The place was packed. There were 18 players of all sizes, shapes and backgrounds, all with one common goal: to become a member of the bargain basement Bullets.
The most interesting thing about the opening day of training camp was who wasn't there. The chief absentee yesterday was Frank Johnson, the team's No. 1 draft choice.
Following their established pattern, the Bullets have taken a hard line in negotiating with their top pick and they don't seem ready to budge. "We're not close," General Manager Bob Ferry said during the practice session at Bowie State College. "I haven't talked with Johnson's agent today."
When asked if he expected Johnson in camp this week, Ferry shook his head. Coach Gene Shue said later that he was disappointed that Johnson wasn't there, but that he would go on operating with the players available.
Bill Pollak, Johnson's attorney, said yesterday he is very far apart in his dealing with the Bullets, but hopes that Ferry will call him soon.
"All Frank wants is the established market value for the 11th player selected in the draft," Pollak said. "He wants to get what he's entitled to and you can't blame him for that.
"I also represent Albert King," Pollak said, referring to Maryland's outstanding forward. "So I know what the curve is. I know what other players have been getting."
The Bullet policy has been to wait until September, make one offer, usually below the going rate for first-round picks, then stand firm. Ferry's annual line, which he has repeated in the Johnson negotiations, is "Where else is he going to play?"
During prior Septembers, Mitch Kupchak had his bags packed for Europe before changing his mind and signing late with the Bullets; Roger Phegley didn't agree to terms until after rookie camp had started; and last year, Wes Matthews signed late.
"I've got a lot of problems beside Johnson," Ferry said, adding in jest: "If he isn't signed by Dec. 1, I'll worry."
Part of the bone of contention in the past and now is the question of how much of the contract should be guaranteed. Last year, the Bullets wanted to guarantee Matthews one year, but most of the top 10 picks were being assured of at least three or four years pay.
"There shouldn't be a problem with the guarantee," Pollak said. "The Bullets did their homework on Frank. They know what a great kid he is, what a leader he can be. He's the type of player they can build around.
"I know that most teams try to build around a center, but the second most important ingredient is becoming a playmaker," the Washington-based lawyer continued. "Outside of Isiah Thomas, Frank was the best playmaker in the draft."
Johnson led Wake Forest to a 22-7 record last season, pacing the team in scoring with a 16.2 average and assists with 182. He was the sixth leading scorer in the Atlantic Coast Conference and ranked third in assists. The superquick 6-foot-2 guard's stock soared when he was chosen the outstanding player in the Aloha Classic, which matches 32 top seniors for several days in Hawaii. Frank's brother Eddie is a two-time all-star guard with the Atlanta Hawks.
"Frank is in town and has been working out everyday," Pollak said. "He likes the Washington area and sees an excellent opportunity to play right away with the Bullets. However, as a first-round draft choice, he knows what he's entitled to.
"In the past, the Bullets always have had a veteran team and didn't really have to rely on their first-round choice in his rookie year. But things have changed now. They don't have a first-round pick next year and they're looking for young players.
Indeed, the Bullet guard corps is hardly stable these days. Kevin Grevey apparently is headed out of town, leaving only Kevin Porter and Andre McCarter in the back court, along with swing man Don Collins. Ferry admits he's listening to trade talk concerning Grevey and undoubtedly will make a deal before letting the six-year veteran go to Indiana without compensation. The Pacers have given the high scoring guard an offer sheet, reportedly worth $350,000 a year for four seasons; the Bullets must match it, make a deal before Sept. 28 or lose Grevey.
Claude Gregory, a second-round pick from Wisconsin, was a surprise entry at yesterday's practice. The 6-8 forward went to Europe, but didn't land a job and is looking for a contract from the Bullets . . . Ron Valentine, signed as a free agent after being dropped by Denver, exercised his option as a "veteran" and did not show up . . . Veterans McCarter and Brad Holland, an acquisition from Los Angeles, were on hand, but Rick Mahorn and Collins won't be in until next week . . . Joe Pace's comeback was marred when he failed to complete the first running drill because of fatigue.