"Mediocrity's no crime, Frank!" - Hawkeye Pierce to Frank Burns, M*A*S*H

The Washington Bullets have been mired in just such a bog for the better part of 11 years. No matter what they've tried, who they've drafted, they can't escape. As the '90s begin, the Bullets are looking to an infusion of new talent and new management to turn things around.

Some of the old problems have leapfrogged with them: Their best player, forward John Williams, is hurt and embroiled in controversy. The player acquired in the Jeff Malone trade, Pervis Ellison, has played fewer than 30 NBA regular season games after an injury-plagued rookie season. Bob Ferry, the veteran general manager, resigned in the spring, replaced by John Nash, former general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers.

But there is a future, involving not only those players but a front-office revival that has produced some of the few good signs from the franchise in the past couple of years. Two years ago, the Bullets were so distressed by their season ticket base that they were citing "team policy" that didn't allow them to disclose it.

Now, they crow about the partial turnaround, which has Washington operating from a healthier financial base, with internal improvements plus the combined cash cows of expansion and the league's television deals with NBC and cable's TNT.

Still, though the 23 established teams have split $130 million over the past two years from the four expansion clubs, and though Washington had the second-largest increase in average attendance in the league last season, the Bullets were among a handful of teams that lost money -- a "considerable amount," club owner Abe Pollin said. He didn't disclose figures, but an educated guess would put the figure in the low millions.

"We're looking forward to things improving this year on a financial basis," he said. "Obviously, we have a new TV contract, we have a new radio deal {with 50,000-watt WTOP after four years on WWDC-AM}, we're going to sell more season tickets and we're going to have more people come to the games. . . . Last year was a very bad one for us."

Season tickets currently stand at 4,350, an all-time high, 600 more than the Bullets' best attendance season, 1978-79, the season after they won the NBA championship. Renewals are going at better than 80 percent. Partial ticket plans -- for the first time, the team's 13-game package has all weekend games -- are doing well.

The new radio deal will raise those revenues 75 percent. Executive vice president Susan O'Malley didn't disclose amounts, but did say the team has already covered all costs of buying time on WTOP. In addition, the team, as of Monday, already had more money from radio revenues than from all of last season.

Team sponsorships are up 50 percent. The club has brought in more than a million dollars in sponsorships, O'Malley said, and will have bigger commitments this season from Amtrak and Safeway.

"We're right on target," said general sales manager David Lanzi. "We're very pleased with renewals. We're ahead overall of where we were last year. . . . A lot of people are crying economy right now. We haven't noticed it at all."

Though the salary cap is up to $11.8 million, the Bullets might get closer to breaking even this year. Their in-house improvements and television will see to that; NBC's $600 million investment, as well as $250 million from TNT for four years of telecasts, averages to $8 million per team per year.

Two years ago, with a team of little-known, uninteresting or unwilling players, Coach Wes Unseld was the front office's sole marketing tool. Having been successful selling the idea of a younger, more spirited team, Washington is now looking to a more team-oriented approach. Guard Ledell Eackles has spent most of the summer in the area doing clinics and the like, and now, at least two players appear in all advertisements.

"Jeff {Malone} is very shy," O'Malley said, "so he didn't want to market himself. If you're not on a great team, you don't get noticed. And on the marketing side, they didn't do well with tickets. They didn't have a lot of revenue. We didn't do a very good job of getting to the market and marketing our players."

On the court, Williams's knee injury and subsequent controversy over his rehabilitation has cast a pall over the club's immediate future. He is a major talent, and the Bullets have spent the better part of three seasons waiting for him to step to the next level and take the team along. But the devasting knee injury of Dec. 2 has been followed by major disagreements about his rehabilitation, culminating in the team's decision two months ago not to pay Williams until he continues rehab sessions.

The team officials have not spoken directly to Williams since early August, but Pollin said last week that he was going through informal channels to try to reach Williams, who has been in Los Angeles all summer.

The Bullets are trying to stay low-key about all this.

"I'm not going to worry about that until I see him on the court Oct. 5" Unseld said last week, referring to the date veterans are scheduled to report to training camp. "Because it doesn't do me any good to wonder otherwise. . . . I, as a player, would do things the way I did them that made me a player to begin with. I trust that's John's situation. If he's not ready, then I've got a problem. . . . What choice do I have? I've got 11 or 13 other guys to worry about too. I can spend all my time worrying about one individual, or I can go on and worry about those things I can have some control over."

