The one picture-perfect jump shot is not quite back yet and the fluid movements still are not as smooth as they used to be. But glimpses of the old Phil Chenier definitely are on the increase.
It has been a long, painful and often lonely struggle to get this far, and Chenier still has a way to go toward achieving the status he once enjoyed as one of the premier guards in the National Basketball Association. e
"At one time there wasn't a guard in the league, I mean offensively and defensively, better than Phil Chenier," said Bob Ferry, Washington Bullet general manager. "He was great and now we are just starting to see flashes of that greatness coming back."
Bullet management has been somewhate skeptical about counting on Chenier ever since he first injured his back nearly two years ago.
He underwent surgery for a herniated disk in September 1978, and in the last two seasons played in only 63 games and averaged 10 points a game. But with each game this season, Chenier has shown that he may have beaten the odds and the critics who said he would not make it back because he did not have the guts or the heart.
"There are still a lot of people who double I'll make it all the way back," Chenier said. "I'd like to prove them wrong."
Ironically, Chenier got his biggest chance this season when one of his best friends on the team, Bob Dandridge, injured his foot in the season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Chenier was the No. 3 shooting guard at the time, behind Kevin Grevey and Roger Phegley. He didn't even play in the opener. But when Dandridge couldn't play the next night against the Knicks in New York. Phegley was used as the backup small forward to Greg Ballard and Chenier became Grevey's backup.
Chenier played 35 minutes, the longest he had plaed in a singe game in two seasons. He scored 15 points, had six rebounds, five assists and four steals.
He was used sparingly the next two games, but then played 27 minutes against Detroit Oct. 20 ad made eight of 15 shots and had four assists and two steals.
Grevey injured a hamstring in that game and Chenier got his first start in nearly two years a week ago against the Pistons in Pontiac, Mich.
Playing 35 minutes, Chenier made seven of 15 shots and had seven rebounds, two assists, a steal and a blocked shot and turned in a superb defensive game as well.
In his second start, against Indiana Friday. Chenier missed his first four shots, but made five of his last eight. He also had two assists and two steals.
Grevey was well enough to pratice yesterday, but it is uncertain if he will start tonight against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Capital Centre.
"Who'll start is a game-day decision," said Bernie Bickerstaff, assistant coach, who ran yesterday's practice at Bowie State because Coach Dick Motta was in Utah visting his mother, who is ill.
"He (Chenier) looks more active to me than he did three or four years ago," Motta said after the Indiana game, "I'm not afraid to start him over Grevey at any time."
The way Chenier has played this season has shown that he is probably the best all-around Bullet guard. Motta also showed the confidence he has in Chenier by calling his play when the game was on the line in the final eight seconds against Detroit Wednesday night.
Chenier missed the shot, and the Bullets lost, but not because he choked or succumbed to the pressure. He simply missed.
"It would have been a big plus for me psychologically and mentally if I had made that shot," Chenier said, adding that occasionally his back is a little stiff, but that he basically is free of pain.
Through he has started the last two games, Chenier is not pushy about moving right in and taking over.
"I feel confident I can play and be a starter," he said, "and I want to start like every player does. But we have a team thing and if a change comes I think it will be gradual. Kevin has played well and earned his spot. cThe big time for competitiveness is in training camp, and I missed most of that."
Chenier is averaging more than 26 minutes and 13.5 points a game. He also is shooting 47.1 percent from the field, the best he has shot in all but one of his nine NBA seasons.
He has 14 assists and nine steals in six games, while all of last season he had only 31 assists and four steals. Chenier is just as sound defensively as he offensively, which partly explains why he is so valuable. He plays the passing lanes, knows how to get over picks and has a quick flicking motion with his hands which makes it difficult to dribble around him.
Grevey and Phegley probably are better jump shooters than Chenier, but he has a superior overall offensive game to either of them. He also is quicker, so he gets many of his baskets off drives. He aslo uses his off (left) hand very well.
No one in the Bullett organization has any public criticism about Chenier's playing. But his physical condition causes their reservations. Chenier still is only 28 and reportedly has three years remaining on a $300,000-a-year contract. The Bullets would like nothing better than for him to make it all the way back.
Chenier worked hard the entire off-season and got himself into excellent physical condition. But the day before training camp opened, he started getting back spasms and was out two weeks.
"No one has stayed as close to Phil and his family and watched his progress as closely as I have," Ferry said. "I gave up every Sunday this summer to go down and watch him play in the Summer League. I could see him getting his game back.
"I almost went into shock when he had spasms before camp opened. He had worked so hard all summer. He came in and we had a long talk. He said he wasn't ready to give up and I told him we weren't ready to give up on him either, but it was all up to him now. We had done all we could do." u
"I've tried to make improvements in my game," Chenier said, like handling the ball better, driving to the basket more and even working on my release. There are always areas where you can improve."
Cheier has tried his best to force his injury out of his mind.
"I've pushed myself harder than ever before," he said. "Ive come a long way and if I am going to get hurt again, it's going to be playing hard and trying as hard as I can to help us win."
Grevey said his leg is still sore, "but I'll try to play if I can. I just have to be careful and I know that's no way to play" . . . Bickerstaff said, "We're still adjusting to Kevin Porter and he's still adjusting to us and you can only do so much adjusting in practice. We're having some problems, but we just have to get the ball down inside. Our strength is the fromt line and we haven't been utilizing it. We have to get the ball in Bobby's (Dandridge) hands more, too, and let him create some things. In Detroit, Kevin had to create everything and he's trying to adjust to the fact here that he doesn't have to do that."