The day in 1986 came, and John Williams decided to leave Louisiana State University. It wasn't pleasant for him. It has often seemed basketball hasn't been much fun for Williams since.

The Washington Bullets have been locked in a 10-month battle with their star over his weight, his work habits and, most recently, his money. He is in Los Angeles waiting to be paid; the Bullets have just concluded an 0-7 preseason but say they will pay him nothing until he comes east, undergoes a physical examination and continues rehabilitation of his injured right knee under their supervision.

Life has not been the same for John Williams since Dec. 2. That's when a misstep tore the medial collateral ligament and partially tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and put on hold one of the league's more promising careers.

It's a case in which neither side appears to be a victor -- the Bullets faced with playing an 82-game NBA schedule without their best player, Williams sitting on the West Coast knowing that, as the "Peanuts" philosopher Charlie Brown said, "A great potential is man's heaviest burden."

"John did not want to leave LSU," said his coach there, Dale Brown. "When he came to see me he was in tears. I think {his time at LSU} was the happiest he ever was. I think he felt very comfortable here; there wasn't any pressure here. He could just play.

"He said 'I've got to go.' {I said} 'Well, what happened, John?' {He said} 'Well, I've just got to go.' Some of those kids just aren't ready to go. John just wasn't ready. Everyone was just pulling on him. John was like a big teddy bear. I really loved John. John was real easy to coach. He was very gentle. He had no ego whatsoever. His only problem was he was just too nice to too many people. He couldn't say no."

Who were they? Friends, acquaintances, people who hooked onto the star of John Sam Williams and helped convince him he belonged in the NBA. "A lot of those people," Brown said, "I thought were parasites."

Williams, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told the (Baltimore) Sun on Friday he would sit out the season if the Bullets didn't give him the more than $276,000 they've withheld from his $1.2 million contract since mid-July. They did that because he failed to attend rehabilitation sessions at Kerlan-Jobe clinic in Los Angeles, his home city.

"John has had a history of this with us," former Bullets general manager Bob Ferry said. "It could be anything. Over the years we've heard a lot of his answering machine. He just doesn't face reality and by not communicating he doesn't have to. He's really a nice guy but he's an irresponsible person."

No one with the Bullets is surprised at Williams's behavior. For three years, they held their breath, they talked to him, they cajoled him, they praised him, they cursed him. They let him do what he wanted in previous offseasons, but requested he stay here last offseason. Ten months have passed. They're still waiting to see him. All-Round Good Guy

If John Williams were a selfish ballplayer, he probably could average 25 points a game. He's got the heft to go around most big men, yet possesses a feathery shooting touch around the basket. But what makes him special is his willingness to integrate teammates into the flow of a game.

He's as good a passer for a big man as anybody not named Magic Johnson. As a sophomore at LSU, he took over, leading the Southeastern Conference in rebounding and earning MVP honors in the SEC tournament.

"He never really liked the publicity," Brown said. "He shied away from it. He'd have his greatest game ever, and as soon as I came in he'd say 'Hey Coach, didn't Don {Redden} have a great game?' He always did that. The kids just loved him."

He had a solid relationship with the Bullets players, and as Washington's needs grew, so did his responsibilities: point guard against pressure defenses, low-post defender, ballhandler in the half-court offense, rebounder. This continued for three seasons, and he never complained.

"I thought what he got most of his effectiveness from was his versatility," Bullets Coach Wes Unseld said. "I also thought it probably stopped him from getting some of the notoriety as far as all-star games and things like that. But I never did that without consulting him or talking to him about it. He sort of regaled in that opportunity."

But there always was another problem, and Williams has acknowledged it in the past. He'd always carry extra weight. He'd take enough off in training camp that he could play, and because the team was asking him to do so much bumping in inside traffic, it was probably better that he have a little extra heft.

The Bullets grudgingly accepted that Williams wasn't going to be a chiseled-physique specimen. His contracts never have included weight clauses, but incentive bonuses (last season, up to $200,000) if he held to a certain weight.

"It was obvious that he wasn't going to be able to hold 235, so we settled for 260," Ferry said. "And he played very well at 260. Last year he was above 260 and he still played well."

After his injury, he spent several weeks in a cast, then was fitted with a range-of-motion brace. He worked out in Bethesda and the knee started coming around, albeit slowly. Then Williams asked to work out in Los Angeles during the summer and the Bullets said okay.

But he gradually stopped. He told the Sun the reasons were personal -- the death of a close friend and his father's stroke. He withdrew from public view. One of the people he did see in Los Angeles was Delbert Wright, his junior high school coach.

"Every Saturday the older guys come up and play," Wright said. "I told him, 'John, I'll dedicate my whole summer to getting you healthy and getting your knee better and getting that weight off you.' He said, 'Okay, Coach.' I only saw John once after that."

Said Ferry: "He always says the right things and he's polite and he's a gentleman. But he just doesn't respond. And if he does, it's just for a short period of time."

People grow apart, and it's happened with Williams and Wright. But it's left Wright angry.

"He's got a big head," said Wright, who's known Williams since seventh grade. "He won't listen anymore. It hurts when they act like they don't even know you. . . . To me it was more than a coach and a basketball player. It was like a father and a son, or a big brother."

Soon after, the Bullets decided to stop paying him, and all this trouble began. They lost track of him, and club owner Abe Pollin began using "back channels" to find him.

The Bullets didn't regain contact with him until Oct. 11. And then the squall over whether he'd get his money back all at once or in increments ensued. Neither side is budging, and Williams says he is prepared for a long siege. His teammates wonder. They don't want to talk much about it. Potential gradually gives ground to reality.

"You talk about bizarre," Dale Brown said. "This is about as bizarre as you can get."