IT'S FEBRUARY, but there's hope. The Redskins go to training camp in just five months. Maybe the Capitals will get hot in the playoffs. The "Fat Lady" will sing again for the Bullets, just wait. Maryland will beat Penn State in football, you can bet (but not too much). Above all, the born-again Senators will be off to spring training one of these years. So much of sports in Washington is longing ahead.

It's that way because this city's troubled sports times have seemed like forever. A half-century may be a short time in the history of a nation and its capital, but it's an eternity when you're talking about the last time Washington won the pennant. A quarter-century is a mere blink in the cosmic scheme, and that's the best way of looking at it if you care when the Terrapins last beat the Nittany Lions. What of the Redskins in the sleepy years between Sammy Baugh and Sonny Jurgensen?

Washington is an event town, and appropriately Washington sports have had their events -- a Super Bowl victory, a Bullets championship, a Georgetown basketball title. But Washington's sports diehards, who have witnessed, say, the incomprehensible disaster that was the Redskins' 35-34 loss to the Cowboys in 1979, or 73-0 to the Bears (that's really when the Great Depression hit), or even two defeats to the hated Cowboys last season, or watched the Senators disappear into a September night in 1971, have spent less time relishing victory than looking for a way to make tomorrow different from today.

Yes, the Redskins have been sustenance. Democrats and Republicans, Georgetown hostesses and government bureaucrats, the poverty-stricken and the president . . . almost everyone stands shoulder to shoulder hailing the Redskins. The Redskins are a tradition that reflects life's ambiguities, one that's more human than the Yankees, less haughty than the Celtics, more vulnerable than the '60s Packers or '70s Steelers. The Redskins don't win them all. What's more, Washington is proud of its home- grown heroes, stalwarts of the city game. Very simply, basketball was raised to a new level here in Washington. Take Elgin Baylor. In the early '50s, he made the inner city stand still in disbelief over what he could do on a court. And he was not the only one: Then, the city game here was mostly a secret shared by all the fancy dribblers and stuffers, and their mentors, but by hardly anyone more than a few blocks distant from the playgrounds and Police Boys Clubs, the hoop shrines. Now, everyone knows Washington is a hub of the game; college recruiters swarm here.

Washington has its sports legends, names that endure. A mere sample: Joe Cronin, Bucky Harris and Walter Johnson, Baugh and Jurgensen, Bobby Mitchell, Charley Taylor and Larry Brown; college football innovators who passed this way -- Lou Little, Clark Shaughnessy, Bear Bryant and Jim Tatum; big hitters Sugar Ray Leonard and Bobby Foster, and sweet swingers Fred McLeod, Deane Beman and Lee Elder; tennis aces Donald Dell and Harold Solomon, and Pauline Betz, and Telley Holmes Sr., who for decades here introduced blacks to the game; Abe Pollin, who built an arena and put two teams into it; the Potomac's rowers, and countryside queens and kings of the Sport of Kings; Melissa Belote, who swam to three golds at Munich, one of many area Olympic champions; Heisman winners Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino of Navy; Randy White, if you had to name just one mighty Terrapin; Tuffy Leemans of George Washington and the Georgetown giant Al Blozis. Everyone has his heroes -- there are many more, not all of them enshrined -- and when you think of those who have come and gone the memories are sweet, like reminders of spring.

Spring is on people's minds here, not this spring but the one that will bring baseball back. On the night the Senators left a second time, a man lifted his small boy for a last glimpse of a team that was gone; now the boy is old enough to have his own sons. Of the first team, no visible sign remains near Georgia and Florida Avenues where the small ballpark once stood. Down a side street you wonder: Wasn't this the spot where Mantle's mammoth home run cleared the bleachers? And there, where the leafy tree stood behind the center field fence?

It's time to plant anew. "LET ME TELL YOU about baseball first," said Duke Zeibert, taking off his Dorado Beach Golf and Tennis Club cap and sitting down in his empty restaurant to a bagel- and-lox breakfast. Nobody wants baseball any more than Zeibert.

