In the end, it came down to the Washington Bullets' owner, Abe Pollin, picking up the telephone Tuesday and asking John Williams to come home. With that simple act, one of the most protracted controversies in the team's history came to an end, as Williams returned to Washington yesterday and pledged to return to the lineup and "let my game speak for myself."

At a morning news conference, Williams accepted responsibility for his lack of effort in rehabilitating his injured right knee, which resulted in the Bullets withholding more than $276,000 of his $1.2 million salary over the last five months. He acknowledged he approached rehabilitation in the wrong way, but was distraught by both personal tragedies -- which included the death of a close friend and a stroke suffered by his father -- and dismay over the first serious injury of his career.

"I want to get myself back together," an occasionally emotional Williams said. "This is a career, this is my career. It was all in my hands. I sat there and watched all the preseason games and I sit there and I wondered, 'Hey, what am I doing at home still?' I said I need to get myself back out to Washington and get with Mr. Pollin and straighten everything out and get back on the right track."

The Bullets have been holding their breath for this news all summer. The team has had to deal with both Williams and holdout guard Ledell Eackles not being in camp, and it had sapped some of Washington's resolve.

Said Coach Wes Unseld: "I thought he was very honest and very forthright. I think he finally, over the last couple of months, grew up a little bit. I talked to him privately a little while, and it sounded like a little different guy. But a lot of things have happened to him."

"Nobody wants him back more than Darrell Walker," Walker said from Miami last night, where the Bullets open their regular season tonight against the Heat. "He'll probably be back around January. If anybody is looking forward to seeing him it's me and Wes. For me, it's like having another guard out there. When teams pressured me I could just make the pass to John, and he could get us in the passing game."

Williams and Pollin handled the settlement themselves, after a series of phone calls last month between Bullets vice chairman Jerry Sachs, Williams and his agent, Fred Slaughter. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but Pollin termed it a "compromise." It's likely Williams will not be paid his money until he returns to the court, but will receive the money at that time in one lump sum, rather than the incremental payments the team was seeking earlier.

The denouement came when Pollin called Williams at his Los Angeles home.

"I just said, 'John, it's time for you and I to get together,' " Pollin said after the news conference. "He said, 'Absolutely, Mr. Pollin. I really want to come back.' We talked a few minutes and I said, 'This is what I'll do for you from a financial standpoint.' He said, 'Terrific, it's fair.' I said, 'I'd like you to come back {Wednesday}.' He said, 'I will.' "

Asked why he didn't call Williams sooner, Pollin said, "{Other} people have tried. It was just unfortunate that some of the times when people tried, when they were able to get through to John, I wasn't there to pick up the phone personally. And when he called back, I wasn't there. Even though I wasn't there I was involved in the strategy."

Williams was examined in the afternoon by team physician Steve Haas and placed on the team's injured list before the NBA's 6 p.m. Thursday deadline. They couldn't put him on the active roster, and until he took the physical, the team's only alternative was to place him on the league's suspended list. Important to Williams, by being placed on the injured list instead of the suspended list, payments to him can resume.

But Williams said his return wasn't about money. He had played with assorted Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers at UCLA during the summer, but gradually, those players drifted off to training camps, while Williams sat at home.

"I had steered away from what I was doing," he said. "I was focused at one point and then when the problems happened -- my knee went out, and the personal problems at home -- I steered off in the wrong direction. It was real frustrating for me. It was the first time it had happened to me, so I didn't know how to handle it."

The team's last contact with Williams had been Oct. 19, when Sachs spoke to Williams and Slaughter. In the interim, Williams told the (Baltimore) Sun that he wouldn't return unless the money was returned, and that Nash "was trying to make an example of him" by not negotiating.

Said Nash yesterday: "You just saw a man stand up before you and pretty much bare his soul. From where I sit, there are no scars on the part of the Bullets' management. I think we saw a man express that he had some problems and he would like to put them behind him, and we would like to do likewise. There are no hard feelings on our part. We want to be supportive."

The Bullets' 0-7 preseason also weighed on his decision to return, Williams said.

Williams said he would continue a program of running, dieting and treadmill work as well as continuing to use the Cybex leg strengthening machine to get down to his playing weight, which last season was around 260 pounds. He looked as if he needed to drop at least 30 pounds to reach that goal.

"I'm ready to play now," he said. "It's just that I'm not in shape right now. I don't think I should go out there and embarrass myself by being out of shape. I feel it would take a couple of weeks to a month for me to get back to playing shape. I talked with Abe and Wes and the organization and I'm just trying to put all the differences behind us. I'm here now. I just want to go forward."