Shooting into spotlight Tim Legler: First-year Bullet is making most of his shots and making up for past NBA disappointment.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOWIE -- It was the eve of the 1990 season opener and Tim Legler, relaxing in his Minneapolis hotel room, was feeling pretty darn good.

He was undrafted coming out of La Salle in 1988, and had played himself into the CBA, two other minor leagues and a pair of 10-day contracts with the Phoenix Suns. And now here he was with the second-year Minnesota Timberwolves, having outplayed every guard in camp -- including Anthony Bowie and Doug West -- and needing only to make the roster to cash in on a contract that he described as "pretty substantial."

"I was coming off maybe the best month of basketball I ever played," recalled Legler, now a member of the Washington Bullets. "I felt great. But it wound up being the most shocking night in my life. When the coaches knocked on my door, I couldn't even imagine what they were doing there."

They cut him. At 10 p.m. Two hours before his name would have been on the opening roster. Two hours before that "substantial" contract would have gone into effect. That's why Legler, right there, was ready to walk away from the game for good.

"I said to myself, 'If I go head-to-head and outplay everybody they have, and still can't get a job, what's it going to take?' " Legler said. "I wasn't a big-name player, I didn't go to a big-time university, I didn't have a guaranteed contract, I wasn't drafted. I didn't have anything going for me. I told my wife, 'I'm done. I can't deal with this frustration every year.' "

Five years and five NBA teams later, and Legler is glad that feeling of walking away lasted only a few days. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard is in the first year of a two-year guaranteed contract with the Bullets, and a third of the way through the season he's the best three-point shooter in the league (55.9 percent) and ninth in free-throw percentage (88.9).

"His play speaks for itself," said Bullets coach Jim Lynam. "He's a better player than I realized. He knows where to be and has a good sense of what to do. You go to a lot of different teams, and you get exposed to a lot of different ideas."

Legler's been with so many teams he has an extensive selection of warm-up suits. After getting cut by Minnesota, Legler went back to the Continental Basketball Association, where he was an all-CBA first team choice with the Omaha Racers. He's since played partial NBA seasons with the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors. He even signed as a free agent with the Bullets in 1991, but was released before the start of the season.

"I knew one day I would be put in a good situation, and I've finally found it," Legler said. "It's not all of a sudden that this year I became a good player. I've been the same player my entire career, but I've just had a lot of crazy things happen."

Like being cut by Minnesota. Or filling the same sixth-man role in his year and a half with Dallas, only to get released when the team changed coaches. The same thing happened last season in Golden State, where Legler thought he played well enough to secure a role.

The Bullets offered security and Legler, whose off-season home is in New Jersey, jumped at it. The clincher was sitting down with the coaching staff and having his role spelled out -- something that had never happened before.

"From day one they told me 'here's the role we want you to fill, and we're expecting you to play minutes,' " said Legler, who scored a career-high 20 points in Wednesday's win over the Warriors. "Coach Lynam has left me in games when I wasn't shooting well or getting shots. When I was in Dallas I had to make shots, or Quinn Buckner would yank me and I wouldn't play anymore."

"Here I can pick my shots, get loose, get in rhythm and be more aggressive," Legler added. "I have a lot more confidence in my game now. Coming here has definitely been the best move of my career."

NOTES: Ed Stokes, who came to the Bullets from Miami in the Rex Chapman trade, was waived. He never got off the injured list after being signed Dec. 11. . . . Calbert Cheaney (sore right leg) won't play tonight and could miss the next week. . . . Mark Price, recovering from surgery on his left foot, participated in drills yesterday, but probably won't practice until next week.

Bullets tonight

Opponent: New York Knicks

Site: USAir Arena, Landover

Time: 7:30

TV/Radio: HTS/WTEM (570 AM)

Outlook: New York has a 15-game winning streak against the Bullets, including two victories this season. The Knicks, who lost at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers last night, 86-76, have stepped up their defense, allowing just 91.1 ppg in 13 games. Washington is coming off Wednesday's win against Golden State, which ended a three-game losing streak. F Chris Webber's 24.1 ppg would rank fifth in the league if he had played more games.

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