"When we had a team here, if they'd play 77 home games I used to go to 75 of them. I'd get out there about the third inning, after work. When they left, I said, okay, I don't care. But now I miss it. This last year, I really missed it.

"When (Jack Kent) Cooke first came out, trying to get baseball, it was unbelievable the number of people came to me and said, 'I'd like to invest in a team.' These were just guys, guys with a quarter-million, a half-million. I'm going to make you a bet, that the first year we've got a team we draw a million and a half, minimum. And with a half-decent ball club we'll draw two million.

"Hey, this next team is going to stay here. It's going to be a community-owned team. People haven't forgotten what (Robert) Short did -- the guy came in, bought a team without any money and when it suited his fancy stole away in the night."

Zeibert leaned forward. Being no idle dreamer, he had thought of something that made him stop chewing.

"It's going to be a tremendous letdown if we don't get a team," he said.

Doubt lingered, like an unwanted visitor.

"You can't tell with baseball. It took them 100 years to put names on the uniforms. They're like the railroads. Change is not in their dictionary." But people here in Washington want to hear the cry of "P-u-l-a-a-ay ball." "My grandson, Randy's kid, he says, 'You going to take me to the baseball games, Granddad?' 'Yeah,' I say, 'I'm gonna take you.'

"Watching baseball on television is the pits," Zeibert said. "You sit there with your eyes glued to the screen. When you're at the park you can look around, talk to your neighbor, be involved. You know the song, Ruth and Cobb and Joe DiMag, sunny days with Willie Mays . . . You can't beat it.

"Hey, going to Baltimore's not the answer. I want to root for my own team."

Until it comes, Zeibert has his Redskins, and walls of memories:

Otto Graham: "He could play the sax like one of the Dorseys."

Ted Williams: "The last game, I was down in the dressing room and Ted says, 'Let's call up Short.' 'Hey, Bob, come on down here. Everybody's looking for you.'

George Allen: "He was in here a while ago with his family, 14 of 'em. He used to come in here on Sunday nights, never after the losses, just after the victories, which was most of the time, and the whole joint would start applauding. He's really Joe High School. He'd say, 'Let's give three cheers for the Redskins.' It was really wild some nights in here. What was that game Ed Williams stood up on a table and led the cheers?

"But you want to know something? Of all the people come into my restaurant over the last 35, 36 years, and I don't get shook up by anybody, the only guy could ever shake me up was Lombardi. I'd see him coming through the door, in my old place, that is, and my pulse would jump."

He extended his wrist across the table, the wrist with the pulse that pounded. Zeibert loved Lombardi. "Darrell Royal told me this story. He was playing golf with Lombardi, and when they were finished they went into the card room and they were playing gin. Royal had him on a blitz. Lombardi, he didn't like to lose at anything, golf, gin. There were four, five other tables close by and Royal was shuffling the cards and starting to tell a story and Lombardi said, 'D-E-A-L.' Five other tables picked up their cards and started to deal." Zeibert, his breakfast finished, looked about the room. Did he hear the roar of some long-ago game at RFK? Was it the night Kenny Houston stopped Walt Garrison short of the goal line and the dreaded Cowboys were brought to earth? No, his gaze was fixed only on the future.

"Without baseball," he said, putting down his napkin, "I don't care what you say, you're not a big league town."

WHILE WASHINGTON waits, it hardly sleeps. And, on certain occasions, it merely goes crazy. Like when the Redskins play the Dallas Cowboys. Like last November, the most recent, raucous spectacle. In Dallas, everyone plays it cool, like the Cowboys themselves, who eschew clouds-of-dust football and, ever

above the fray, tend to strike with a devastating swiftness (the last-minute Clint Longley pass on Thanksgiving 1974 ruined all those turkey dinners). In Washington, Redskins-Cowboys is an event.

