Tom Henderson is a man of few words. It is simpler for him to let one picture from last year's championship game against Seattle replace a thousand attempts to explain his role with the Bullets.

The photo shows Mitch Kupchak scoring a layup over Marvin Webster to give the Bullets breathing room in the final moments. In the background, Henderson can be seen lying on the floor, a big smile on his face.

Although he hates to dive after loose balls, Henderson had gone to the floor and batted a pass to Kupchak through Webster's legs. The obvious satisfaction he felt from his rare bit of dirty work makes the scene particularly memorable.

While most pro players build their egos on scoring and rebounding averages, Henderson's approach always has been different. He thinks about passing first, whether he is standing or falling, and shooting second. And as long as his efforts result in a victory, he says he is happy.

"I learned a long time ago what my role should be," he said. "If we want to win, we all can't be scorers. Winning is the bottom line. So on this team, for us to win, the big guys have to get the ball. So I give it to them."

To Henderson, being an assist man on a team of scorers makes good business sense. Yet this role is so low key that he remains the least publicized player among the top seven Bullets despite the instrumental part he played in winning last year's title and in the construction of this season's top league record.

He is not even sure how much management appreciates his abilities. He is in the last year of his contract and already has rejected one proposal. No other has followed and he has made up his mind, barring a last-minute acceptable offer from the club, to become a free agent and measure his value to the rest of the league.

"I am not going to stick them (the Bullets) up as a free agent," he said after a practice for tonight's 8:05 game against Chicago in Capital Centre. "I'm not going to be ridiculous about it. I think my chances of playing here next year are good, but I'm not going to let them steal from me either. If they don't want to pay me what I think I'm worth, I'll go to someone else.

"I've played for five years and I'd like to play for another five. By then, if you can't be financially secure, you've messed up. I want to stay with a contender, with someone who runs plays. I think that makes maybe 18 or 19 teams eligible."

Whether Henderson, the calming force whose influence on the team seems to increase with every game, returns next season depends, he believes, on the wishes of Coach Dick Motta.

"If Dick wants me back to run this crazy offense," he said, "then I probably will be. He'll have a lot to do with it. Not everyone can handle what he wants and he knows it."

Although Motta and Henderson are still not particularly close, their relationship has improved greatly over last year.

They talk more and Henderson feels Motta now "has more respect for what I can do and more confidence in me. I came to camp this year with the attitude I would have a better rapport with him. Lots of time a player and a coach are afraid of each other but I think we've put that aside now.

"We have to get along. I'm running the team the way he wants me to. If we can't communicate, how can the offense run?"

Henderson realizes he is not Motta's ideal of a playmaking guard. He does not dive after loose balls nor does he play kamikaze defense in the manner of a Jerry Sloan or Norm Van Lier. But he does have one redeeming value. He wins.

"Tom is into the game from the minute it starts to the minute it ends," said Motta. "His involvement is something. Even when he is on the bench, he is talking to players and trying to help them out.

"He is a team player. I'm sure he'd like to score more than he does but he honestly doesn't look for his shot. But he does things that make you win. I know the players in this team love to be on the court with him."

If the Bullets hadn't won the title last June, Henderson probably would have been traded. His defensive problems, which he says were caused in part by season-long sore ankles, and the team's horrible play at the end of the schedule made him a prime candidate to be dealt off.

Yet, during the playoffs, Motta consistently turned to him to guard the likes of Doug Collins, George Gervin and Gus Williams, especially in crucial situations.And his steady playmaking abilities resulted in the club's best offensive execution of the season.

"I have trouble with quick, small guards," Henderson admitted. "Some nights I can stay with them, but some nights I can't. I'm better against bigger, off-ball guards like Collins. I am a good defensive player despite what anyone thinks. You aren't going to stop the good ones anyway, you just have to hope you can change their game and make them adjust.

"If I'm such a bad defensive player, why am I covering people like Paul Westphal and Gervin this year?"

Henderson also realizes he misses too many layups -- he never has completely mastered the art of a soft release while going at top speed -- and that opponents often gamble by leaving him unguarded, betting he will not take an open jumper.

"The last 10 or 15 games it was getting crazy," he said. "People were leaving me and I had to start shooting. I can hit the jumper and they've got to find that out.

"People don't seem to realize I used to be a scorer. In junior college I averaged 25 a game. In the pros, I get most of my points from transitions plays. But if the opportunity came, I could score again."

It was not until the Olympic Games in 1972 that Henderson first fully visualized his basketball future. He came to the tryout camp at the Air Force Academy as a virtual unknown out of San Jacinto Junior College. But his quickness, strength and acceleration with the ball soon caught the eye of Coach Hank Iba.

"Iba knew he had to have someone who would feed his scorers," said Henderson. "That's why I knew I would start.I was eating up people like Doug Collins both offensively and defensively. I said, 'hey, looks like there is a place for an assist man in basketball.'"

The camp also served as Henderson's launching pad for national publicity. This painfully shy sleeper from a junior college in Pasadena, Tex., was a hard-to-ignore human interest story. The pro scouts couldn't take their eyes off him either, although they realized he already had committed himself to two more years of college at the University of Hawaii.

"I wanted to go to Marquette out of high school," said Henderson, who grew up with seven brothers and sisters in the Bronx and attended famed DeWitt Clinton High. "But my grades weren't good enough to get in. Then when I could, I told Al McGuire that he, his son (Allie) and I couldn't exist on the same team together.

"I hated San Jacinto but it helped me grow up. It was a huge change from New York City to rural Texas. Then I visited Hawaii and loved it."

Ironically, Henderson's basketball style fits Hawaii much more than New York's playgrounds. Unlike his Bullet backup, Larry Wright, Henderson is not flashy. He strikes instead for efficiency.

"Call me conservative," he said. "My goal is to get to a spot quicker than you can close the gap. I have good point-to-point quickness. But in high school, I was the slowest guy on my team."

Until he switches into overdrive, Henderson often resembles the slowest man in the NBA. His bowed-legged hard-bounce dribbling style is misleading. He thrives on playing with the game's tempo like an accordion, sometimes pushing for speed, other times slowing down to execute Motta's complex offense.

"I can't believe it when people criticize him," said teammate Mitch Kupchak. "I love playing with him. He gets you the ball when you are open. You know that so you can work hard. You just don't find unselfish players like him every day."

Henderson's court demeanor is sullen and angry. He does little to turn on the crowd and his best plays usually are passes that produce even more spectacular moments, such as an Elvin Hayes dunk at the end of a fast break.

Yet off the floor, Henderson is the team needler. He hands out outrageous nicknames, punctures egos with regularity and enlightens the dressing room with constant, infectious laughter.

Since coming two years ago from Atlanta, where he didn't get along with Coach Hubie Brown, Henderson has relaxed, although he remains extremely blunt and outspoken. There is more stablity to his life and more confidence in his contacts with the public.

Only one major problem remains.

"I wish," he said, trying to hold back a grin, "that Dick would give me one play. Every once in a while, I'd like to score, too."

Kevin Grevey tried working out at half-speed during practice and wound up irritating his hamstring again. He probably will not play again until Sunday, at the earliest... Mitch Kupchak went through his first full practice in three weeks and his ailing Achilles' tendon held up well.