In pro basketball, there was life in the paint even when there was no paint. Long before $1 a minute was considered a handsome wage, midget Jeff Rulands and Moses Malones were really busting each other's chops.

"The rules (at the turn of the century) depended for the most part on whose court the game was held on and who refereed," the Pro Basketball Encyclopedia tells us. "Broken noses were common. Crowds were raucously informal, and players and fans often exchanged insults and punches.

"A highly dangerous part of the actual game was the center jump . . . Refereeing was so hazardous that some officials carried revolvers for protection."

Now the NBA gets incensed when Ruland simply shoots off his mouth at officials, as he was doing a few welts ago, after another shift of bump and gun near the basket against the Philadelphia 76ers.

"Moses has a license to kill," Ruland said, "a little help from his friends now and then. The referees did a good job (Tuesday night), but (former) MVPs get certain calls. That's a fact of the game."

Funny thing. A dribble away, power forward Cliff Robinson was describing survival of the fittest in that painted rectangle from the foul line to the base line as "kinda like gunfighters in the Old West.

"Better be quick on the draw in the paint," he said. "Better be able to establish a presence down there, hold your ground. If you can't, everybody'll want to draw against you.

"Word gets around very quickly."

The compelling scenes in the NBA often are a pass or two ahead of the ball, that brutal maneuvering by the largest players to be in the best place to do something productive when the little guys stop being cute.

"Such big people fighting for such tiny real estate," said Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry, who played the paint when it only was called something pedestrian, such as the low post.

The fighting gets more intense the closer the game gets, and the closer the game gets to the end.

First quarter in Capital Centre, Ruland and Malone were polite as diplomats. Which is to say, ribs rattled only occasionally.

Each man even moved from his natural turf a time or so, Moses once drawing Ruland outside and Maurice Cheeks slipping past for a layup. A fine passer, Ruland once whipped the ball to an open Dudley Bradley, who, in turn, instantly hit the more open Greg Ballard.

As the game wore on, Malone's stamina increased but his patience wore thin. Once he countered an elbow across the face by planting his backside near Rick Mahorn's groin.

At times, Ruland and Malone, Robinson and Charles Barkley and some others resembled football linemen. Or shoppers hell-bent on a sale.

"Hard work," Robinson said. So hard he said it again, then added for even more emphasis: "considerably hard work."

Robinson was a "perimeter center" at Southern Cal, and remembers vividly an early quick-draw experience his rookie NBA season. A Wes Unseld pick is what it was, the former Bullets center being the Barkley of the '70s.

"Wes wouldn't recall it, I'm sure, because he set so many of 'em," Robinson said. "I had turned the wrong way, and there he was. My shoes screeched." He tried to imitate a sneaker screeching, and the inevitable collision with Unseld.

The new force in the paint, nearly everyone around the league agrees, will be Barkley.

"He'll score a ton in there," Ferry said, "once the refs get used to him. As a rookie, he doesn't know how to cover. He's so obvious (with contact) the refs have to call it, because all the fans see it."

Once a no-quarter reputation is established, the Barkleys must learn to wave one hand and grab trunks with the other, to stagger backward at the slightest touch, to deliver a forearm to the throat while smiling sweetly toward the official.

Better yet, score and rebound. Dominate games, as Ruland often has in three-plus years. But before he insists that excellence does not always earn referees' respect, Ruland volunteers this contradiction: "It's not really that rough in there. At least I don't think it is."

Okay, so what would be the nonbasketball job that most closely resembles the painted jungle? Ruland laughed.

"Bodyguard," he figured. "Or bouncer at a huge nightclub. Pickin' on Mark Gastineau in arm wrestling. A great way to make a living. It's where the action is; I just wish they'd let us play a little more at times."

The us is himself and the other Beef Brother, Mahorn.

In slightly under a 100 more minutes than Moses last season, Mahorn was called for close to twice as many fouls; Ruland had 97 more fouls than Malone in 469 more minutes.

Can Malone, the consummate offensive rebounder, be that quick?

"It affects you mentally," Ruland said. "I didn't get called for a foul the first three quarters tonight, and I still was worried that I might foul out. It's always on my mind."

Throwing up his hands in frustration, Ruland said: "Unless I'm hit on the head, I don't even feel it any more. Usually, I feel it when I'm hit on the head."

Still, Ruland reacted to having a cap knocked off his tooth against the 76ers last year the way most of us would to a hangnail: he grabbed the ball and threw it inbounds; he grabbed the cap and casually tossed it to trainer John Lally on his way down court.

He sighed: "Some things you gotta live with. When we get to be NBA champions, we'll get the calls."