"I've told John that God has given him a talent superior to most other people," Pollin said. "We've had long talks, John and I. I'm very fond of John. . . . What bothers me is his actions, and I hope we can get that turned around. I'm going to try and resolve it as soon as I can. I might not succeed but I'm sure going to give it a helluva effort."

Gone are two of the team's longtime mainstays, Ferry and Malone. Ferry's departure was a surprise, and when he announced his resignation, he noted concerns about Pollin's ability to heft the freight of big-time NBA salaries. Pollin then took the unusual step of publicly disagreeing with his longtime friend, and says today he "doesn't know what Bob was talking about."

Said Pollin: "Just recently, I saw Len Elmore on television. I remarked to somebody -- I think it might have been my wife -- I said, 'there's the only player I ever lost in 26 years because I didn't come up with enough money.' He went to Indiana in the ABA, because I wouldn't match the numbers, as far as dollars. And that's a fact. I have spent whatever dollars it takes.

"I'm not going to throw the dollars away for what I think are unproven players, or whatever. As a prudent owner and businessman, I have never, ever said 'No, we're not going to do this because we can't afford it.' If I did, things would be different. But I don't. I have put out the dough when there was enough reason to put out the dough."

The Bullets have signed Mark Price and Eddie Lee Wilkens to offer sheets in the past, and made overtures about getting forward Otis Thorpe before he was traded to Houston. Washington's problem is that the team is coming off a 31-51 campaign and hasn't been past the first round of the playoffs since 1982. Thus, unrestricted free agents such as Sam Perkins see little reason to sign here when they can go to contenders that are only a player or two away from the NBA Finals.

Said current general manager Nash: "I'm confident that Abe will spend his money. Pervis -- I don't like to talk about player salaries -- makes significantly more than Jeff Malone. {Ellison will make $1.8 million this season, while Malone made just more than $1 million last season.} When I told Abe we had an opportunity to secure Pervis Ellison for Jeff Malone, he didn't even ask. But I'm sure he knows."

The Malone trade is a gamble, taking a chance that Ellison, injured for most of last season in Sacramento after being the first pick overall in the '89 draft, can begin to give Washington some interior presence.

Public reaction to the Malone trade has been muted, and cautiously optimistic.

"It made a lot of difference in our renewals," O'Malley said. "Not that marketing and the team work hand in hand, but it did happen three days before the renewal deadline. We had a lot of activity after that. I think there were a lot of fence-sitters."

O'Malley didn't recall many calls against the trade, "but a lot of people were saying 'something must be wrong with Pervis,' " she said. "Because how could you get a big man for a guard?' "

If Williams returns effectively, and one of the young players -- a Harvey Grant, a Tom Hammonds -- develops further, the Bullets foresee a talented front court that can compete.

Hammonds, who spent the summer at alma mater Georgia Tech to get his degree, is at 220 pounds after taking part in ballhandling drills and playing nearly every day with Atlanta Hawks. Grant has filled out noticeably to about 225 after another summer with weights both in Kansas and here with Bullets strength coach Dennis Householder.

But Williams has a long, long way to go before he can even get back on the court. Eackles has shown potential for two years, but can he play starter's minutes? Ellison is up to 225 pounds after an offseason weightlifting regimen, but will he keep the extra muscle over the course of a season? Bernard King is a wonder, but a 33-year-old wonder, and can't be considered a part of the Bullets' long-term future.

When Unseld was asked last week about his new young nucleus, he said: "right now, I wouldn't call it anything. It's still way too early."

On the other hand, the Bullets have a lot of the complementary pieces. If they could acquire the franchise-type player -- the kind found in the first two or three picks of the draft -- they could turn it around a lot sooner.

Nash concedes the Bullets don't have a turn-around player on their team.

"That's probably fair," he said. "There are really two ways to get those types of players. We parted with an all-star caliber player in Jeff Malone for Pervis Ellison. We can't do that again. . . . John Williams, not only in our eyes, but to everyone else in the NBA, remains a question mark until he gets back on the floor and plays again. And because of his age, Bernard King doesn't get what he's worth. We still need that player."