Like most other days in Charles Barkley's second year in the National Basketball Association, yesterday was one long, defiant "so what."

Just when it appeared Barkley was about to have a calm, maybe even quiet practice, someone ran into the Philadelphia 76ers' session in Bowie State gym like Paul Revere with the news that Washington Bullets center Jeff Ruland might play in tonight's playoff game at Capital Centre.

Barkley stopped shooting layups and a quizzical look crossed his round face. "That doesn't scare anybody," Barkley said. "I tell you what: If we don't show up tomorrow night, you'll know we're scared of Ruland."

When someone said that the Bullets need the kind of lift Ruland could provide, Barkley shot back, "What they need is a win. That's it. Ruland's not going to be in no condition to play anyway. I think it will hurt their team. It's a big adjustment when somebody comes back and you have to change the things you've been doing for a while."

Barkley was equally unimpressed by the fact that Ruland, who has played in only 30 games this season, scrimmaged for 45 minutes yesterday. "If he went 45 minutes today, then why didn't he play before now?" Barkley said.

Around the NBA, folks have learned you don't mess with Charles Barkley. After the 76ers lost an overtime thriller at Boston Garden in January, Barkley said the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers were, man-for-man, more talented than the Celtics.

A fan in a arena in a visiting city who calls Barkley a "bum" -- as one did at Capital Centre Tuesday night -- often might be called something a lot worse in return. On the subject of fans, Barkley said yesterday he wasn't ready to kiss the ones in Philadelphia, who left the Spectrum half-filled for the two games of the Bullets-76ers playoff series played there Friday and Sunday.

"Your fans will be there when you're playing well. That's fans anywhere," Barkley said. "You can't worry about fans. 'Cause if you're not playing well, they get on you and you have to tell them to . . . "

Barkley is not lacking for fans. In the final 31 games of this season, his scoring and rebound averages each increased by five. He finished the regular season averaging 20 points and 12.8 rebounds. He was the second-best rebounder in the league to Detroit's Bill Laimbeer, despite having to share the boards with the league's fourth-best rebounder, Moses Malone. If the season had lasted six more games, Barkley almost assuredly would have passed Laimbeer.

Once it was no certainty Barkley would even make it as a pro. When he was a junior at Auburn, NBA scouts worried about his outspokenness and weight, admittedly as high as 290 and reportedly 25 pounds higher. Then he was cut from the Olympic team by Bob Knight.

There are no questions about Barkley now. At 6 feet 6, 263 pounds -- his listed weight -- he is big enough to go bear hunting with a twig. But he and his game are completely lean.

Five times, all in the second half of the season, Barkley had at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game. He did it again in each of the first two playoff games against the Bullets. And that's why they have been so tolerant of his public remarks. They know his bite is a lot more damaging to opponents than his bark.

Barkley said he didn't feel any extra pressure when Malone -- the man who led the 76ers to an NBA championship in 1983 -- was forced to the sideline two weeks ago with an eye injury.

"I knew I had to do a little more," he said. "But I was already rebounding pretty well. There was no pressure on me. I have an obligation to me, nobody else.