The notion that you can hitch four-barrel carburetors and racing cams to a basketball was examined for the first time in Washington last night. The faster-than-a-bullet Bullets launched their home season, to fans both startled and stiff-necked.

In less than two minutes in Capital Centre, the Bullets flipped from slo-mo to fast forward. That was how long it took for Gus Williams to generate a pair of hurry-up baskets for a 7-2 lead. Maybe leopards really can change spots.

From the opening tap to the final whip-around pass that assured victory over the also-lively Atlanta Hawks, the small audience realized this was no trick-or-treat tease.

Instead of tipoffs, maybe they should use a starter's pistol to get the Bullets off and running. Somewhere, General Manager Bob Ferry surely was as contented as he was concerned.

Ferry was uneasy because the Hawks were matching the Bullets point for frantic point through most of three quarters; he was pleased because his masterstroke on draft day brought the Bullets their most glittering guard since Earl The Pearl.

And this one also plays defense.

There was a Sly Williams on the court, but the sly Williams game-long was Gus. He had six steals by halftime, along with 15 points and four assists.

Probably, Gus will take a bit of getting used to. One or two of his passes clanged off teammates unaccustomed to his thread-the-needle daring on the run.

Plenty of time remains to fine-tune everything, there still being 79 games before the playoffs. Also, fans are advised to bring a squirt-can of oil, because heads turn to and fro every few seconds these days instead of every few minutes.

In all, only 7,249 first-nighters watched this start of something Shue. Either there was a torrid poetry reading in Olney, or something equally compelling, or the word about the new-look Bullets has yet to penetrate the area.


The Bullets still might not advance much past the first round or so of the playoffs; they'll be very entertaining not doing it.

What the Bullets are trying desperately to be is noticed. Or at least by more than a few thousand hoop junkies who would tiptoe through mine fields to watch a layup drill, anyway.

Played properly, basketball offers a customer more for his money than any other team sport. And the Bullets have played the game quite well here since Abe Pollin made a more graceful exit from Baltimore than Robert Irsay.

Trouble is, few have dropped their quiche to come watch. How have the Bullets tried to tug at the town's heart? Let's count a few ways.

They have fetched the first area championship in three decades; next season saw a minuscule rise in season ticket sales. So they followed that championship season with the best regular-season record in the NBA; again, a person could call 20 minutes before game time inquiring about a reservation for a party of 9,500 and be told, "No problem."

Partly because he had little choice, Pollin decided to compete in the NBA's elite division on a budget more suited to the CBA. Against Porsches, the Bullets entered Studebakers.

No longer.

When the ref says, "Gentlemen, start your engines," no longer will coach Gene Shue reach for a crank. Beef and thief, we'll call these guys for the moment. Ferry's June 19 fury also yielded more upfront heft in Cliff Robinson.

They got all Gussied up in Capital Centre twice last night. The first came when he made it possible for nearly every woman to clutch a carnation; the second was when he started all those fast breaks.

Early on, a pleasant pattern developed for the Bullets; the Hawks would pass the ball a couple of times -- and Gus Williams would end up scoring a layup.

Also, the outlet pass is in fashion once more for the Bullets. A half-dozen or so times Jeff Ruland or Rick Mahorn would flick some Unseldian two-hander toward Williams or Frank Johnson; it would quickly result in a basket.

The major mental error the first half was Dudley Bradley telling replacement Johnson he would be checking the Hawks' "No. 3." Frank knows "No. 3" as his brother Eddie.

With the game in doubt near the end of the thrid period, in part because of his turnovers and ill-advised shots, Gus Williams re-entered the game with orders to shoot as soon as he saw the whites of the rim.

Swish from 19.

With three seconds left, he attempted a 22-footer while falling backwards. Swish, Bullets; fold, Hawks.

One preseason worry for management and players might have been that the quick switch in styles would result in more confusion than fusion.

Teams are supposed to take years to create, and the fine ones usually take shape only after near-endless combinations of players have failed.

The concern remains that the Bullets might have hurt themselves against the walk-it-up strokers and still not be fast enough to beat the Philly and Los Angeles sprinters.

The start is very encouraging. A year ago, the Bullets lost their first three games and exceeded .500 only five times all season. Three games into this season, they are a game above break-even.

The one Bullet who figured to have the most difficult adjustment seemed to be Greg Ballard. Hardly swift, not an exceptional board banger, Ballard seemed more suited to last season's 33 1/3 pace than the 78 of '84.

All Ballard did last night was shoot 60 percent from the field on 15 tries. A fellow who can deposit the ball into the basket that regularly always is useful.