Shortly before the start of the Washington Bullets' 104-97 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, a reporter covering the game at HemisFair Arena approached Manute Bol and told him that on this night he would play his best game of the season.
The 7-foot-7 rookie center smiled. "Good," he said. "That means I will be playing. I want to play all the time."
He played only 19 minutes, but that was more than enough as far as the Spurs were concerned. During the last seven minutes of the third period and for most of the fourth, the Bullets' second-round draft choice dominated play, even though he scored only a basket and foul shot.
His presence was felt mainly on defense, where he had eight of his nine total rebounds and tied a team record by blocking seven shots in a half. Many times, his spikes enabled the Bullets to score. Even when he wasn't able to deflect a shot, the Spurs were in no hurry to bring the ball inside.
"He made everything seem small. Suddenly the corner is closer than it used to be," said Spurs forward Mike Mitchell after the game.
This was a game for all the fans back at Capital Centre who chant, " 'Nute, 'Nute," whenever the play appears to drag. More important, it was a game for Bol, who occasionally has doubted his ability to make it in the big, bad NBA.
"I want to play hard every time and help the team," he said, "but sometimes I don't get to play. I don't feel good when I don't play. People always say, 'Why not? Why don't you play?' You want to play but you don't get mad if the coach didn't use you -- he just said 'No.' "
According to Bol, his performance in the San Antonio game was his best since the Bullets' 101-95 preseason victory over the Boston Celtics Oct. 9 in Worcester, Mass. In that game, he blocked nine shots and had nine rebounds. The difference in the two games though, was the final score.
"If I play good and my team wins, that's what matters," he said. "I want to play, but if I don't and we win, I'll be happy."
The two factors seemed to go hand in hand Wednesday. As long as he was in the game, the Bullets had a chance to win. After all, who else, short of Ralph Sampson or Mark Eaton, would be able to stuff Artis Gilmore's hook shot?
"He was going against Ruland," Bol said. "I timed it. When Jeff went down (after a fake by Gilmore) I went up."
Bol was by no means alone in contributing to the Bullets' comeback. Several players helped cut an 85-51 deficit with 3:49 to play in the third period down to 99-96 with 1:02 remaining in the game.
One of them was guard Frank Johnson. When the fifth-year veteran made his first appearance of the season after recovering from a broken left foot, the Bullets trailed, 15-5, just 2 1/2 minutes into the game. When he came out four minutes later, the Spurs led, 27-6.
"It wasn't the best situation to make a comeback in," he joked after the game. "I felt all right but we were all just trying to get over the hump."
He missed all five of his field goal attempts in the first half but rallied after intermission, making four of seven shots. The fact that three of them came on consecutive possessions pleased Coach Gene Shue.
"We figured that Frank would be rusty but, when he got it going, it was nice to see," Shue said. "He hit those three shots in a row and that's what we've got to have."
Johnson replaced rookie guard Perry Moss on the Bullets' roster. Moss didn't receive word of his demotion until the team left the hotel for the arena. Even after the disappointing news, the free agent from Northeastern sat in the stands less than 30 feet from the court and was Washington's biggest rooter.
"They really didn't say anything to me, just that I was waived," he said. "They never really said much of anything the entire time I was here so I'm not too surprised. I guess I'll go back to Washington with everyone but I'm not sure what I'll be doing after that. I guess it's just the nature of the business."