When he played at American University, he was known as "the center of the American Revolution." Now, the Los Angeles Lakers are calling Kermit Washington "The Eagle," a nickname he deplores with all his heart.

"Oh, come on, man, don't keep pushing that," he implored a Laker publicity man the other night. "I don't like that kind of stuff. Really. Don't do this to me."

Then he turned to a visitor from Washington. "I just don't like all this publicity I never have," he said. "I don't have any kind of ego. I'm just happy to be playing. That's all I really care about.

"All this other stuff isn't for me. The Eagle? You know, the American University Eagle. But I'm still plain old Kermit. Nothing's really changed."

Bu it had. Plain old Kermit is seeing more and more playing time this season and coach Jerry West says he is one vital reason the Lakers are challenging Portland for the lead in the NBA's Pacific Division.

Washington, who spent three frustrating years on the Laker bench learning to play the pro game and recovering from a series of injuries, now is West's first forward substitution.

He supplies the Lakers with a rugged rebounder, a Paul Silas-type player who also can contribute to the offense. He is averaging 24 minutes, nine points and nine rebounds a game. The other night against Milwaukee, he had 17 points and 17 rebounds, eight on the offensive boards, a club record.

Things have not always been Southern California sunshine and Pasadena roses for Washington, who came into the season expecting to be unemployed this year.

"When Jerry came in I knew there would be a housecleaning and I thought I'd be gone," he said.

West agreed. "To be frank about it, we were looking to make a move with him," he said. "And Kermit realized it. But we gave him a chance because we didn't acquire a player, and he really took advantage of it.

"He has blossomed into a hell of a basketball player. Defensively, he can be as good as anyone in basketball. And his offense is improving, too. Why did I give him a chance? Well, I just got tired of seeing other people make mistakes."

Washington remembers the big night well. It was the third game of the season, in Cleveland, and the day started off badly. His pet dog ran away from his Palos Verdes home and Washington was upset.

That night the Lakers were taking a terrible thrashing. West turned to Washington and he almost brought the Lakers all the way back, playing 16 minutes with seven rebounds and six points. And West was convinced. The dog came back, and things have been going well since.

Washington is developing a reputation as one of the game's most phsical forwards. He throws his 6-foot-8 body around at will, and one night against Buffalo recently, he threw some punches as well, scoring a convincing decision over big John Shumate.

"But I'm no enforcer," Washington said with a sheepish grin. "That's something I want no part of. Yes, I have to be physical but I'm not looking for fights. You can get beat up too quick. You can get hurt doing that kind of stuff.

"I'm here to play and they're giving me a chance. "That's all I ever asked for." Indeed, the Eagle has finally landed.