He doesn't wear those garish blue-and-gold basketball shoes anymore. "They stopped making the color," he said in explanation. But this year Phil Walker would rather have people talking more about his ability than his shoes.
Of all the veterans off last year's NBA championship team, Walker is the only Bullet in danger of losing his job. And his efforts to hold off the challenge of rookie Roger Phegley should be the highlight of an otherwise meaningless exhibition season that gets under way tonight at 8 against Atlanta in Norfolk.
"These exhibition games are important to me," said Walker. "I need the time to show what I can do. I'm sure they are going to let us play a lot and I have to make the most of it. But I don't want to press. That's not going to help at all. I just have to bust my butt and see what happens."
Walker spent last season as the seldom-used mopup man at the end of the bench. Even the joy of the winning the league title couldn't offset a rookie season that he now calls "the longest, most frustrating of my life. I've already vowed I won't go through the same kind of season again."
Normally, as a second-year player, he could expect more playing time this season. But with Phegley, a first round draft pick with a guaranteed contract in camp, Walker faces an uncertain future with the Bullets.
"I know I can play in the NBA," he said. "I know I can be a solid NBA guard. But now it's a matter of getting the exposure and the minutes to prove it.
"Last year was a learning experience for me. But you can sit and learn only so much. Then you have to play to progress.What I want this year is for Coach (Dick Motta) to have enough faith in me so that if someone is going badly or is hurt, he turns to me and lets me play. That didn't happen last year."
Last year saw few personal high-lights - 23 points against Los Angeles, a start Phoenix, a block of a John Havlicek jumper - and long periods of watching. Walker battled to stay in shape physically and be sharp mentally, but found it difficult "to be ready when you play two minutes one game and not again for three weeks."
Now there is the Phegley problem. Motta says he has not begun "even thinking about which guy is better," which is encouraging to Walker, "I just hope this isn't predetermined, but it it is," said Walker. "I just hope this isn't predetermined, but if it is," said Walker, "it's out of my hands."
He has had time to size up the opposition. Phegley, he says, "is a jump-shooter. No criticism of him, but I am a guard I can shoot and pass and dribble and play defense and move the ball up the court.
"I can play both shooter or play-maker. I think that's a benefit to the Bullets. I can fill in at either position. I found out last year I needed more patience, so I would do the right things at the right times instead of forcing it, but I feel I'm learning all the time. I know I'm better than I was."
Walker sayd he belongs in the NBA, which is now Motta feels. "He can stick in this league, no question about it," said Motta. "He's a talented player and a good person. I've already noticed improvement in him this year. he doesn't dribble as much or force things as much.
"He can jump and he can penetrate. Now he just has to play his game and not press or anything. In this league, the cream has a way of rising to the top. It always does in basketball."
Walker spent the offseason playing in two summer leagues - and doing a lot of thinking. He knew that Phegley's presence made his job precarious and he admits for a while "it was getting to me.
"Then I said, 'Hey thre is nothing you can do about it.Just play like you know you can and things will work out.' Every time I start getting down, I just think about how long last season was and I get inspired from down deep inside me."
Walker's ultimate downfall may be cuased by his size. At 6-foot-2, he gives away four inches to Phegley, height might make it easier for him to stay with some of the league's tall guards.
But Walker says that isn't true. "I don't care how tall you are, you aren't going to stay with George Gervin or Paul Westphal," he said. "Good defense is more a matter of team defense and I think I can blend in with our defense, now that I've had a year to get used to it.
"Like I said, I've got the tools to help this or some other team. Playing against the pros day after day in practice has taught me that much. I'd hate to think my career might be over before I can prove it."
Free-agent guard Calvin Brown from American University and guard Roger Dickens, the Bullets' fifth round draft choice from Townson State, were cut from the squad yesterday.