DENVER, FEB. 21 -- As he recently watched Washington Bullets Coach Wes Unseld go through the lifetime of agony and tension that's packed into every 48-minute NBA game, the Phoenix Suns' director of player personnel smiled wanly.

"I don't think Wes will do this for very long," said Cotton Fitzsimmons, who enjoyed -- if that's the word -- a lengthy career as a coach. "He's got too much pride to handle losing. All the great players {who go into coaching} are like that. They just don't need all the aggravations."

A stressful two-week stretch that included blowouts, close losses and unhappy Bullets players might seem to prove Fitzsimmons' point. Right now, though, it's lost on Unseld.

"Maybe he knows something that I don't," Unseld said before Washington's 115-109 loss Saturday night to the Rockets in Houston. "I've enjoyed it -- as much as you can enjoy something when you're losing half the time. I've never let pride get in the way of anything I want to do, though."

The Bullets' 3-9 mark their last 12 games is a far cry from their eight victories in Unseld's initial 10 games as coach. Yet his demeanor has remained constant, through the double-digit victories at Capital Centre and the frustrating, seemingly avertable losses.

Against the Rockets, the problem was a lack of offensive execution, which led to a mediocre 41 percent shooting from the field. The Bullets will try to even their record on this Western Conference trip at 2-2 at McNichols Arena here Monday night against the Nuggets.

"I don't enjoy losing but I can deal with it as long as there's an honest effort," Unseld said. "I know that when I played there were nights that I didn't do that. I never enjoyed it, though, because I didn't like the feeling it left inside."

The list of outstanding players who become outstanding coaches is indeed short, with the most notable successes being Bill Russell and Billy Cunningham. Russell prospered as a player/coach with the Boston Celtics; subsequent turns with the Seattle SuperSonics and now with the Sacramento Kings haven't been nearly as successful.

Cunningham was almost thrown into the Philadelphia 76ers' head coaching job, but hired quality assistants like Chuck Daly (now coach of the Detroit Pistons) and became proficient enough to win an NBA championship ring in 1983.

Not far removed from his playing days, Cunningham said his initial problems as a coach weren't Xs and Os but rather dealing with and detaching himself from his players.

"There were several players I had played with or against, that I had roomed with, even," he said. "I don't think I changed, but I thought some of the players tried to take advantage of me. That's the nature of players, trying to see how far they can go, what they can get away with.

"It seemed that the time I was spending as a coach wasn't on the proper things. I was always sitting down having meetings with the players."

Last week, Unseld faced what could have been the first major confrontation of his coaching reign. Following a 123-108 loss Wednesday at Dallas, center Moses Malone, upset over lack of playing time (he'd played only 19 mintes against the Mavericks), sounded off, asserting that he had to play more if the Bullets were to become a consistent winner.

The statement, coming at the start of a trip that could very well determine whether Washington has a chance to make the playoffs, set up a potentially explosive situation. Unseld didn't bite, however, allowing Malone to speak his peace and then going about his business. Two nights later, in as close to a must-win game that a team could play in February, the Bullets beat San Antonio, with Malone hitting four free throws down the stretch to clinch victory.

"Sometimes it seems things could come down to power plays. If it does, it just happens but it's not something that you're looking for or worrying about," Unseld said. "All of the guys here are good guys, but that was never a problem for me even when I played. I dealt with some of the best, played with a bunch of malcontents. I didn't care if they were jerks, though -- as long as you play, I don't have any problem with that."

Surely part of Unseld's serenity these days stems from his close relationship with owner Abe Pollin. It even has been theorized that, given that circumstance and his position as executive vice president until becoming an assistant coach before the start of the season, Unseld is responsible to just one other person in the Bullets' organization -- Pollin.

But, said Unseld, "Abe Pollin will make the best business decision for Abe Pollin. I don't see myself as having any special power that any other coach doesn't. I don't look upon my relationship with Abe Pollin as power. This is a business and I have to do the job.

"My problem is that I have to do that job the way I see it. Hopefully the players will agree with me."