He is a professional at the peak of his game, an elegantly tuned, supremely confident athlete who paints masterpieces in sweat with skillful splashes of talent almost every time he pulls on a Bullet uniform.

His style is a slow study in grace and efficiency; there are no flashy Julius Erving moves on Bobby Dandridge's palette. To be fully appreciated, his abilities must be absorbed over the course of the marathon NBA season, when flashbacks of his consistency and intelligence linger long after final scores are forgotten.

This is the climax of nine years of development in the league for Dandridge. There may be better small forwards but he doesn't think so, even if public recognition of his skills lingers far behind the worship bestowed upon Erving or Walter Davis or Marques Johnson or Rick Barry.

He no longer is an understudy toiling in the shadow of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee or Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld in Washington. He finally has sculptured a spot among the NBA's reigning stars, at least in the eyes of his peers, while emerging as the brightest hue on the best team in basketball.

"When we won the (NBA) title in Milwaukee, they said it was because of Kareem," said Dandridge, who is in Denver for tonight's game against the Nuggets.

"I am a core on this team, one of the most important cogs," said Dandridge. "Sometimes it puzzles me where I picked up my air of confidence. But most nights I feel if I concentrate enough, I can do just about anything I want against anyone who guards me. I've never felt that way before."

Not even a mediocre showing in All-Star balloting has discouraged him. At 31, he remains a special treasure, whose strokes and definitions apparently are appreciated mainly by those who look beyond scoring averages for satisfaction.

Yet this season of fulfillment could be dramatically shattered for both Dandridge and the Bullets before the end of the regular schedule unless the club is willing to acknowledge his ascendancy among the game's virtuosos.

The contract problems that kept him out of training camp in the fall have not been resolved. He still feels he is not being paid his true worth for his contributions to the winning of the league championship last June. And although he stops short of making threats or outlining future alternatives, there is little doubt that his original demands of four months ago still stand:

"Either trade me before the season ends or pay me more money; otherwise don't expect me to do more than you think I am worth to this team come playoff time."

"Things are in limbo," he said, "but it's a lingering factor on my mind. I feel I played a large part in helping some people on this team get some sizable new contracts. The people who are getting the money are going to have to start picking up the slack instead of me busting my butt to win games they can.

"I've been told or shown (by the Bullets) in so many words that I evidently can't compete against Julius Erving. It's proven to me that I shouldn't try to play over my head, but to stay in my salary bracket. Teams don't ask Jamaal Wilkes or Toby Knight to win games when they are five down with two to go. They turn to their highest-paid players.

"That's why this season is so satisfying to me personally. Despite what is happening to me off the court, I haven't let it affect my play. No one can say I haven't given it my best out there."

The Bullet front office agrees it is delighted with Dandridge's performance so far. But owner Abe Pollin said that the club's preseason stand has not changed: Dandridge won't be traded "under any circumstances" and there will be no renegotiation of current contracts.

"Bobby knows how we feel," said General Manager Bob Ferry. "I don't see any possibility of trading him. He was a free agent last year and he could have signed with anyone, but he chose us. He is too much of a pro, he has too much pride to let down on the court."

Since winning the championship, the Bullets have given Unseld a new one-year contract worth $350,000 and Hayes a three-year extension calling for $450,000 annually. Coach Dick Motta and his assistant, Bernie Bickerstaff, also were rewarded with two-year extensions. Dandridge, who does not want additional years added to his contract, is seeking a change in financial terms in the second season of a $250,000, three-year pact.

Although he is frequently a mischievous sort who says he is getting better with age, "just like the antiques I collect," Dandridge claims he is deadly serious about these financial matters.

"I think my value on the Bullets is equal to anyone's," he said. "I just want to be paid what I am worth on the court. It doesn't take a Phi Betta Kappa to realize if someone is making twice as much as me and I'm still kicking his butt every night, it is inequitable."

The prolonged contract hassle has not affected Dandridge's relationship with his teammates, who respect his ability and realize, as playmaker Tom Henderson put it. "It's his business. We shouldn't butt in. We know his value. He is our strongest force, our most consistent force. His worth to us is immeasurable. I don't go to Kevin (Grevey) or Elvin down the stretch when we need a basket. I go to Bobby Dandridge."

But within what Pollin calls "my Bullet family" the dislike for Dandridge is strong. He is a strong-willed, outspoken, sometimes stubborn individual who has not kept his difficulties with the team private. Nor has he made an attempt to socialize with or win over friends of that family. Many of Pollin's supporters find such behavior offensive and Dandridge's actions a slight to the Bullet owner.

The club, however, has never had to deal with a player who has quite so drastically separated basketball the sport from basketball the business. To the proud Dandridge, asking to renegotiate a contract after a superior season makes good business sense; to the proud Pollin, it is a violation of principle and a threat to future player relations.

Nor has the club ever employed someone quite as independent and single-minded as this slim native of Richmond. To Dandridge, who would prefer never to practice or hear harsh criticism or play when he is hurt, there is nothing detrimental involved in his stand. To him, too, it is a matter of principle.

Dandridge is a maverick even among those growing ranks of athletes who would rather give a pep talk to their stock broker than receive one from their coach. He has gradually slashed through the mystique of sports, reducing his profession to its barest essentials. As a result, he looks at what he does strictly as a job, not a fantasyland of fan worship and press clippings.

"I come and I play and I keep my nose clean," he said. "That's my job. What I do with my private life is no one's business. I still get emotional about games, but it doesn't consume my whole life anymore, just a few hours every day. The owners are in this as a business and the players should be too. The days when we did things for gratitude and a handshake are over."

