After 3 1/2 months of jogging swimming and stretching, Phil Chenier has been able to rid his surgically scarred back of much of its stiffness and pain. His wind is returning, his legs are strongrer, even his jump shot is humming again.
But how do you rehabilitate self-doubt?
"I'm not going to fool anybody," said Chenier, the former all-star guard who has not worn a Bullet uniform since Jan. 8. "There is still some doubt in my mind whether I can ever be good enoughto play in the NBA nithg in and nith out.
"Everything else is coming along real good, but down the road I have to deal with some of these mental things. I'm handling it better and better but it's still there. I still wonder about the future."
This has been a traumatic year for Chenier. He spent months trying to heal his back without the help of surgery. And while he was sidelined, the Bullets won an NBA title despite the absence of one of its reigning superstars.
Then, when an operation became the only alternative, he had to face the fear of his first stay in a hospital and the trauma of not knowing how his body would react to the intrusion of a scalpel.
Now, as he sits in the stands at Capital Centre and watches his teammates continue to win without him, he wonders about his future role with the club. There are nine veterans already trying to squeeze out playing time. Where do his minutes come from? And since the Bullets no longer are the Phil and Elvin Show, can be adapt ot a different offense and a new coaching philosphy?"Those are all hurdles, things I must overcme eventually," he said. "But it's to a point where I've decided to take one thing at a time. I don't set a tiem schedule, I don't rush it, I try to avoid disappointments.
"Nothing has happened so far to slap me in the face and say, 'You can't play anymore.' And I don't think that will happen. But until I can start practicing again on a regular basis I don't really know anything definite yet."
When the doctors told him it would take about three months to return from the operation, which repaired a ruptured disk in his lower spine, Chenier figured he would be practicing with the Bullets by Dec. 1.
But he didn't start jogging until after Thanksgiving and he has yet to play even in a two-on-two game, where he could test his back's durability and fitness. So when the doctors now say he should be able to join the team in January, he smiles, says okay and declines to celebrate.
"I would like to think I could get back in January and i'd be disappointed if I didn't, but I'm not going to guarantee it," he said. "There have been too many mornings where I've gotten up sore and stiff. There is still pain, sometimes more than others. I've never had to deal with playing in pain before. Any other time, you could relieve it or it would go away.
"I don't want to pamper my body, but I don't want to push too fast and really mess things up. I've go to learn how much pain I can play with and how much pain is too much. That takes time."
Each day Chenier leaves his suburban Maryland home for a lengthy workout. He either swims or jogs, gets a rubdown or whirlpool and always he shoots. Nothing too strenuous yet, but he has improved engough to regain the feel of that poetry-in-motion jump shot that made him one of the league's most feared scoring threats.
That's when he pauses and thinks about his future. He is just 28, "still not at my peak yet," and anxious to prove to both the Bullets and the basketball world that a back operation has not ended his stardom.
"I know things are going to be a lot different when i play again," he said. "Things basically were set up for Elvin (Hayes) and me before Bobby (Dandridge) came. I only started eight games last year and so I never really got a chance to get used to playing with Bobby.
"Now they are using nine guys. Nine guys and they all get a good amount of time. Have they got room for 10? That sometimes goes through my mind, too.
"Last year was tough, sitting and watching. I could say I was happy for them, but that's not entirely true. I was happy for the joy they felt but i was saddened that I couldn't experience what Wes (Unseld) and E were going through after so many disappointments before then.
"Sometimes, I ask, 'Why me?' But there are a lot of other people in and out of basketball less fortunate than me. I think of that when I have to deal with self-pity. I have to find various things like that to inspire myself."
Chenier is aware critics have wondered aloud why he postponed the operation as long as he did. But he said he has no regrets-"I don't second-guess myself one minute"-and that he owed it to himself to exhaust every rehabilitative angle before resorting to surgery.
"I was under the impression that I could play without an operations," he said. "That's why I tried acupuncture, a chiropractor, everything. Lots of people mean well when they give you advice but it just confuses you. This was my first real injury, so everything I heard made an impression on me.
"They'd say, get it cut or don't get cut. I had to find out as close as I could about an operation and about my back. I feel like an authority on backs now. Surgery was the last alternative, from the start of all of this."
Nor he says, was there ever a thought about quitting. His aim was to "always try to come back and play. No matter what people think, I've searched for the best way to get healthy andd to continue my career.
"Sometimes when you sit in the stands, you think all you have to do is get ito a uniform and play. But it's not that simple. I've been away from the routine for a long time. I have to get used to practicing every day, the travel, the wake-up calls, the irregular eating.
"It's mental thing. The game is mental preparation. Getting ready to handle it will be an important stage for me, too. And I have to wonder about contact. My game isn't that physical but you can't avoid getting bumped. I don't want to play tentatively, you can't do that, so I have to go out and be loose and relaxed and just flow.
"Once I begin practicing with them, I don't know how long it will take to be read for a game. My wind will take time and I'll have to see how fast my body can get used to the quality of play.I won't set any timetable on that either."
But Chenier was getting ahead of himself. Ghe next step, he said, was the only one he was seriously contemplating: going head to head with an other player, cutting and stopping, jumping and shooting, letting his body forget about the operation and the pain and just concentrating on the techniques and intricacies of basketball.
"If I can pass that test, I'll go to half court and to full court and then maybe if I can get up and not have a lot of aches and pains, I can practice," he said.
"From the day I had the operation, I've been working my way up, I'm still on the climb. I just have to get to the top, that's all."