"Athletes are really nothing but shy, spoiled babies," says Elvin Hayes. "And I am one of them."

There isn't a cradle big enough for Elvin Hayes, who at 6-feet-9, 235 pounds leads the Washington Bullets against the Seattle SuperSonics today at 1:30 p.m. in the third game of the best-of-seven National Basketball Association championship series at soldout Capital Centre.

How Hayes peforms will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the series, which is tied at one game apiece. The 32-year-old Hayes, in the midst of his finest professional season, has become one of the best known celebrities in the Washington area. At the prospect of his even getting a pass from a teammate, thousands of Bullet fanatics screech "EEEEEE."

Away from the court, however, Hayes is a shy, quiet and often lonely man, living by himself in a large home in nearby Columbia, Md. Nevertheless, few athletes in professional sports are as open and blunt as Hayes.

"Atheletes do things to make people think they're tough," he said in an interview Friday at a restaurant close to his home.

"We're really kids," he continued. "There are so many similarities. You look at a baby and an athelete. Take something away and they both pout.

"Look at Reggie Jackson (New York Yankees) hitting a home run and refusing to shake hands in the dugout. Look at George McGinnis (Philadelphia 76ers) refusing to shake my hand. You ask him why and he says 'Because Elvin said something about me.' Something a kid would say.

"I think most girls like athletes because atheletes are like babies: they need to be reassured. He'll give his life to hear someone say, 'Way to go.'

"That's why it's hard to leave sports." Hayes continued. "You've always had a coach saying do this, do that, calling to wake you up.As intelligent as some of these guys are, guys with 4.0s in college, they'll train like a horse. A horse will go out and break a leg because he's been trained to compete and doesn't know when to stop.

"An athlete will hurt himself and say, 'tape it up. I want to go back in.'

"You wonder how a body can take this? Sometimes I lay in bed and say, 'why? The only answer I can come up with is that it's part of me. I really don't want to do anything else."

Does it bother Elvin Hayes that he considers himself spoiled?

"No," he replied, "I was the baby of my family. I was spoiled a lot."

Hayes scored 25 points Thursday night at Capital Centre to help the Bullets defeat Seattle, 106-98, and even the series at 1-1. Later, with reporters, television and radio people sagging on him more than Seattle's Paul Silas and Marvin Webster, he was as casual as his outfit of jeans and a banlon sweater.

"No, there's never been any pressure. We're not even supposed to be here," he answered over, over and over.

The following afternoon, lunching at one of his haunts - the Magic Pan Creperie in Columbia, Md. - Hayes felt compelled to tell the truth.

"I wouldn't admit it then, but that game Thursday was one of the biggest pressure games I've ever played," he said. "That game meant more than anyone could know.

"That game totally took the pressure off us. Why wouldn't I admit it? It had just happened, and I really didn't want to share that moment. I really wanted to enjoy it. Before the game, I was scared. I was nervous. People who know me could see it and mentioned it.

"That was the most pressurized situation I've ever been in since I've been in the league. The fact that I could go out and perform the way I did showed me I had reached a certain level in my life."

His pinnacle scaled, Hayes departed Capital Centre late Thursday night, signed autographs on the way to the beige Dodge Magnum he borrows from a dealer and drove home to Columbia. He lives alone in a typical suburban house, owned by a friend of Hayes who is in Germany on military assignment.

After the second-biggest game in his life (the biggest still being the 1968 game in the Astrodome involving Hayes' University of Houston and UCLA), he watched the 12:30 television movie Tall in the Saddle and went to sleep.

It has been an unusual year for Hayes.

On the court, he is playing the best basketball of his mercurial professional career. Always the most visible Bullet, the star, Hayes also has been identified with the team's playoff impotency. It has bedeviled him.

"No player in 10 years has done more for his team than I have, and yet I've been criticized," said Hayes. "No one has been more consistent - not even Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar). But what they ask is, 'was he a winner?' My career needs a championship."

Oddly, that opportunity knocks louder than ever at a time when his life off the court has taken a different turn. Aftert last season, his wife and three children accompanied him as usual from their home in Columbia to their off-season home in Houston. This October, Hayes' family remained in Houston when he returned to Columbia. Elvin and his wife, feel the children need some geographical stability.

"At first, I found it very lonely and difficult to come home," said Hayes. "Then I decided to think of it (the home games) as another road trip. All of a sudden I was over it.

"The children have so much love (in Houston). They're around their grandparents and aunts. They love it down there. We talk on the phone every day. They're never lacking the love and attention they need and knowing that takes a lot of pressure off me.

"Here, I really don't have any obligations. I'm totally free to play basketball. My mind is clear."

Hayes has gone full cycle from the early years in his pro career when he says "I hung out from Vegas to Hollywood." Now he lives in Columbia, "a place totally out place," he calls it, nourishing a lifestyle in which he tries "to be the complete opposite of what people think an athlete should be.