And like an efficient businessman taking stock of his yearly production, Dandridge has carefully analyzed his contributions to the Bullets. He was second in scoring and third in assists last year and second in both this season. He was probably the most consistent player during the playoffs last spring, when he clearly outperformed Philadelphia's Erving, something he has done regularly during his career.

There are also those gifts he gives the Bullets that don't show up on stat sheets. He is their brain in pressure situations and their hammer at the end of fast breaks. He never panics, rarely has a bad night and loves to take charge when the outcome is in doubt. Some games, he is virtually unstoppable.

"My game is such that I can adjust to any situation. I can go inside, shoot outside and post you up," he said. "I was offended when Erving said the best forwards came from the ABA. Anyone can shoot, but you measure greatness in other ways. Not everyone can win but I think I have shown I can be a winner."

Yet he simmers over the fact that he is the "team's fourth-highest paid player" and over what he believes is unequal treatment from the club's marketing department, especially in the area of Bullet-obtained endorsements.

"I know some people say I signed a three-year contract last year and that I should live up to it," he said. "But things change. Last year I was worth what they paid me. This year, I think my value has increased. I don't want to play more than one or two more years, so I need to reap some benefits now.

"Bob Ferry told me the Bullets have always had a good team before I came here and I said yes, but you also always had a team that hadn't come through in the clutch situations and won the big game.

"That theory has been dispelled now and I think I had a lot to do with changing it. So why shouldn't it be equal for everyone as far as publicity and pay are concerned?"

Chip Reed, the Bullets' director of marketing, said that Ferry as general manager "demands that everyone be treated equally as far as being pushed for endorsements are concerned. There just isn't as big a demand for Bobby as there is for Wes, Elvin and Mitch (Kupchak). But no one is getting as much from last year's title as we thought they would."

Dandridge admits turning down a couple of endorsement chances, one of which would have been lucrative, "because they just weren't at the right times for my schedule. Right now, I have one major endorsement (with a bank).

"I'm sure there probably are more requests for some other players. People really don't know much about me other than what they see on the court and my game isn't that spectacular. I know I don't get that much national recognition, maybe because I'm not an outgoing person who is into public appearances and points.

"I thought things would change for me after what we did to Philly in the playoffs and after we won the title. But the All-Star voting says otherwise."

This is not the first time Dandridge has had marked differences with his employer. He jousted with Milwaukee's front office over pay and other contract terms. And there are similar differences of opinion in Milwaukee and Washington over the man himself.

To some, he appears an arrogant self-centered troublemaker who has little concern for the Bullets or the feelings of others. To his friends, such as agent-attorney Scott Lang, that is a marred portrait.

"Bobby is just smarter than most of the people he is dealing with," said Lang. "He is years ahead in his thinking. He is worried about his future and his family and he is trying to make sure they are taken care of first.

"Maybe they resent the fact he doesn't back-slap and play up to everyone. That's not his style. He is one of the most genuine, straight-up people I know. And he is his own man. If he feels you are messing with him, he'll tell you even if you are his employer."

Dandridge remembers something his last Milwaukee coach, Don Nelson, said about him: "He put out every night for us, but he had one problem. He can't tell a lie."

"Isn't that something?" Dandridge says now with a laugh. "You are honest and that's wrong. But I give a lot of thought to what I say, so when I say it, I feel I am right. I've changed over the last five or six years that way. Before, I would just let it rip.

"I'm more careful now of how my actions might affect other people. I don't want to harm the 14 or so people directly involved with this team. In Milwaukee, I talked about Oscar (Robertson), the arena, everything to get a new contract. That was wrong.

"I am not going to politic with anyone just to improve my position. It's not necessary. I'm not paid to be nice to a guy just because he is a rich businessman. If we deal on a business level, I expect it to be equal; we both should benefit. I don't want to be used or use anyone else."

Instead of participating in clinics or shaking hands at parties, Dandrige would rather do his public relations work "in D.C. where you don't see a lot of other Bullets.

"I think I do more for this team in terms of commitment by associating with the people of D.C. I was here last summer, I was highly visible around town, even in some sections that rarely ever see a Bullet. For some reason, Bullets aren't that visible here, compared to the Redskins.

"After I retire, I might move into the city. I like it. The people love the Bullets but I don't think they relate to us that much and that's wrong."

So Dandridge the ambassador of good will socializes around Capitol Hill and takes in the kind of cultural events that made Washington so attractive for him when he was negotiating as a free agent. He also remains the only Bullet who lives in Virginia and one player who would rather fly out of National Airport than Baltimore-Washington International.

Dandridge was brought up in a poor area of Richmond "where everyone made $6,500 to $7,500 working for the railroad." But he says he never "felt I was missing anything. I always had the clothes I needed and we went to church and lived a decent life.

"I look back now and I realize I never thought this would happen to me. When you achieve it, it makes you appreciate it that much more."

His great basketball skills almost went undeveloped. He had an undistinguished high school career and got a scholarship to Norfolk State on the recommendation of a sharp-eyed referee. Milwaukee drafted him in the fourth round the year it picked up Abdul-Jabbar. The UCLA All-America, who was supposed to dominate the league, has been on one NBA title team; Dandridge, who was not supposed to survive the final cut his rookie season, has been on two.

But the portrait still is not complete. He wants to prove he can be just as successful, on his own, in business as he has been in sports. To reach that goal, he has begun renovating old houses in the District with the idea of eventually getting into real estate full time.

"I want to be able to stand on my own two feet without any help," he said. "I've done things in basketball no one thought I could. But I don't want my life to end when I retire. That's something I hope the Bullets also can understand."