Every time Greg Ballard has one of his quietly outstanding games, Bullet Coach Dick Motta dusts off a spot for his forward corps in his basketball hall of fame.
"They are the best group of forwards on any one team in the history of the game," Motta said. "You can go three deep on a lot of teams and maybe you can match Elvin Hayes, Bobby Dandridge and Mitch Kupchak.
"But who can go to No. 4 and still talk about someone as good as Greg Ballard? You can't. No one really knows how good he is until you see him every day in practice and when he gets a chance in games."
Every time Ballard sinks crucial free throws or dominates the backboards like a mini-Wes Unseld, General Manager Bob Ferry shoves a bad summer night's dream further out of his mind.
"The first time Greg played on our summer league team after we drafted him, he was out of shape and looked awful," Ferry said. "They were jeering him and everyone was climbing my back. I almost cried. It looked like we had made a mistake.
"Now I can't remember ever having a player who is performing as closely to how I had envisioned him playing. Greg is just what we thought he would be."
Every time Ballard is surrounded after a game by reporters, he feels satisfaction gained from a job well done and erases more of the self-doubt that plagued him as a rookie last season.
"I heard so much about what kind of season Walter Davis and Marques Johnson were having that it bothered me," he said, "They were starting and playing, and I was sitting. I knew people wondered why I was drafted so high.
"At the same time, I really never lost confidence in my ability, just as long as I got a chance to show it. I never gave up on myself. I just kept working and hoping that things would work out. And they have."
With Kupchak sidelined temporarily by an Achilles' tendon problem, Ballard's role has taken on new importance.
In the six games Kupchak has been plagued by the injury, Ballard has averaged 24 minutes, 12 points and nine rebounds. The figures were 15 minutes, seven points and 4 1/2 rebounds in the 45 previous contests.
With Kupchak again sidelined for tonight's 8:30 game at Milwaukee, Ballard will be the first reserve in the front court. He could play big and small forward as well as center. Yet when Kupchak returns, Ballard is reconciled to returning to No. 4 forward. It is his ability to accept the predicament that Ferry most admires.
Until Unseld does retire, Ballard's minutes probably won't increase drastically. Unseld serves as the best model with which to compare Ballard.
Neither is flashy, either on the court or off. Both possess what scouts call "great hands," the ability to hold onto basketballs even in awkward positions.Like Unseld, Ballard is particularly effective around the offensive boards, where he displays a homing instinct for loose balls.
Ballard, of course, is not as strong as Unseld, but he has the muscular, solid body Ferry believes is perfect for a big forward, the position he will end up playing in the NBA, despite his primary role as a small forward with the Bullets. And his shooting range far outstrips that of the Washington center, who rarely tosses up anything outside of 10 feet.
"Greg does the dirty work," Ferry said. "He'll get underneath and muscle and go after loose balls. You know, just like with Wes, that Greg is giving you 100 percent each time out. You never worry about him.
"He's fundamentally sound and he never tries to do something he can't. It's been unfair sometimes for him to be matched up defensively against quicker small forwards, but most of the time he's been able to hold his own with anyone."
A typical Ballard performance came against Houston last Friday. He had remarkable statistics for 31 minutes -- 14 points and 16 rebounds, matching his season high -- but Motta remembered just as much his measly two turnovers "and the fact he did all the little things you like."
"He ran the plays and when we needed to hit an open man, he did," Motta said. "He made a couple of sweet passes to Bobby Dandridge that resulted in important baskets. He's still learning and he makes mistakes and he isn't always consistent, but being a reserve isn't always easy."
That substitute's role tears at Ballard's mind.
After some games, he said, "You walk out of the locker room with a bad feeling. You don't feel you have contributed, and you wonder why. I know Dick said my minutes would go up this season and they have but, sure, I'd like to play more."
"When you do get in and do a good job, it makes you hungry. You realize you can contribute and you want to. So when you sit and wait for another turn, your stomach churns a lot."
Motta believes that churning feeling, of all things, is what makes Ballard so valuable -- and elevates his quartet of forwards above everyone else's.