As Susan Chubik sang her first note of the national anthem, 12 minutes before the scheduled tipoff, Ledell Eackles walked up the backstairs, doubled over from the flu, kicked out of the arena by the team doctor. On his way up, he passed Darrell Walker, in street clothes and out for three weeks with a sprained knee. At home sat Mark Alarie with a laceration below one eye. Only 1:38 into the game, Haywoode Workman pulled up limping with an injured groin. And Charles Jones is still hampered by a pulled hamstring.

You know how often the Bullets get to strut their stuff on national television this year, TNT or NBC? Once. Last night. That's it. And having lost four players within 24 hours. You know how often the Bullets play host to a legitimate big event? In the last four seasons, it's happened maybe three times, max. Ed Sullivan would have called last night a "really, really big shooo."

Capital Centre was sold out, the club handed out 15,000 American flags, 10,000 "rowdy rags" and 10,000 placards with only the letter "B" surrounded by stars. That, for those who haven't been paying attention, is for the King B, Bernard King, who as Detroit's Dennis Rodman said, "is almost, just about, real close to being the great, great, great Bernard King he was."

Coming off one of the great performances of his career (or anybody's else's career for that matter) in Madison Square Garden Thursday night, people actually came to Capital Centre to see someone other than the opposition. They came to see Bernard. Sure, they bought the tickets months ago to see the Pistons, but they came to watch the greatest athletic rebirth ever.

When is the last time people went to a Bullets game to see a specific Bullet? Elvin? Maybe. More than likely, Earl Monroe.

As ludicrously improbable as his return to greatness has been, as breathtaking as his 49-point performance was against the Knicks Thursday, King couldn't save the Bullets last night. Not from nine-for-47 shooting through the first half, not from 29.2 percent of field goals for the game. People came expecting a party, instead they got a comedy of errors. Edward Scissorshands could have a higher percentage.

King missed the first two shots of the game. Harvey Grant missed next. Workman missed a layup after making a steal. A.J. English missed to make it zero for five before the Bullets scored. C.J. missed everything with a left-handed hook, Pervis Ellison missed everything on a right-handed hook. King had one shot hit the underside of the rim, but that was a lot better than the next one, which missed everything. Grant took one shot that missed so badly, the shot-clock official just assumed it missed everything and failed to restart the clock.

Amazingly, the Bullets crawled back into the game (with Ellison dominating inside) and had a chance to win before simply running out of gas and losing to the champions. Four Bullets played more than 40 minutes. Byron Irvin, who played 98 minutes all season, played 44 last night. "I might be going onto the bench," Coach Wes Unseld said. "I'm going to call the general manager back from wherever he is."

Afterward, Walker stood at his locker almost wincing. It wasn't from the pain in his knee. It was the lost momentum, seeping out as if a pin had been stuck in the Bullets. "Everytime something good happens to us," he said, "something bad seems to follow."

It was an understandable sentiment, one Unseld didn't want to hear. "I thought we were feeling sorry for ourselves," he said. "We were going through the motions. I call it false hustle."

Maybe the Bullets didn't have any hustle left after Thursday. To those of us who aren't coaches, it's understandable. What King did at the Garden completely excuses his seven-for-25 shooting last night. He was dead tired. He didn't say so, but his shot had zero-degree arc.

King, in the groove he's been in, can be tired and still beat about 25 teams in the league. Not Detroit, even without Isiah Thomas. It would have been wondrous, but unreasonable, for King to have reproduced his Broadway performance of 24 hours earlier.

If you didn't see it, find somebody who taped the game. Every shot he took seamed to be screaming, "Told you, told you, told you!" to the Knicks for letting him go four years ago. In his old gym, with his parents watching, King demanded the ball, yelled for it. Once there were four Knicks who ran his way, but none could block a baseline jumper. The tone of the whole evening was surreal.

Unseld, who will tell you in a minute that he's seen just about everything, said: "I haven't seen anybody that focused and that determined in I don't know how long. Somebody asked me did I see anything special at the beginning of the game. No, I didn't. But once it started, he looked demonic to me for a while. Once, during a timeout, I didn't want to go into the huddle. I looked at Bernard and said, 'Hell, I'm not going in there. Something's got a hold of this guy.' It was more than a look."

Grant, thinking back 24 hours, said: "It was like Bernard was on some kind of mission. Have I ever seen anything like that? No, never. The only play you needed to call was his number. I could see it in the warm-ups when he was dunking the ball and going crazy."

It was against this backdrop that the Bullets entered the second half 13 points down last night, still knowing King could carry them to victory. He almost did. His basket with four minutes to play got the Bullets within 73-72, and even these Washingtonians who claim to be sports fans but don't have a clue of what's going on unless they see somebody take a snap from center had to stop their exodus from Capital Centre to see if the Bullets had a miracle up their sleeves.

They didn't. But the possibility itself is a start.