Low for a player who has known few highs in his professional life is being told that the worst team in the National Basketball Association can't use him.

"When you don't make it with Detroit (before last season), when the Pistons let you go," Brad Davis was saying, "you can't make it anywhere. My confidence was at a low point. Basketball just wasn't any fun anymore. And that's a big point in your career, when you've done something for 20 years and finally someone says: 'Hey, you can't play anymore.'

"Basically, that's what it seemed like."

A few years before, many NBA minds, including Celtic General Manager Red Auerbach's, thought Davis dazzlingly gifted, close to unique as a point guard. He was at Maryland then, a freshman directing a team that got closer to realizing Lefty Driesell's national championship ambition than any in his 12 years at College Park.

Davis was a basketball comet, a player who shot higher quicker than nearly anyone, and who seemed to burn out almost as fast. Although he was drafted in the first round by the pre-Magic Lakers three years later, that first season at Maryland was as satisfying as basketball got for Davis.

The Lakers discovered a player they chose shortly after Davis in '77, Norm Nixon, had a more rounded game; Davis discovered "worst" is relative, that playing for an NBA team with an even poorer record than the last one to cut him can bring pleasure.

Which is why Brad Davis is the Dallas Maverick who plays with a smile. On a team that sometimes wins twice a month, he is the one who seems to be having fun. He knows that losing at the highest level of his sport is not nearly as bad as not playing there at all.

That seemed his fate when the Pistons let him go just before last season began. They had won 16 games in '79-'80, eight fewer than anyone else in the league. Being released by that bunch, Davis figured, meant that he just might have been wrong about himself after all.

After Nixon won the lead-guard spot from him with the Lakers, NBA teams that once coveted him suddenly began to emphasize his flaws. They ignored what he could do as well as any player in the game's history -- break pressure defenses and hit the open man in the open court -- and dwelled on his weaknesses.

Pounded them, actually. Smacked them with as much force as it takes to bounce a ball ceiling high. No one loses confidence in a player quite so swiftly as an NBA coach.

"No shot or no defense," Davis said. "Take your choice."

Unfair rap?

"I think so. It hurt me, because I think I listen to people too much, take things to heart too much. When they said I couldn't shoot, I started to think: 'Maybe I can't shoot.' So I stopped shooting. When I did shoot, I was tentative."

For most of four years, Davis dribbled around the basketball bushes, for a team in Montana and another in Anchorage, enduring games in high school gyms and 18-hour, Hawaii-to-Bangor, Maine, trips because he was not ready to accept the NBA's judgment of him.

Minutes are basketball's blood, and Davis would get a pint or so from the NBA each season. He played sparingly in 33 games for the Lakers one season, in a total of 27 games for LA and Indiana the next, and in 18 for the Pacers and Utah the next.

The blow from the Pistons seemed the telling one. All right, Davis started telling himself, you're married, financially secure because of that early Laker contract, and it's about time to end this 20-year fantasy and try out for something in the real world.

Davis would have enrolled at Cal State Northridge, kicked the basketball habit, if the Pistons had not dropped him after the fall semester started. So he decided to return to his former team in Anchorage until the spring term.

Then the Mavericks called.

"He said he was going to quit in January anyway to go to school," Coach Dick Motta said. "We told him it was easier to play here, that we'd give him minutes, and we'd sign him to an open-end contract. So he came, and I don't think he said three words all year.

"He was phenomenal."

Rejuvenated, in love with basketball again, Davis started 26 games for the Mavericks. During that stretch, he averaged 17.4 points and 9.3 assists. He shot almost 60 percent from the floor, once hitting 11 straight field-goal tries against the Celtics. The assist number was more remarkable, for the Mavericks had the worst shooting percentage in the league.

"And he only had about two turnovers during about 40 minutes each game," Motta said. "His defense has become adequate, and he runs each drill in practice like it's the last one he might ever get to run. Brad is the reason we didn't take Isiah (Thomas) in the draft this year. He's good enough to see us through the transition, to being one of the elite teams."

The second time around the league often is tougher than the first, and more teams this season are trying to exploit Davis' defensive deficiencies. He is shooting 49 percent from the field, 90 percent from the free-throw line and is fourth in the league in assists for the 2-13 Mavericks.

But even defensive demon Motta admits that the players who trouble Davis cannot be stymied often by most other guards.

"I've always kept the tools," Davis said. "The hardest thing was confidence. I've enjoyed (Motta's patterned offense instead of the freewheeling style that would seem best suited to his skills), because if you execute well, set some good picks, you'll get wide-open shots. It's more of a thinking game. When you're running, it's more instinctive."