Outside RFK, before the kickoff, America's team was being defiled. A man sold Redskin burgundy jerseys with the inscription, "I root for the Redskins and Whoever's playin' Dallas." A recording repeated: "Hail to the Redskins." Get your "Dallas Sucks" buttons. All that burgundy pouring into the stadium -- burgundy caps, shirts, skirts, coats, buttons. "Anybody selling? Gotta have a ticket." "Need two." "Need one. Just one."

Dallas kicked off. Suddenly, inexplicably, nothing happened. Then, third quarter, Tony Dorsett darted to daylight, caught a pass easily over his shoulder, scored. Just like that. Final: 13-7, Dallas. The horror. The horror.

The search for tomorrow began immediately: It was Theismann, it was the whole offense, it was Gibbs. Bring back Dan Henning. Who's Dan Henning? What ever happened to Calvin Muhammad?

The last Metro train waited. Stragglers piled on, like an evacuation from a disaster.

There was silence in the seats, despair in the dusk.

WHEN REDSKIN magic fails, as it did that day last November, Washington's city game, with its deserved reputation, can be savored all winter.

Basketball in Washington, some think, began with Hymie Perlo, and they're not far wrong.

In the mid-'20s, laundryman George Preston Marshall, who would bring the Redskins here from Boston in 1937, formed the Palace Five, which played two years. Later, the Lichtman Bears, a black team, regularly filled old Turner's Arena, and over in Foggy Bottom the Heurich Brewery had a team. Hymie Perlo was always shooting out the nights in the little Heurich gym.

From 1938 through 1941, Perlo starred at Roosevelt. He was all-Met for three years, widely acknowledged as the best player in the entire South. He had a quick-release, two- handed set shot, which might bring snickers now, but no less a judge of talent than Red Auerbach has said that Perlo compared with such latter-day Washington wonders as Baylor, Dave Bing and Austin Carr.

Auerbach should know; as a collegiate player at G.W., he sought out the high school hotshot Perlo on the Barnard playground, Fifth and Decatur streets NW. It was cinders then; you can imagine the dust they stirred.

"Auerbach was the first person I knew who played basketball 12 months a year," said Perlo, who does community work for the Bullets. "Kids today play one sport, but when I was growing up you played three sports or at least two. Not Auerbach. We'd be playing baseball and he'd come along and say, Let's play one on one. He'd insist."

Undoubtedly, Perlo would have been renowned in college and the pros, but war intervened.

"The world was beginning to blow up and we had no idea. We played our basketball and didn't know what was happening. In fact, the night of Pearl Harbor I played basketball at Heurich's. After the game, coming down Pennsylvania Avenue, you could see the lights on at the White House. It was a small city then."

A Silver Star and Purple Heart later, Perlo knew his basketball career was done. With no regrets, he played out the late '40s for Clifton Liquors, making $5 or $10 for preliminary games at Uline Arena before Capitols' games. Those Capitols were the early basketball pros, coached by Auerbach, who would make his name in Boston but continue to make his home here. He had learned from his G.W. coach, the beloved Bill Reinhart. All Reinhart did was invent the fast break.

"Auerbach did not deviate one bit from Reinhart's teaching," said Perlo. "But he added to it and added to it."

In 1950, Auerbach took over the Celtics, and Washington had its attention turned by a nonpareil of the playgrounds. Elgin Baylor had arrived, a schoolboy sensation at Spingarn who later as a Laker would introduce basketball to the beautiful people of Los Angeles and Hollywood. Baylor himself was beautiful and indefatigable. He was called "Rabbit."

"He was 20 years before his time," said Julus Wyatt, who has coached at Police Boys Club No. 2 for 34 years. Baylor played at No. 4. "All that dunking and stuff, he was doing it in 1951 and 1952. He was just 6-5, too. Behind his back. Sky jumping. He did it all before his time."

"I'm going to tell you how good he was, I'm going to tell you how popular he was," said Bill Butler, seated next to Wyatt in a little room in the Boys Club off New York Avenue. Like Wyatt, Butler has been there 34 years. "Every white player in the area came out to see Baylor, and after the games players his age would ask him for his autograph. He had all the shots you ever

saw."

"He put the District high schools on the

map," said Wyatt.

