Greg Ballard is a station wagon in a fleet of sports cars. He doesn't have the quickness or the flashy moves of some of his teammates, but he is the most dependable player on the Washington Bullets.
He has the comportment of a banker, the emotions of a draftsman, the thoroughness of an accountant. Although Ballard would never be described as flamboyant, he's the biggest reason why the Bullets are in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 37-35 record.
Almost reluctantly, the 6-foot-7, five-year veteran has taken over several major responsibilities this season, and in his own quiet way has helped mold a collection of castoffs and rookies into a winner.
"This season reminds me a lot of my senior year at Oregon," Ballard said yesterday as the Bullets flew here from Boston for tonight's important game with New Jersey (7:30, WDCA-TV-20).
"We lost a real good player over the summer through an injury and nobody knew what to expect. I was put in the position of taking over for him. I had a good year and we finished second in the Pac-10.
"This year we lost Wes (Unseld), Elvin (Hayes), Bobby (Dandridge) and Mitch (Kupchak) and nobody really knew what to expect from us. I guess I took over more responsibility this season. It was sort of my turn, like when you're a senior in college."
Although the Bullets never announced it and it isn't listed anywhere, Ballard succeeded Unseld as captain. He meets with the officials before games, and pleads the cases of teammates when they are upset by a referee's call. He also was voted the club's player representative.
"As a leader, Greg is like Wes was," said Bernie Bickerstaff, the assistant coach. "He's not verbal, but the rest of the players have a lot of respect for him. He's a gentleman and he plays hard all the time. You can always count on him to do his job."
One example of the respect Ballard's teammates have for him was in a come-from-behind victory over the Knicks three weeks ago in Madison Square Garden. Although he was having a poor shooting night, when the Bullets needed clutch shots, they went to Ballard and he produced.
"He's a great late-game player," said guard John Lucas, who likes to call Ballard's plays in crucial situtations. "You always know you can depend on Greg to run the play right and get himself open. A lot of players you can't find with a microscope at the end of close games. They hide behind those screens and never come out. But Greg is always there."
Ballard leads the team in scoring with a 19.4 average, free throw shooting with a .844 percentage, defensive rebounds, minutes played and, surprisingly, steals. Typically, he has a simple explanation for his best NBA season.
"My scoring is up this year because I'm getting more shots," he said. "My shooting percentage is higher (.476) because I get a lot of good shots in this offense.
"Obviously, with Elvin gone, there are more shots for the other forward. Instead of going to him so much, now the team is going to me more. I have the ball in my hands more often, so therefore I get more shots.
"It really helps your confidence to know that the team is going to run a lot of plays for you," he continued. "When you hear your play called, you can really concentrate and think about the shot you're going to get. That has to help your shooting."
Like that old family station wagon that somehow starts every morning, dependability, not style, is Ballard's most valuable asset. He has missed only three games in the past four seasons. He has led the team in scoring 30 times this season and has scored in double figures in all except five games.
"Whatever Greg has achieved, he's done it through hard work," Coach Gene Shue said. "He's shown a great improvement on defense and rebounding, although he doesn't have the quickness or size of a lot of forwards."
General Manager Bob Ferry used the fourth choice in the 1977 draft to select Ballard, ahead of such widely acclaimed players as Walter Davis, Bernard King, Ray Williams and Cedric Maxwell, because Dick Motta, then the Bullets' coach, was impressed with his all-round fundamental skills.
Ballard initially was a backup to Dandridge, waiting patiently for a chance to play regularly that did not come until Dandridge missed much of the past two seasons with injuries. Instead of complaining about his lack of playing time, Ballard says now he learned a great deal from Dandridge.
"I remember how Bobby played," he said. "I used to watch him and he never seemed to dominate. He just glided along, picking up a rebound here, an assist there and a couple of baskets a quarter. All of a sudden, at the end of the game, he had 20 points, eight to 10 rebounds and some assists.
"That's the way I'd like to play," Ballard went on. "Just get in the flow of the game and try to be consistent throughout."