It began in mid-July as an intriguing experiment joining two outcasts in professional sports -- black owners and women players -- in one venture called the Washington Metros. The mood was hopeful.

Nat Frazier still insists his team in the Women's Basketball League not only will survive but thrive. Others are less certain, about the sport as well as Frazier's ability to make it viable.

An agreement to play half the home games in Baltimore ended in bitterness; most of the front-office staff had quit a month ago and the president of the league admits the Metros might be as much as $35,000 behind in paying those former employes and other bills.

"No, that ($35,000) wouldn't surprise me at this point," said Bill Byrne. "But there will be adjustments made. Within the next 10 days, everything will be cleared up. There will be no outstanding bills. Within 10 days, everything will be cleared up and turned around."

The creditors and former staffers are unimpressed. Their phone calls, to Byrne as well as to Frazier and business manager Eric Sewell, have been so evaded as to suggest the Metros' foundation is promises.

"We've had guarantee after guarantee," said Diane Engelken, former vice president of operation/marketing. "I have no feeling toward the league other than it's unfortunate no proper checks were made and ownership thoroughly checked.

"I don't want this to come out entirely bad, because I believe in women's basketball. But they (the Metros) should have closed down the operation and level with us, told us exactly what state the franchise was in and let us get on with our lives instead of hanging in limbo.

"I wasted a month."

Engelken worked three years for the Diplomats before joining the Metros Sept. 1. She left Oct. 5, after the departures of the general manager, Jerry Lewis; the public relations director Mary Ann Young; her aide, Kerry Gregg; and the ticket manager, Peter Sackrider.

"I've never been paid a single dime," Engelken said. "The first clue about the magnitude of the financial problem was Sept. 7, when they missed the payroll. That pretty much wraps it up."

She was referring to the front-office payroll. Player contracts are not believed to be in effect until the regular season opens.

Engelken is the only former staffer who would talk for the record. The others, as well as some creditors, anted to remain publicly silent, for fear that being candid would eliminate any chance of collecting their money.

What they insist is due, in terms of salaries, room and board, printing and public-relations services, ranges from an alleged $53.30 check that failed to clear the bank, to about $15,000.

"I'm giving them a little extra time," said the general manager of the Colony 7 motel in Laurel, Arthur Grant. "You'll know how much they owe me if I sue. They stayed about a week (in late August)."

That was during an early phase of training camp. Later, Engelken said, she financed more than a week in an Arlington motel, for which she says she has not been reimbursed.

"I used my charge card (during registration)," she said, "with the understanding that the Metros would pick up the tab when we were finished. But the (money) promises never came true.

"When I realized what was going on, Nat said Eric had told him I would put it on my card. Well, I didn't want to, but my back was against the wall. I had Nat sign a paper that he, as president, would reimburse me.

"It was for about $1,200. We left about the 13th of September. I have yet to see it."

"She'll get paid," said Frazier, president of the team as well as coach. "She volunteered to do it. We were moving from one office to another. We had a chance to keep something open, where people could keep in contact with us, or not."

Frazier was sitting in a dining room at Fort Belvoir, where the team now practices and plays its exhibition games. He would talk only in general terms and wondered why a newspaper that had scarcely paid attention to his team would suddenly do so now, "like somebody walking out of a corner store and saying the meat's bad and not to buy there."

Judging the product would come later, it was suggested, and the product during an earlier practice had been better than expected. At the moment, the question was whether the corner store would be in business for customers to inspect.

"I have never met a problem-free person," he said, "and I've never seen anything in life problem free.I have a little philosophy, that life is a series of obstacles and in order to be successful you must eliminate those obstacles. You remove each obstacle and you achieve a certain degree of success."

To the former employes and creditors who painted him and Sewell as men exploiting women athletes and as having been woefully undercapitalized, among lesser charges, Fraizier said:

"It's like inflation. You've got a job and all of a sudden you don't have the money to pay bills. You've got to take'em in order. You're not going to break the law, so you pay accordingly.

"Also, this is the part of the year when there's no cash flow. There are no games, so you pay out whatever money you have in. This is not anything that isn't par for any new business.

"There's only one person we have to satisfy. That's the WBL. And they know we're legit. They're very happy and pleased about us."

"We have been given a letter of credit," Byrne said, mentioning the name of a New York construction firm, "for their complete situation (believed to cover 90 percent of the estimated $50,000 franchise fee). As far as at the league level, they're 100 percent straight."

Also in support of Frazier, the president of Travel Systems, Dan Allison, said: "They've paid in full. When they were behind, they kept us informed. We've opened all lines of credit."

The lines between Frazier and the marketing director of the Civic Center in Baltimore, John Scollan, crackle. Scollan arranged the three exhibition and nine regular-season dates in Baltimore, then pulled back.

"I have penciled in seven of the nine dates," Scollan said. "But I need $9,000 (as a performance bond) before we let them do anything. They made so many promises they never kept. You can go to the well only so often.

"I just didn't go about as many checks as I should have. The human side really bothers me. There are so many young women going in to this with good faith."

Frazier's only on-the-record response was to hint that a lawsuit was imminent.

Two Metro regular-season games are scheduled as preliminaries to Bullet games in Capital Centre, Dec. 5 and 27.

Robert Sigholtz, general manager of the D.C. Armory, said the Metros are scheduled for six dates there; Frazier said he would announce another Washington-area site for home games within a few days.

And the Metro finanical position with the armory?

"They haven't had to pay anything," Sigholtz said. "Our deal is by the date. (The first armory date is scheduled for Nov. 15.) Five days before an event they have to pay us (an amount estimated at $2,000 to cover services and rental).

"We'll just wait and see."