"Playing time is like food for a player; without it he cannot survive. " from "Life on the Run" by Bill Bradley

Greg Ballard has subsisted on a few minutes here and few minutes there.

He has averaged only 15 minutes of playing time a game, yet he has become -- along with Mitch Kupchak -- the most-sought-after player the Washington Bullets have. Whenever General Manager Bob Ferry talks on the telephone to the NBA's other general managers, the conversation invariably gets around to Ballard. The word is that, trade-wise, he is untouchable.

Ballard started at one forward spot for Bob Dandridge in the Bullets' first preseason game and will probably start at the other forward for Elvin Hayes tonight when the Bullets play the Boston Celtics in Philadelphia in the first game of a Spectrum exhibition doubleheader.

Hayes has an inflamed hip and is not expected to play. He said he hopes he can play Saturday against the Detroit Pistons in the first game of another doubleheader at Madison Square Garden.

The Bullets will end their three game exhibition swing against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Wheeling, W.Va., Sunday night.

Ballard is an accomplished NBA forward, even though he is just beginning his third season in the league, and his playing time has been limited. He is big enough and strong enough at 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, to play power forward, quick enough and good enough shooting from the outside to play small forward. He is durable. He did not miss a single game all of last season. His playoff performances proved that he thrives on pressure.

In short, Ballard has everything a player could want except a forum. He doesn't get enough minutes.

But there is no "play me or trade me" talk from Ballard. When he is called on he gives 100 percent. When he doesn't get the call, he doesn't sulk. He is a rare young athlete, a budding star who has mentally conditioned himself to pay the dues necessary to become a superstar.

"It's hard, but it's a mind over matter situation," Ballard said. "I would love to start for the Bullets or for any other team -- and I'm sure I could start for a lot of them. But here in D.C. I can learn from playing with and watching three of the best -- Bob Dandridge, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Yes, it's hard to sit back and not get more playing time, but I'm sure it was hard for Paul Westphal and John Havlicek and all the others who did it early in their careers, too.

"When the time comes for me to really say I should be a starter, it'll be based on my performances. I'll know it and I'll say it," Ballard said.

"I'd be rushing myself if I thought I was ready to play ahead of Bobby or Wes or E now. I'm not in a position to demand to play over them. They are great players and they earned their titles.

"I owe them respect as players and as professionals and I don't want to take anything away from them. That's why I don't bitch about more playing time or about not starting. They paid their dues and it just isn't right for a guy in his third year to come in and expect to play over them, no matter how good he thinks he is," Ballard said.

"My time will come, but it just isn't here yet."

Coach Dick Motta knows he can't keep Ballard happy forever with the present minutes situation. Hayes and Dandridge need their time and when Kupchak returns from his back injury, he'll need his minutes too, "but I've got to get Greg his time," Motta said. "He's earned it. This is his third year and he may not demand to start now, but by next year he'll be ready and something will have to be done."

"It's no embarrassment to me at all not to be starting," Ballard said. "We're a championship team and we all contribute. I've never been much of a worrier about playing time because that's the coach's job. My playing time should be based on my performances and how well I am playing. If I do the right things, I'll play enough."

Doing the right thing is Ballard's strong suit.

"You don't notice a lot of things Greg does because he's a not a spectacular kind of player," Kupchak said. "But he gets the rebound, makes the big shot. He won't hit the 30-footers or slam dunk on you. But he does get the job done."

In Motta's system, big, strong, good shooting forwards are the essence of the game. Watching and playing with Unseld, Hayes and Dandridge each day, Ballard has become an interesting blend of his three teammates.

He always was a hard-nosed, intelligent player, but if you watch him closely, you can see the influence "The Big Three" have had on him.

Ballard handles himself underneath with the slyness of Unseld. He has the outside shots and inside strength similar to Hayes. He has developed a Dandridge like court awareness. His ability to be in the right place at the right time, make the right pass and take the right shot, has earned him respect.

"I don't try to impress the coaches any more," Ballard said. "They know what I can do.

"I'm basically a patient person," he added. "I know I'm a part of the Bullets' future, so I have to get myself in the best possible condition, physically and mentally. When I get my chance, I'm not going to blow it."