As soon as the Washington Bullets heard that rookie Dave Corzine was lifting weights in his spare time, guard Tom Henderson, the club's designated inventor of nicknames, struck.

"Hey Arnold," yelled Henderson during a practice "you got to build that body up."

Corzine has no dreams of molding his shape to equal that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former bodybuilding champ, but even he had to smile at Henderson's tag.

The new nickname also was the most memorable aspect of an otherwise lowkey first season, until recently. Then, as Coach Dick Motta put it, "they stopped teasing Dave and started shaking his hand."

The congratulations have come after a string of fine performances by Corzine, who had spent three months sitting at the end of the Bullet bench, never complaining but never expecting much more than garbage-time appearances.

His fortunes, however, have changed drastically since regular backup center Mitch Kupchak has been sidelined with an inflamed Achilles tendon. Motta turned to Corzine for help when Wes Unseld also was hobbled with a sore foot and the former DePaul star has responded better than the Bullets probably expected.

His statistics over the last eight games won't cause Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to check the daily box scores, but Motta wasn't concerned about impressive numbers from Corzine. He just hoped his rookie would be competitive enough to allow Unseld to rest sufficiently and for the team to stay close in games.

On both counts, Corzine has been nearly perfect.

He was an instrumental factor in two victories, against Houston and San Diego, and Motta has not been forced yet to remove him from a game because of a poor showing.

The Bullets go against Houston again tonight at Capital Centre, 8 p.m.

Considering Corzine's lack of experience and his long stretch of inactivity, he has had an amazing string of performances. And in his own mind, he has proven he belongs in the NBA.

"I never doubted I didn't," he said, "but that does little good if the people who make the decision, like Coach Motta, don't agree. I might be in a factory next year, still thinking I can play.

"It is satisfying to know I can step in and help out and not let anyone down. I had reconciled myself to the fact I wouldn't be playing much this season. Now this has happened and I've enjoyed it.

"But don't think I'm satisfied. I really haven't felt I've played all that well. I can be better but it will take work."

Corzine lacks quickness but he is an accomplished passer, the aspect of his game that first caught the eye of General Manager Bob Ferry. He also is intelligent, hard-working and capable enough on offense to average 20 points during his senior year at DePaul. Much like Unseld, he compliments the players around him with his picks, screens and nifty feeds.

The major flaw in his game is rebounding, a weakness he acknowledges and has labored to correct since training camp. Working since September against Unseld, one of the game's master rebounders, has been an education in itself.

"I am a strength player, just like Wes," said Corzine, "so this is a great setup for me.

"He has helped me once in awhile, talking about how to hold the ball or how to set a pick, but he doesn't volunteer much. I mainly watch him in games, how he handles a jumper like Moses Malone or a shooting center.

"I've also learned one thing. The major reason he is so good is because he is so strong. That's more important to him than any tricks he might use. I'm not that strong, but I figure once I am, I will be able to do a lot of the same things he can do. That's why I weight lift."

Sometimes, opponents must think they already are running into another Unseld when they collide with the 6-foot-11, 250-pound Corzine.

"None of the players like to get hit by him in practice," said Motta. "He's not afraid to contact. He's an achiever. He wants to get better and he works at it, including tossing his body into what he does.

"He may not ever be a star in this league, but there is no shame in playing 12 years as a complementary player. Not too many people at age 35 can say they had that many years in the NBA."

For now, Corzine is content to follow Motta's orders, shoot infrequently and concentrate mostly on blocking out instead of going after rebounds aggressively. But, as Malone found out Feb. 2, if you can't get around Corzine, it's impossible to get to any loose rebounds.

In the Houston game, Malone spent three quarters smashing off Unseld, then was practically stopped flat in his basketball shoes during the fourth by Corzine's sledge hammer arms. The Houston star didn't get a rebound in those final 12 minutes.

Corzine's most productive moments came against San Diego last week. He was tossed into the game at the end of the third quarter as part of a mopup move by Motta and wound up playing the rest of the way. He finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, an assist and a block as the Bullets rallied to pull out a double-overtime triumph.

That one assist, perhaps more than his rebounds or points, demonstrated Corzine's potential, at least in the Washington offense, where centers pass first and shoot if they ever get the ball back.

In the fourth period, Corzine had the ball in the middle of the lane, facing the basket. He saw Greg Ballard cutting toward the basket and, without hesitating, uncorked a behind-the-back, one-bounce pass that Ballard caught in stride and laid in.

"I've made that pass a hundred times since high school," said Corzine. "The more I play, the more I can do things like that. You get to know everyone's moves better.

"It's been rough. I've been nervous and I've gotten tired. You can't stay in shape even working on your own unless you play in games.And then I probably use up twice as much energy as everyone else racing up and down the court making sure I donht make any mistakes."

Corzine didn't need this stretch of excellence to dispel another false impression he brought to Washington.

He had gained a reputaiton in college as a flake, perhaps, he says, "because I was one of the first guys to walk around with a lot of curly hair."

But the Corzine the Bullets have come to know is an affable but quiet individual with a hearty laugh, a quick intelligence and a keen sense of team play and fairness.

He is not controversial, unless you consider a 6-11 human with a particular love for camping and hiking a bit out of the ordinary. Otherwise, the only thing that sets Corzine apart, besides his height, is his sometimes ravenous appetite, the most prodigious on the team.

"I've enjoyed these past few weeks so much," he said "that when Mitch comes back and I go back to sitting at the end of the bench again, it's going to be rough.

"I know that is the way it's going to be, because Dick believes in staying with his veterans. But coming to a game knowing you will play gives you a good feeling. I wish it would never go away."