"I'm kind of different. I'm a person who wears old blue jeans and a T-shirt with a drawing on the back. I'm never flashy. I have gold chains and necklaces, but I never wear them.

"I never go to parties because I don't like crowds." I go sit down someplace and if a person who doesn't know me comes to talk to me, they talk baseball. They don't think an athlete knows anything about the problems of the world, or anything else.

"I'm nervous anway, and that doesn't really help me.

"I'm terribly shy. It took me a long time to get up the nerve to go out there (on a basketball court) in shorts. I always made sure my uniform covered as much as possible, and I wore big elastic bands around my calves. It's strange."

The two older sisters and three brothers Hayes grew up with in rural Rayville, La., are well-educated and successful, having fought their way from poverty primarily with the help of academic grants and their own determination. Elvin wanted out, too.As a child, he remembers sitting by the railroad tracks, trying to pick out as many out-of-state license plates as he could, wondering where the cars were going. He collected pictures of food and elegant homes from magazines.

"I always wanted to be famous. I used to think up names I would use. I wanted to be named Ronnie," said Hayes. "Elvin Hayes. That has no ring to it."

Hayes' basketball career took off on two left sneakers obtained from a trash can. Basketball, he discovered, "is my talent, my gift." Hayes figures that if he hadn't succeeded in basketball, "there would have no escape for me."

"If I hadn't made it in basketball, I know where I'd be. Right now I'd be working in somebody's field."

The first time he ever left Louisiana was to attend college in Houston. A sportswriter there had served on the aircraft carrier Enterprise, which was affectionately known as Big E. One look at Elvin Hayes and the writer dubbed him The Big E. Now, as a professional, it has grown up into a simple, emphatic 'E.'

Hayes is a hero, complete with his own letter of the alphabet. Friday he described himself as "the most popular player in Washington." More love, he contended, than any of the worshipped Redskins. Every time he touches the ball in Capital Centre, his fans chant a rousing "EEEEEEEE."

"There's nothing like it," Hayes said.

Yet, this hero says he spends most of his time alone. When he takes the floor, he imagines there is no one in the arena. He then picks a stranger out of the crowd and plays for him. Stage comedians and speech-givers often pick an agreeable face out of a crowd and talk to it. It calms them, they say. Hayes does the same.

It is more effective than playing for someone you know, or playing for no one at all.

"Before our sixth game against Philadelphia, I got a letter from a fireman asking me to sign a program for a little boy who had been burned and was in Children's Hospital," said Hayes. "I signed it and I wrote, 'I'm going to win this game for you.'

"All day long, before that game, I thought of that. He probably doesn't even know, but it really helped me. I find it every easy to play for people. The tiring part of this game is the mental part. It's very difficult to psyche that mind up. Rather than sitting around and trying to psyche myself up, I play for someone."

Hayes likes children and does a lot of volunteer work with the society for crippled children, the Special Olympics and various other organizations. The late Marc Splazer, the Bullets' publicity director who recently died of leukemia, knew that he could always count on Hayes above all others to attend a function.

"He knew he had a patsy," said Hayes.

Hayes can be warm and generous, or shy and aloof. He enjoys living alone.

"If you are afraid to live alone, I think you don't really like yourself," said Hayes. "I really like everything about myself. I don't have any jealousies. I don't get angry. I'm a simpla person, probably do more for others than myself. I always wished other people could understand me the way I understand myself."

He feels that he has often been portrayed, incorrectly, as a selfish person, difficult to get along with.

"A person in the public eye, is like a person in a soap opera," said Hayes. "Like there are certain characters on those shows, you say to yourself, boy if I ever met her I'd wring her neck. We become like those characters on TV. Everyone has a preconceived notion about you. That's why it's very important to know yourself and like yourself. Or it will get to you."

Hayes has few friends and frequents few places. His regular spots are being the Magic Pan, the Luau Hut in Silver Spring and O'Donnell's in Washington.

He has capsulized his split-level home into apartment style-living, with everything he needs on one floor. That way he doesn't mess up the other two floors of the house - a genuine consideration since he does his own housekeeping, as well as mowing the lawn.

His one-floor arrangement made it necessary to set up the rooms a bit oddly.A visitor walks in the front door and is immediately confronted by his king-size bed in what should be the living room. Further back, there is a sunny, green and white kitchen, a dining room with a Christmas centerpiece still on the table, and the den, where he often spends hours playing television pong games.

Monday night, still brooding over the opening-game loss to Seattle, Hayes baked a peach pie.

On Thursday, his routine was this: Up at 7 a.m., watch Dennis the Menace and Father Knows Best; go to shooting practice; stop at Wendy's for a cheeseburger, a frostly and a root beer to eat on the way home; take a three-hour nap; cook a chicken pot pie (he didn't eat it because he had a nervous stomach) and leave for the arena with Greg Dent, a teen-age neighbor Elvin drives to all Bullet home games.

"I try to stay as humble as I can," said Hayes. "Never become bigger than the people."