Washington Bullet guard Phil Chenier will undergo back surgery Friday at Sibley Memorial Hospital in a last-ditch-effort to save his basketball career.
There is the possibility that the laminectomy which involves removing some vertbrae and a trouble disk in Chenier's lower back, will sideline him for the entire upcoming National Basketball Association season.
Meanwhile, two weeks before the new NBA champions open training camp, Roger Phegley of Bradley, the 6-foot-7 guard the Bullets drafted in the first round as a backup for Chenier, remains unsigned, as does 6-11 center Dave Corzine of DePaul, the Bullets' other first-round draft choice.
Agents for both players said yesterday that the Bullets' reluctance to give their players no-cut contracts is the root of the problem. Phegley apparently is closer to terms than Corzine, whom, his agent said, has to decide whether to take the Bullet's current offer or play in Europe for more money.
Bob Ferry, Bullet general manager, said that, as a team policy, he would not discuss specific contracts or negotiations.
The Bullets have signed only one draft choice, No. 10 pick Steve Connor of Boise State. Ferry said the Bullets expect to have only 15 or 16 players in camp because, "On paper, they're all battling for one position."
Chenier, 27, played in only 36 NBA games last season because of chronic leg and back problems. His last game was Jan. 8. Until Tuesday, he had rejected doctors' recommendations that he undergo disk surgery and had sought other alternatives. None worked.
Both Chenier and Ferry were reluctant yesterday to discuss the surgery and the guard's prospects for returning to the team. They also declined to name the surgeon, whom they said will not be team physician Stanford Lavine.
"I'm going in for the operation Friday and I hope everything turns out OK," Chenier said. "They're going to remove the disk that is putting pressure on the nerve."
Commenting on reports that the Bullets have put pressure on him to have the surgery now, Chenier said in a prepared statement released by the Bullets:
"I've always been treated fairly (by the Bullets' management) . . . I feel I have an obligation to the organization, my family and the many Bullet fans who have become part of a winning tradition.
"My wife, Paula, and my family join me in asking for prayers that the operation is a success, and I look forward to continuing my career with the organization."
Chenier said he was told he could resume playing basketball in as little as three months. Ferry said he was told Chenier could begin jogging one month after the surgery, which will hospitalize the former University of California star for 7 to 10 days.
Ferry said Chenier will undergo an 'L5, S1" laminectomy, which one local orthopedist yesterday described as the most common disk operation.
"L5, S1" signified the junction of the fifth lumbar vertebra and the first sacral vertebra, "the highest point of stress," according to the orthopedist, who is not involved in the case.
The orthopedist, who has experience with sports injuries, said:
"For regular type people, you do not recommend any type of sports activity afterward. If he was a laborer, I'd recommend he find another job. But with athletes, it's different. All bets are off, because they make their living that way.
"I'd be skeptical of his returning to competitive basketball within a year, if at all. But, with a pro basketball player, the motivations are different and he may be able to do it."
Pat Fischer of the Redskins and Mitch Kupchak of the Bullets are examples of players who underwent similar surgery and were able to resume their careers. Fischer underwent two laminectomies, the first of which extended his career five years. He could not come back from the second one last year.
Ferry said that under the patient-doctor relationship, neither Chenier nor the surgeon wanted to discuss the operation or the prognosis for Chenier's return.
In Peoria, Ill., Joe Napoli, attorney for Phegley, said that he had submitted a counter-proposal to Ferry by mail this week. He said he and the Bullets were less than $100,000 apart in salary figures over the term of the multiyear contract and that Phegley would take fewer dollars for a guaranteed contract.
Napoli said that in negotiations thus far, the Bullets have not offered any form of a no-cut, guaranteed contract. Phegley was the 14th player selected in the draft.
Napoli was more optimistic than Herb Rudoy, Corzine's Chicago attorney. Corzine was the 18th player selected in the first round and would be groomed to back up center Wes Uneld.
We're not even close. We've had very little communication," said Rudoy. "You take a team like Washington and they're in a different kind of negotiating situation than, say Atlanta. They're in a position of strength.
"Bob's a strong bargainer and I envy his bargaining position. He's holding all the cards. I'm not mad at him. It's a tough situation, what I expected. Dave's got to make a decision. He can make a lot more money in Italy with a lot more security. But it's everybody's dream to play in the NBA."