This was at the water cooler where cerebral scribes often gather to discuss the latest innovation in nuclear physics, minor poets of the 16th century and whether Big Boy should stay. Anyway, during deep debate the other day about a lawsuit involving the area's major sports entrepreneur, a colleague snapped: "Abe's right."

Came an equally certain reply: "Arnie's right."

Lotsa luck, Judge.

Twenty days and much ill will after it began, the big-bucks legal game between Arnold Heft and Abe Pollin awaits only Judge Albert T. Blackwell saying, in effect: "And the winner is . . . " That ought to come in another few weeks.

I make it too close to call, possibly hinging on obscure points of law I ignored as a youngster in favor of the hook slide. I also remain unconvinced that fair-minded gentlemen could not have resolved the matter long before it grew out of control, and ugly. What we seem to have are unequal partners in Capital Centre equally unwilling even to expend the energy for a phone call that might have saved them much money and more embarrassment.

Some background: Heft wanted to build what became Capital Centre. When he could not get the financing, he sold the rights to leased land in Largo to Pollin in exchange for one-third interest in the building and its profits. In two signed agreements, the last one in April of 1980, Pollin promised to consult Heft "in a timely manner on any and all major (Centre) matters."

Let's say the Centre's general partner, Pollin, had dialed limited partner Heft in June of 1982 and said: "Arnie, I'm reworking a few things (involving the $860,000 the Capitals and Bullets paid the Centre) and here's why I feel they're necessary."

That's what Heft argues he wanted all along, to have some say in how Pollin is managing their investment.

But by the summer of 1982 all but the most casual fans in the area knew the Capitals were in financial frenzy, that Pollin had lost his vest on the team and was rapidly watching the shirt being peeled off his back. Couldn't Arnie have phoned Abe and said:

"I know you're in trouble. Anything I can do to help?"

A mutual friend and occasional attorney for Heft, Stuart Bindeman, testified that during a critical time frame he suggested to Heft that, "the two of you get together and work it out . . . I made a number of suggestions he call Abe."

Former partners with the Bullets in Baltimore, Heft and Pollin have not spoken for more than a year. Neither has the trial been a model of civility. Juicy gobs of mud have been slung.

For instance, Heft charged in his suit that Pollin acted "willfully and maliciously" against him.

One of Pollin's attorneys, John Miles, accused Heft of being "fat, dumb and happy," which is the business equivalent of barefoot and pregnant. Miles also said that Pollin "broke his health and nearly bankrupted himself . . . while Heft was amassing a fortune."

During the Save the Caps drive in '82, Pollin wanted Heft to buy $100,000 worth of tickets; he bought two. When he filed suit, Heft suddenly was billed for a formerly free sky box.

Not too much has come out of the trial that thoughtful observers either did not know or strongly suspect. Of course, Pollin would publicly deny at the time that at least his hockey team was for sale when he evidently was quite anxious for that to happen.

This was Pollin's predicament: the Capital Centre was bringing money into one of his pockets at an astounding rate; the hockey team was burning an enormous hole in another pocket; and the basketball team was causing a small fire in still another.

To douse the flames, Pollin and aides Jerry Sachs and David Osnos decided that the Capitals and Bullets should be allowed to keep more money in their pockets than before. That meant less flowing into the profitable pocket, the one in which Heft has a hand.

Still unresolved is the amount of money Pollin actually lost because his losses with the Capitals could be applied to his personal income tax.

Also, the Bullets and Capitals wrote checks a total of three times to the Centre at the end of one financial quarter and then received the same amount back as a loan a few days later, it was revealed. Pollin's people argue those were new loans. Heft's say they were to avoid the teams exceeding a debt limit set by the firm that holds the Centre's bond.

The veracity of both men has been questioned at times during the trial. Attorney Osnos, chief counsel for the Centre, Bullets and Capitals, said that two months after the $860,000 or so in payments was altered he spoke with Heft about "partnership questions." He has documents to buttress that argument.

Heft denies the meeting took place.

On June 8, 1982, or less than a month before the financial alterations were finalized, Heft said he met with Pollin and that Pollin "patted me on my head, gave me a check and sent me on my way."

Pollin said, "There's a good chance" he told Heft of the adjustments during a meeting the next day. But in a deposition last year Pollin said there was no verification that they met June 9 "because I don't keep records." His last day on the stand, Pollin produced a datebook with the entry he needed.

"If I didn't (keep Heft informed properly)," Pollin said, "I should have and I apologize."

Apologies won't do it for Heft.

Said Osnos: "If I had my life to live over, I would have sent immediate notice (to Heft) by registered mail."