When the Washington Bullets' Dudley Bradley was making basketball banditry not only pay off, but pay handsomely, at North Carolina, classmates filled his mind with tales of a future phenom.

In the rim-high star wars of the '80s, they bragged, this kid will dance higher and more artfully than anyone ever. Trust us.

Bradley did, for the kid's hometown prophets were reasonably sophisticated about sport. Like other basketball insiders, Bradley paid special heed to The Coming of Michael Jordan; he also was astonished to realize that the fable may have been understated just a bit.

Officially, the Jordan comet flashes across the NBA for the first time tonight, in Chicago; Bradley will be closest, he hopes, trying to make sure neither he nor the Bullets get burned too badly.

Bradley was not signed by the Bullets shortly before training camp with this specific guard duty in mind, though he is one of the few pro players who has defended Jordan.

That was during summer pickup games in Chapel Hill, when the glittering Carolina alums return to offer graduate-level experience to players such as Jordan. Bradley will do tonight what he has done in the past:

"Just go for it."

That does not necessarily mean the ball, though Bradley is quite adept at flicking it free from even the best of handlers. As teammate Frank Johnson knows, "You've got to pay attention when Dudley's nearby."

Nobody has drawn attention to himself more completely through defense than Bradley; few have climbed higher because of it -- and then plummeted.

Johnson still smiles in wonderment at the time Bradley stripped N.C. State's Clyde Austin near midcourt in the final seconds of what was becoming one of the all-time Carolina embarrassments.

The Heels had blown a 20-point halftime lead at State and trailed by one. All Austin needed to do was dribble out the last few seconds.

He couldn't. Inexplicibly, Austin looked at a relatively tame Tar Heel, and Bradley swooped in for the steal. He raced both the Wolfpack and the clock to the basket.

"Jammed it home just in time," he recalled yesterday before practice. "In fact, the buzzer went off before the ball hit the floor."

Everyone who witnessed and hears about it wants to know why Bradley kept going for the dunk, why with such a tiny margin for error he didn't pull up at the free throw line and fire away.

"I wanted a high-percentage shot," he joked, then and now.

That line emphasizes a common attitude about Bradley: that had he taken the safe shot, the jumper, the ball would have clanged off the rim, brought little iron filings to the court and Carolina to defeat.

His career to date has been no laughing matter to Bradley. After being the most valuable player in the '79 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and the 13th player chosen by the NBA that summer, he drifted not toward fame but obscurity.

Remarkably, Bradley's four-year average with the Indiana Pacers, Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls was two points higher than his four-year average at Carolina (6.5 points to 4.4).

Which says a lot about pro executives who preach the virtues of defense and then proceed to dismiss many of the very players who practice them best.

"Sometimes it's a matter of being with the right team at the right time," said the Bullets' assistant coach, Bernie Bickerstaff. "Here just might be right for him. We were looking for a sort of Dennis Johnson guard we could use with Gus (Williams).

"He gives us an instinctive guard on defense, a guy who reads routes well and anticipates well. But he's gotta pick the right spots to gamble (for steals)."

Only a Jordan-like few can control games themselves. Defensive wizards such as Bradley especially need help. Or can use it to make them more effective.

"He and Gus could be great with a shot blocker," Bickerstaff said. "They could be devastating. Like (Walt) Frazier and (Phil) Chenier."

A shot blocker allows a Bradley to be more reckless, to dash for steals more often knowing that if the ball eludes him inside, it likely will be swatted away anyway.

For Bradley, this latest peculiar twist of fate has him not only back in the NBA after a season in the bushes but also starting. And frequently guarding the league's most heralded rookie.

With Detroit of the Continental Basketball Association, Bradley learned humility and to keep a hopeful, if not always happy, attitude.

The team once vanned from Detroit to Louisville the day of a game and won; figuring he'd discovered a previously untapped victory vein, the coach ordered the same routine for a game in Ohio -- and watched a 22-point loss.

One of the gyms was so small that a fan once eavesdropped on the huddle, jumped away and shouted: "That's not gonna work."

But Bradley did, mustering only 45 fewer steals than baskets -- and shooting 47 percent from the field. To keep a Jordan river of points from flowing tonight, he will try to make his pal unselfish.

"We want Jordan to be a team player," Bickerstaff said. "If you play too far off him, he'll make the jumper; if you play him a little close, he'll break you down; if you play him close, but not too close, he'll pass.

"That's what we want, the ball in somebody else's hands as much as possible. Otherwise, he can take over a game."

"Another key," Bradley adds, "is fouls the first half. If I can keep 'em in check then, I can be more confident and loose." Even Jordan is no more anxious for tipoff.