Tree Rollins, by biting Danny Ainge, has given new meaning to the words, "He's a hungry player." When this guy says he likes finger sandwiches, he means finger sandwiches.

Adolph Rupp made it a practice when scouting players to take them to dinner. The old Kentucky coach said, "You can tell the prospects from the suspects by watching them eat. If they're aggressive eating, they'll be aggressive playing. See this steak? Cliff Hagan would eat it in three bites--chomp, chomp, CHOMP."

Tree Rollins chomped down on Danny Ainge's fingers during a scuffle in Sunday's Hawks-Celtics playoff game in Boston. Ainge needed five stitches to close the wound. He also took a tetanus shot. The NBA yesterday fined Rollins $5,000 and suspended him for five games without pay at the start of the 1983-84 season. Ainge was fined $1,000 for the incident, and another $250 for being ejected from the game.

"He tried to bite off my finger," the Celtics' little guard said of the Hawks' 7-foot-1 center.

Rollins said, by one account, "What bite?"

Another report quoted Rollins, when asked if he bit Ainge, saying, "Maybe."

Let's go to the videotape. CBS-TV's instant replay showed Ainge's hand in Rollins' mouth. You've seen those white circles the TV folks draw to locate a guy in a crowd, such as after assassinations or at Liz Taylor's side. For the Rollins-Ainge incident, they put a white circle around Rollins and Ainge's disappearing fingers.

This is circumstantial evidence and certainly nothing that proves first-degree mastication with malice aforethought. Who knows why Ainge's fingers were knuckle-deep between Rollins' molars?

Maybe Ainge has an enamel fetish that is satisfied only by rubbing the incisors of a giant. Or maybe Rollins needed to break the tension of the playoff game by chewing someone else's fingernails. We won't know until Rollins writes his book, "A Taste of the NBA," complete with recipes and an explanation of why he never bit Rick Mahorn or Jeff Ruland.

It is always discomfiting to rush into print with speculations on motivation, but you have to ask the question: was Tree Rollins influenced by the TV hit, "Hill Street Blues," in which the snarling detective Mick Belker is cheered every time he leaps at a bad guy's ankles to take a bite?

If Rollins decides to fight the fine in the courts, a good lawyer could argue that his client was a victim of society's addiction to television, that he was under the illusion he was Belker making a collar, that such behavior not only meets acceptable community standards, it also gets boffo ratings.

Anyway, if Rollins did Belkerize poor Ainge, he is in good company.

Dick Butkus once bit the finger of a Giants lineman when they fell together in a pile.

Why?

"It was there," Butkus said.

A relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, Pedro Borbon, bit the ear of a Pirate during a brawl.

Why?

"They held my legs and arms," Borbon said. "My teeth were the only things I could move."

In Florida two falls ago, a high school football coach fired up his team with a pep talk that climaxed when he bit off the head of a frog. Something about intensity.

There's probably an agent on the phone to Rollins now. There's a fortune to be made, and the toothpaste endorsements are only the beginning.

The Tree Rollins Academy of Self-Defense, with the motto, "You're Only as Safe as Your Dentures Make You," could open all around the country. Name recognition was assured Sunday by Rollins' national TV demonstration of molar muscle. It left a deep imprint on witnesses, especially Ainge.

Brought to us by the same folks who created the Leon Spinks Driving Academy and the Billy Martin Institute for International Diplomacy, the Rollins academies would feature instruction on dental care with special emphasis on anatomical soft spots most vulnerable to preemptive biting.

Tree Bites Man.

The Forestry Service could make a nice poster. Whatever happened in Boston, it was hardly news to anyone who has followed Rollins' travails with the Celtics. Three years ago, Rollins was fined $1,500 for a fight with Dave Cowens (who was fined $2,500). Last year, Rollins and M.L. Carr of the Celtics not only traded angry words on the court, they met afterward in the hallway.

That meeting turned into a $4 million lawsuit. Rollins claimed Carr "verbally and physically" abused him during as many as 40 NBA games.

Rollins said the worst instance came in Boston on Jan. 13, 1982, when Carr "overtly threatened" him during play.

The lawsuit did not spell out that threat, though we can assume it had nothing to do with biting anyone.

After the game, according to Rollins' lawsuit, Carr "brandished what appeared to be a razor or knife in a threatening manner."

Red Auerbach, the Celtics' president, called Rollins' accusation "one of the most ludicrous things in the history of sports." The lawsuit later was settled out of court, with the men exchanging letters of apology.

So when Rollins and Ainge went to scuffling after a series of elbowing and throwing punches, M.L. Carr was surprised by only one thing.

"I didn't know that dog could bite," he said.