Now comes the first game that counts between Jahidi White, whose debut Thursday night as the new Washington Wizards center went exceptionally well, and one of his heroes and mentors, Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks.

"I'm looking forward to it," White said of the battle in the low post between the two Georgetown alums at 1 p.m. today at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks are 4-0 since Ewing was activated after recovering from a partial tear of his left Achilles' tendon he suffered June 1 during the Eastern Conference finals.

When White was growing up in St. Louis and starting to develop an interest in basketball, he watched Ewing lift Georgetown to two straight Final Fours and then become one of the NBA's high-magnitude stars. Ewing and the other centers John Thompson molded for the NBA were a major reason White chose Georgetown--and Ewing gave White valuable, sweaty tutorials during pickup games at McDonough Arena each of White's four summers with the Hoyas.

"He taught me a lot--by how he played more than what he told me," White said after practice yesterday. "I've always looked up to him."

Wizards Coach Gar Heard said he had been thinking about starting the 6-foot-9, 290-pound White ahead of Ike Austin for several days before making the announcement public barely more than an hour before Thursday's game against the New Jersey Nets. And White provided exactly what Heard wanted--an aggressive, emotional presence close to the basket.

White played 31 minutes of the 108-104 victory at MCI Center. His 19 points, which included making 9 of 11 shots, were slightly more than double his previous career high and he added eight rebounds and a blocked shot. He finished several passes from point guard Rod Strickland and one by shooting guard Mitch Richmond with distinctively powerful dunks.

"He either puts the ball in," Strickland said, "or he puts somebody's hand in."

Added Heard: "Guys will kind of back away from him a little bit."

As White was about midway through what he'd hoped would be a breakout senior season at Georgetown, he broke his left ankle. Not playing in all the games that followed was one of the reasons White slipped into the second round of the 1998 NBA draft. He missed 26 games of his rookie season with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery in mid-March, then lifted the hopes of team officials with solid play when he returned and with close to nonstop work during the offseason.

"Small things," White said. "I was taught how to handle my body, to position my body to shoot, to pass. . . . I'm still building my skills."

Heard was impressed with how much control White showed against the Nets, how patient and focused he stayed, how often he moved into proper position after anticipating Strickland's moves.

"Sometimes he gets frustrated when things don't go his way," Heard said. "Sometimes he just wanders off, gets out of what we're doing. If he gets open, Rod'll find him."

White said he was able to sense what Strickland was about to do with eye contact and other nonverbal communication that ought to improve the more they work together. Strickland had 14 assists and was 7 for 11 against the Nets.

"With Juwan [Howard] and Mitch [Richmond] on the floor," Heard said, "we can get enough scoring out of our starters."

As White was preparing to leave with the team for New York yesterday afternoon, he was expecting a call from Ewing. He said Ewing has always phoned him at the hotel before their teams met at the Garden. The tone of this call may be different this time, because the circumstances have changed. White insists he will challenge Ewing--and Heard agrees.

"I don't think Jahidi's going to back down from him," Heard said. "I don't know if the officials will let him play Patrick. If he plays the way he did [against the Nets], he'll be all right."

Heard also talked about Howard's role. After saying two days earlier he was frustrated about having to play so much at small forward, Howard spent considerable time late against the Nets at the position he finds most comfortable, power forward. He said he hoped Heard would "look at the tape and make it a consistent thing."

That's unlikely. Heard explained that unusual circumstances had Howard at power forward, including teammate Michael Smith suffering a cut on his chin and the Nets using Keith Van Horn at both forward positions. Howard beat Van Horn at will on offense.

"It depends on the matchups," Heard said. "A lot of [power] forwards are just too strong for Juwan."