"Smooth and strong," said Butler.

"Finesse and physical," said Wyatt.

"He'd come down the lane," said Butler, "put the ball on his hip, like a bootleg play in football, and he'd soar the last eight feet to the basket. He'd go along the baseline, show you the ball and then dunk it from the back side."

"He's the father of them all," said Wyatt.

Pictures of Baylor and others cover the walls. Many played for No. 2, or other clubs, or on playgrounds named Rose Park, Kelly Miller, Watkins. Wyatt and Butler saw them all: William (Chicken Breast) Lee, Ollie Johnson, John Thompson, Dave Bing, Tim Bassett, Ronnie Hogue, football players Lonnie Perrin and Willie Wood, Thompson prot,eg,es Craig Shelton and John Duren, Adrian Dantley, Ed Epps, Jerry Chambers, Big Bill Jones, Collis Jones, Sid Catlett, Austin Carr, John Austin . . . the names go on, and with ry name there's a story.

Over the years, Butler helped numerous young players get to college, and recruiters came calling to Washington like visiting diplomats. One, said Butler, "never saw so many players under one roof in all his life. You know, I'll take four of these . . . "

Morgan Wootten and Lefty Driesell and John Thompson turned the spotlight even brighter on this city's game.

"Now," Butler said, "everyone knows where the players are."

WASHINGTON'S Capitals have always been a team of surprise. In the beginning, 12 years ago, no one imagined they'd be as bad as they were. Having seen them then, hardly anyone dreamed they could be as good as they are now. The Capitals rank among a select half-dozen teams in the National Hockey League capable of winning the Stanley Cup.

The Stanley Cup!

Not the Capitals! Yes, the Capitals.

As Yvon Labre, the most valuable of the orginal Capitals, told Bobby Carpenter, the glamor boy of the new Capitals, "My body died waiting for you guys to come along."

Labre had to laugh. "When I started out in hockey in '67, the kid was in diapers."

Well, look at Carpenter now. And look at the Caps. They can beat anybody -- the Islanders, the Flyers, the fabled Canadiens, the bone- crushing Bruins, Gretzky's fabulous Oilers.

But it was a long climb from the bottom to the top rungs of the NHL. That first year, the Capitals lost 37 straight road games. They finally won in Oakland. "Everybody signed a trash can and we carried it around the dressing room like it was the Stanley Cup," said Labre.

A blocky man with unstinted enthusiasm, Labre never gave up. He'd get excited before every game, as he still does -- and now he's the team's director of community relations, no longer its best defenseman. Before a game, he'll pace and peer into the middle distance, as if he's going to burst the buttons of his business suit, grab a stick and vault the boards.

"I gave everything I had every night," he said. "I was still trying to give even when I didn't have it. It's very hard to give up. It's like an artist losing his hands.

"But there's a certain something they can't take away from a player who's been down there on the ice -- and knows." It's more than competitiveness, it's a fearlessness and recklessness that may be unique to NHL players. It may flicker when a player retires, but it never quite dies. Recently, Labre was playing a pickup game and an opponent began jabbing him with a stick. "You know the thinking, here's an ex-NHL player, let's test him. I grabbed him and told him, don't do that. I could ruin you."

An amateur's folly, messing with an NHLer.

"One time a guy hit me from behind and I swung him over my shoulder right to the ice. It's Bob Kelly," Labre said. "I'm on top of him yelling, 'Don't you ever hit me from the back again!I'm going to lift your head up six inches and put it put it six inches under the ice!' He starts yelling, 'Get him off me! He's crazy, the guy's nuts!' I was just as happy they thought that, and that's the way I left it. Finally, they would leave me alone."

Largely on Labre's seven- year leadership, the Capitals rose from eight victories in their first season to 27 in 1979-80 and 26 in 1980-81. Then came the right stuff, assembled by general manager David Poile and coached by Bryan Murray: the big trade with Montreal that brought defenseman Rod Langway here; the maturing of center Carpenter and winger Mike Gartner and, more recently, winger Alan Haworth and defenseman Scott Stevens. The result: 94 victories in the last two seasons, and playoff berths in both.

