Once, he was so graceful.

Once, this man who stands 7 feet tall, weighs 270 pounds and wears size 21 shoes, glided along so effortlessly and made such soft jump shots.

Bob Lanier is 34 now. The game he loves has taken its toll, physically and emotionally. It almost caused the breakup of his marriage and it has left his knees a mess.

Now, he is trying to go out a winner. It isn't easy.

The Milwaukee Bucks trail the Philadelphia 76ers, two games to none, in their best-of-seven National Basketball Association Eastern Conference championship series that will resume Saturday at Milwaukee Arena (WDVM-TV-9 at 2:30).

This is as far as Lanier has gone in the playoffs in 14 years as a player. He's been a college all-America, an NBA all-star and the president of the NBA Players Association. He's never been a member of a championship team, but as he has matured, he has realized there are many other things in life than a championship ring.

"Basketball is a game because it's fun and it's a job because I get paid," said Lanier. "I don't need a championship to have made my career a successful one. I think the importance of it to me has been overplayed. At one point of my life, it was an obsession, but I think I have rearranged my priorities to realize that life won't end if we don't win the championship.

"There will be a void in my life, no question about that, but I can walk away from the game and think only of the opportunities the game has afforded me and deal with it in that respect.

"Basketball has enabled me to do a lot of things economically and to meet all kinds of people and travel throughout the world. As it stands, when I look back, I can only be thankful for the life it's given me. I have no regrets."

Lanier is a survivor. He accepts what life offers. His father, whom he was very close to, was killed in a hit-and-run automobile accident two years ago. Six months later, his wife, Shirley, left him. He's had five knee operations.

Lanier is back with his wife and four children now. He wanted them back, so he worked at it.

"The life of a basketball player is an emotional roller coaster," he said. "If you're any type of competitive person, the adrenaline is always flowing. If you stay healthy and are consistent all of the time, things are fine, but we're human. Things don't go like we want them to all of the time and then it has a cause-and-effect relationship with yourself and the people close to you. It takes its toll. Some of us survive it, others don't."

Lanier's knees have worn out. There is no cartilage left to cushion them, so bone rubs against bone. Pain is a constant companion.

"There are certain things I can't do anymore," said Lanier. "That's a God-given fact. The thing that has helped me a lot is that because I was never gifted with the great jumping ability or blinding speed, the adjustments I have had to make haven't been that difficult.

"The adjustment is more in your mind, because when you can't do what you want to do and have to be satisified with inconsistent performances, you start to question your self-worth and you start asking yourself if it's all worth it--the pain, the mental anguish. If the realization is that you can't be a productive part of your own dream, then it's time to wake up. My time is close."

Lanier played in only 39 games this season, averaging 10.7 points and 5.1 rebounds. He has played in all six playoff games, however, and is averaging 12.7 points and eight rebounds.

He also was involved in a rather nasty incident in the second game when he grabbed 76er guard Andrew Toney in an attempt to prevent a layup. Lanier had Toney by the neck, and was booed vociferously every time he touched the ball the rest of the game. Lanier has downplayed it all, saying it happens all the time.

Lanier says he is having more fun playing with the Bucks than with any other team in his career.

"This team is special," he said. "It's had to deal with so many insecurities. No one ever knew who was going to be playing from one game to the next. I was out and they never knew if I was going to come back, and (Dave) Cowens has been out. Quinn Buckner was our leader and he was traded.

"But nothing seemed to bother us. We just melded together and now here we are. We don't have anything to lose. We just go out and enjoy ourselves and let the chips fall where they may. We want to beat Philadelphia and win it all, but it won't be the end of the world if we don't."

The accomplishment Lanier says he is most proud of is helping work out the recently signed collective-bargaining agreement between the league and the players association,

"You want to leave a mark when you get out of the game and I think I did that with the collective-bargaining agreement," said Lanier. "I was scared right up to the time it was signed, and now I'm scared again because we don't know the effect of it and probably won't for a couple of years."

Lanier's thoughts quickly turned to Moses Malone, the man he has been going head to head against this series.

"That boy there could be one of the toughest ever," he said. "I hurt, but I'm ready for him. I just hope I stay in one piece all the way through. The one fear I have is of getting hurt and then winning the championship and knowing that I had nothing to do with it."