It was during a charity game this summer in Houston that, Elvin Hayes says, he first saw a way he could win an NBA title for the Bullets.

"I was on the same team as Dr. J." he said. "I was getting the defensive rebounds and tossing the outlet pass and then watching him dash up the court and score.

"It suddenly didn't matter to me if I scored. I was getting just as much pleasure out of doing other things."

He stops short now of saying that a "new" Elvin Hayes will take the floor tonight when the Bullets open the season against Detroit at 8 in the Capital Center. But off that experience with Erving this summer, he is convinced his major contributions to the team will no longer be strictly individual.

"I want an NBA championship ring more than anything else," he said. "What do statistics mean? Lines in a recordbook can be erased. But they can't take away that ring.

"That's why Oscar (Robertson) went to Milwaukee and why you remember a Bill Russell. I'm running out of years to get a title. I'll do anything now I can to win one."

Even if winning means, he says, "not scoring a point during a game. Really, I'm serious. That game with Dr. J showed me I can help the team win in other ways."

The attitude with which Hayes, who long ago earned superstar status in the league, approaches this season is vitally important to the Bullet management.

Team officials have carefully assembled a supporting cast over the past year that should be able to relieve Hayes of some of his rebounding and scoring burden. But to make the changes work, especially the acquistion of Bobby Dandridge, Hayes has to accept them.

"I can see what they've done and I think it's great," he said. "I've never been so excited before about a season.

If things work out the way they should, we can win this going away."

Although that may prove an overly optimistic prediction, Hayes already has visualized how the team will go about its title quest.

"I can see Bob (Dandridge) scoring 18 points a game and Mitch (Kupchak) getting 15 or 16 and Phil (Chenier) getting what he got last year (20.2)," he said. "As for me, I think I'll score maybe 18 or 19 a game (compared with 23 last year).

"We can have that kind of balance. We've got the talent to be as good as any one."

This is how he describes his anticipated role:

"I'll take fewer shots and concentrate more on rebounding on the defensive boards and setting picks and screens. I'll shoot enough to keep the defense honest.

"But with Bobby, I don't have to contend with double- and triple-teaming any more. No one realizes what it's like playing 102 games like we did last year and getting double- and triple-teamed every game. It takes a lot out of you."

But not enough to stop him from having his best year with the Bullets. He made the all-star team over Erving, led the club in every important offensive statistic and even showed he could shoot for a percentage (501, the best in his career).

Yet even this outstanding individual effort was not enough to get the Bullets near the NEA crown. When they were knocked out of the playoffs by Houston, Hayes again grew tired of criticism of his play and said he wanted to be traded. He later changed his mind, but not his feelings about how this season had to be different.

"It always starts off every year with people talking about the team and it ends with them talking about me," he said. "We've found out that we can't do with two guys (Chenier and Hayes) carrying the scoring load.

"This year, I want the talk to stay on the team the whole year. I don't want to be the standout. I just want to go out, do my job and win.

"The year I came here (1972), I could have gone to the Celtics. I didn't because I thought this organization could win a championship too.

"Now we've got a small forward like Dandridge who is so smart. I think we'll complement each other very well and learn to play together like Mike (Riordan) and I did. It's going to be hard for people to stop us."

Hayes would like nothing better than for his new approach to be accepted by Bullet fans. He has found that nothing he has done in the past - his scoring, his rebounding, his charitable work away from the court - has been enough to relieve him of criticism and pressure.

"I don't mind admitting I'm a sensitive person," he said. "I try to do what I can to win. People forget that I've only missed four games in nine years, but they say I don't given 100 per cent. That hurts.

"I never want to come out of a game. But they say they want to rest me more this year. If that will help, then fine, I'll come out. That's how bad I want this title."

Hayes and his teammates will get some idea tonight about whether their championship dreams are realistic. The Pistons already have played twice and have high expectations themselves this season.

"I think we are ready," said Coach Dick Motta, starting his second year with the Bullets. "We had a pretty good final week of practice and we don't have excuses (injuries) to use. Even our timing looks good."

Only one of his injured players, Chenier, remains far below par for the game. Chenier, who returned to practice this week after being sidelined by a back strain, will see only spot action tonight.

"I don't know if we will use him as third guard or not," said Motta."I might use Kevin (Grevey) instead. Detriot has big guards and Phil is still trying to get into condition."

Second-year guard Larry Wright will start in Cheniers place. The other guard will be Tom Henderson, the speedy playmaker beginning his first full season with Wes Unseld, 20 pounds thinner than last year and coming off the club. His best training camp in at least three years, will join Hayes and Dandridge in the frontcourt. Kupchak will be the first substitute.

Dandridge said he's anxious to find out how he will fit in. "People think there is pressure on me but, really, this is great compared to Milwaukee.

"Here, I'm not expected to carry the burden of leading the scoring or the rebounding or anything. I can concentrate on getting into the flow of the game, and that's how I want to play basketball."