The last thing the Bullets want is an angry confrontation with Phil Chenier over his continuing refusal to undergo surgery on his bad back. But such a confrontation may be imminent, for Chenier's refusal can become an economic issue. No team wants to pay nearly $1 million to a player who can't play and won't do what doctors tell him is necessary to get into shape to play.
With three years to go on a contract reportedly paying him $300,000 a year, Chenier represents a considerable investment. Injured in training camp and out of work for good on Jan. 8, Chenier did nothing for his money last season. An it now seems certain he will miss most if not all, of the coming season, too. He cannot run today. Even if he relented to surgery, it would be three to ten months before he could work out seriously.
At some point, then, the Bullets, as a good business outfit, must step in to protect their investment. Three doctors, including the team physician, have recommended surgery for Chenier, but has groped for alternatives, trying acupuncture and chiropractic. Recently, Chenier went to Toronto, where a doctor supposedly had success repairing bad backs by injecting a fluid into the spine. "He told me it wasn't going to help me," Chenier said. He came home forlorn.
"Any type of surgery is like the last step," he said. "If it works, it works. But if it doesn't that's the end I want to play, but . . . look, I don't even want to make any kind of statement. Basically, the (Bullets') idea is that I should have an operation, but I'm looking at it from a lot of different angles."
If he found a doctor who said surgery was not necessary, would Chenier sit out another year of competition and heal that way instead of having surgery now?
"Definitely," he said.
The Bullets might have another idea, however, and it is not fun to think about.
Under terms of a standard NBA contract, a medical dispute in wwhich the player refuses to accept the team's advice is turned over to an "impartial" physician. The unanswered question - unanswered because, as far as memory serves, it has not happened - is what goes on after that impartial physician makes a decision.
What if Phil Chenier, advised to have surgery by that doctor, too, still refuses?
Is the contract broken? Does that $300,000 a year for three years go out the window? In Phil Chenier no longer a Bullet?
Or, from the player's side, does he take the Bullets to court, a Ia Bill Walton and Portland? Is there a lawsuit in which Chenier claims it is his back and he alone will decide if it is to be cut open . . . while the Bullets say it may be his back, but it is their bucks?
Bob Ferry, the Bullets' general manager, says not to worry.
"We're not going to have a problem, not at all," Ferry said yesterday. "I'm sure Phil will do whatever is necessary."
If we are to believe the recommendations of three doctors, however, Chenier has not yet done the necessary.
"I'm sure Phil wants to do whatever he can," Ferry said, dancing around the truth that Chenier, by refusing surgery when it was first recommended six months ago likely ruined his chances of playing this coming season.
Because the Bullets know the depth of Chenier's distrust of surgery, Ferry was quick to say the team, by recommending surgery, is not mindlessly suggesting an operation for the operation's sake.
"In many ways, a player's health is more important to the team than it is to him," Ferry said.
That's in a business sense, from management's viewpoint. A Phil Chenier who can't jump isn't worth $30 to the Bullets on the court. They couldn't trade him to the Anchorage Eskimos for a four-foot center. But the Phil Chenier who in six seasons averaged 19 points as a wonderful offensive guard - ah, that Chenier is a precious jewel that the Bullets covet.
As proven by their patience in the six months since surgery was recommended, the Bullets are sympathetic to Chenier's fear. They care about the human predicament of a man who doesn't want to go under the knife but knows that it may be the only way he can work at his chosen job.
Yet, the Bullets must do what is best for business.
"At some point, which shall be shortly, we'll sit down with Phil and figure out what to do," Ferry said. He said that might be within 10 days.