One night, last November, the Capitals crushed the defending champion Oilers, 5-2, to the delight of a screaming sellout Capital Centre crowd of 18,130. It was one of those nights when you didn't have to be born in Medicine Hat or Thunder Bay to know something extraordinary in hockey was happening.

"Maybe it was the best game I've ever seen from this franchise," said Labre. And he knew: there would be more.

And sometime, some other Capitals' names will be written on banners and hung from the Capital Centre ceiling, but for now there's only one up there, Yvon Labre.

WASHINGTON had been waiting 36 years for an ultimate pro sports triumph when burly Wes Unseld ambled to the free throw line with 12 seconds remaining in the seventh and deciding National Basketball Association championship series game between the Bullets and Seattle. It was June 7, 1978. The scene: The Seattle Center Coliseum. Unseld could clinch the title. He could also lose it. Just 14 seconds earlier, he had missed two free throws. Would he miss again? Had the Bullets gone all that way for naught?

Fittingly -- for Bullets' owner Abe Pollin said later that Unseld was "the heart and soul of this team from the first day he set foot on the court" -- Unseld made two free throws. He ensured Washington's first title since the 1942 Redskins. He did it, though free throws were never his forte.

"It wasn't that big of a thing," said Unseld, a Bullets' vice president who makes his office look small, "because I had made up my mind if I missed those free throws I was going to do something else to get it," the championship, that is. Unseld wasn't leaving Seattle without it.

Before the game, "I remember calling the guys together, and just stating it, we were going to win it. We were going to do whatever it took to win."

Unseld had been through too much to fail, 10 seasons by then. When he retired in 1981, he had set still-intact Bullet records for games (984), rebounds (13,769) and assists (3,822). Yet twice before the victory in Seattle, the Unseld Bullets had made it to the championship series only to be stopped four games to none -- by Milwaukee in 1971 and Golden State in 1975. " should have won," he said. "It was a lack of concentration. We gave it away. I still believe that."

But during the uphill '78 playoffs, in the midst of the Philadelphia series, coach Dick Motta uttered a memorable line: "The opera isn't over till the Fat Lady sings."

Washington cocked an ear. And sing she did. Unseld was named MVP of the Seattle series.

The following season, the Bullets again made it to the championship series, again against Seattle, but this time they lost. "We had just burned out," said Unseld. "We got in that series and no one had anything left. Age and everything else had caught up with us -- 11, 12 years."

Since then, the Bullets have settled to the middle of their division. The way back to first place in the NBA can be frustrating. There's not much room at the top, and nobody's moving aside. It requires careful design, but also strokes of fortune. Consider Unseld. He got to be Bullets' center by accident. "I was quite happy playing forward," he said.

"Leroy Ellis was the center. One night we were going to play Atlanta. Atlanta was very physical then. Leroy was very thin. He got into an argument with the coach (Gene Shue, in an earlier incarnation as Bullets' coach). The coach got mad and put me at center. We went on to beat 'em really bad that night. We just kept that going. It got me closer to the boards, and that's when I started to blossom as far as rebounding was concerned."

Unseld didn't step aside for 13 years. OF LATE, Washington has come to celebrate its sports by participating as well as spectating. Walkers, joggers, swimmers, hikers, climbers and iron pumpers have multiplied and fill the land.

The Mall at noon is a joggers' Times Square, but 4 or so in the afternoon might be the almost-perfect time in an almost-perfect place, with the sunipping behind the Monument, the buildings aglow and headlights of Virginia-bound cars blinking on. It's quiet out there then, in the center of the city's beauty.

A solitary runner crunches along the stone path. One can just walk, too, and, if inclined, imagine the time when Bucky Harris was a "Boy Wonder" and "The Big Train" blew smoke, remember when Curt Flood came but left only a note, when Ted Williams tipped his cap to say hello and Frank Howard homered to say goodbye, watch the day slide away, see a dawn when the game will come back. To stay. Just wait.