing pro ball. But that's not been a problem. In my five years here, we've been to the championship round twice."

Bickerstaff insists any head coach "must be in charge of the program. They must run the team, like Red Auerbach did at Boston and Don Shula at Miami. Then the team must fit the coach's personality.

"If I got fired, I'd get fired doing things my way. But I believe something will turn up (either in the NBA or at the major-college level). It always has. I've often been in the right place at the right time."