On the surface, the Bullets look like a reflection of that urban passion called "Washington basketball" which thrives on a hundred playgrounds, blossoms in local high schools and colleges and continues year-around in summer leagues.

Don't believe it.

The warfare at Capital Centre certainly looks like the apotheosis of the city game.

The bump-and-grind under the hoop seems just the logical conclusion of a million asphalt three-on-three, winner-take-it-out pickup games.

The constant complaining of the National Basketball Association is just like the world of jangling chain nets and bent rims with the eternal lament: "Come on, man. That's no foul."

Both the playground and the NBA finals combine the spectacular with the predictable in a game that is fast, free-form and not too finicky about fundamentals.

The Washington-versus-Seattle confrontation of ten appears to be the epitome of run-and-gun mixed with a little half-court push-and-hold, one-on-one isolation offense.

Even the NBA's quasi-zone defense seems like instinctive playground "checking." Gambling man-to-man instantly becomes a switching, sagging zone at the first sign of penetration. The big guy stands underneath to reject.

All this, of course, is illusion, hiding an inner reality.

The final ruse is that the Bullets appear to be a man-for-man replica of a quintessential D.C. grassroots team.

Ask any college recruiter about Washington's well-known hoop prototypes. For 20 years this has been a town of too-short centers, gliding high-scoring forwards (Kenny Carr, Craig Shelton), head-bobbing 6-foot-5 swingmen (Elgin Baylor, Adrian Dantley), pure jump-shooting guards (Austin Carr, Dave Bing), and brainy, brick-laying point men.

Could that sawed-off center be Wes Unseld and that big cat forward be Elvin Hayes? Does the double-clutching score-in-traffic swingman sound like Bobby Dandridge, and the bombardier seem like Kevin Grevey?

Ballhandler Tommy Henderson, with his sharp passes and blunt shots, would seem right at home had he played for De Matha or Dunbar instead of Boys High in New York.

Washington's indigenous basketball and its imported professional Bullets are a perfect accidental marriage of a hoop-crazed city and its world champion team. Right?

Wrong. Almost completely wrong.

"The old Baltimore Bullets were a real Washington-type team when they had Earl Monroe and (Gus) Honeycomb Johnson," said Bob Piper, insurance man, former coach of a city champion at Western High and confidant of the Bullets.

"The new Washington Bullets are the total opposite of this town. Washington loves flair and controversy. It's a city that's in love with style.

"When Earl the Pearl was doing the reverse twirl dribble, that's all my Western players wanted to do. The only way to stop the twirl was teach it. I knew my players wouldn't do it if they thought I wanted 'em to.

"Guys in D.C. always imitate the flashy pros like Dr. J, but never the champions like the old Celtics. They'd rather be fancy losers than dull champs.

"I'm not sure too many people inside the Beltway have 'Bullet Fever.' The Bullets are a no-nonsense team like their coach. They're not talented players so much as skilled players," said Piper.

"Dribbling behind your back is natural talent. Blocking off for rebounds is an acquired skill.

"If you appreciate basketball and understand its values, then you love the Bullets.If you just like basketball because it's exciting, then root for some other team.

"All NBA teams have talent. But the Bullets understand the why, the what and the when. They have judgment.

"The Bullets are a team of substance in a town of style. Look at the way they dress . . . blue jeans, not fur coats. The Bullets would put a laundry out of business. The stuff they wear you just throw in the washer at home."

"We're a basic, thinking team," said Bullet guard Larry Wright, who played for Piper at Western. "There's what I call East Coast ball, like they play in D.C., where guys jump higher, do more with the ball and act crazier.

"Then you'r got Down South ball where you emphasize fundamentals, smarts and strength. This is a real Down South team. Elvin's from Houston, Bobby's Norfolk State, Wes is Louisville. I grew up in Louisiana and Mitch (Kupchak) played at North Carolina.

"A lot of us are from big families and we're all willing to help, like kids that grew up on a farm. We have real nice people . . . down to earth. Everybody's just regular.

"We play like that . . . like a big Southern fundamentalist family.

"Guys I played against when I came up to Western . . . yeah, like Stacy Robinson who could do more than me . . . they just disappeared. No discipline."

The Bullets are really as separate from their town as the Beltway that must be crossed to reach the Centre.

D.C. basketball is a sort of improvizational jock jazz, a vehicle for self-expression. The Bullets are basketball Bach, wearing foes down with familiar chord progressions.

Dandridge, the catalyst who melded the team's parts, is the perfect symbol of the Bullets as he plays his baseline breakdown.

Superficially, he seems to juke-and-jive like a playground soloist dreaming up a riff. That's the con.

At the core, Dandridge is textbook, never improvizing. He sifts options, bides his time, watches for mental lapses, studies footwork, not head fakes.

Where other stars produce awe Dandridge causes "how'd-he-do-it?" consternation; a typical response to the Bullets.

If the Bullets still seem a little out of sync with their town, it is no illusion. They are hard to understand, hard to anticipate and, for some, even hard to love.

It is easy to miss the nub of te Bullets' success. They are not showmen or stars, but a workmanlike ensemble that is excellently suited to the constant tactical shifts and matchup adjustments of head-to-head playoff basketball.

Even with Kupchak injured, with Charles Johnson suddenly old, with Grevey slumping, they continue to play beyond their apparent abilities: a classic sum that surpasses its parts.

The Bullets give away their home-court advantage with such apparent unconcern because, in fact, it means little to them. When will opponents learn that Bullet play is seldom predicated on adrenaline, crowd noise or the breakaway psych dunk. For them, when their internal music is right any place is home.

These champions probe and persist, grind and grunt. At their worst, the Bullets break the first commandment of Washington basketball-win or lose, never be dull.

At their best, however, they seem inexorably, yet almost inexplicably, efficient. Playing the sport of flair in a city of style, they adamantly remain basketball's team of down-home substance.