Elvin Hayes started to shoot, then spotted an open teammate on the other side of the basket. But his pass missed its target by two feet and wound up in the bleachers at the Bullet's Bowie State practice site.

"Stick with your game, Hayes," yelled a shrill voice from the sidelines. "Don't go changing it after 10 years and start passing. Just keep shooting."

Even Hayes had to join the laughter that followed. It was a sure sign that the Bullets' court jester had struck again.

No one, not teammates, coaches, reporters -- not even Bullet owner Abe Pollin -- is immune from either the good-natured jibes or the reflexive smiles resulting from the antics of Charles Johnson.

"For every sad thought there is a happy one that follows," said Johnson, who prances through life with a content look on his face and a bit of appropriate wisdom for every moment.

This is no stereotyped athlete with a cliche answer for every question. Ask Johnson about almost anything and he will expound on "spheres of influence" or the "infinity of life" or, possibly, the proper temperature at which to drink red wine, how to restore an old car, or the best stream in Idaho for catching trout

"Sometimes you don't always understand what he says but at least it sounds good," said Mitch Kupchak, who knows enough about Johnson's tastes to let him order the wine at dinner.

Johnson is the Bullets' Lucy, the female psychiatrist in the Peanuts comic strip who gives out advice at 25 cents a visit.Johnson's tips are free, but much more illuminating and helpful.

"He is the kind of guy you kmow you can go to as a rookie," said rookie Roger Phegley, "and be told truthfrlly about the good restaurants in a certain town or where to go for entertainment.

"And he's willing to help out about basketball. He knows the game and he doesn't force it down you. You ask and he'll answer you, straight and thoroughly."

If a Bullet is in a slump or having problems with a phase of his game, more often than not he soon will be having dinner with Johnson.

"Charlie doesn't do it with fanfare," said Bernie Bickerstaff, the assistant coach. "But he is someone you can lean on. He's been around, he knows the deal and where he is going. I think he enjoys doing good things and being around people."

Coach Dick Motta admits that without Johnson, a midseason free agent acquisition who came to Washington on a 10-day trial basis last season, the Bullets would not have won the NBA title.

His pressure shooting and gambling defense were just part of the reasoning behind Motta's statement; he also saw the role Johnson played in the locker room and on trips, when his glib remarks relieved tension at all the approprate times.

Yet for all his on-court flair -- his high-arching jumpers, his scoring streaks, his gambling steals -- there may not be another palyer in the NBA more prepared to walk away from the game and live without basketball more easily than Johnson.

Waiting for him at his redwood-and-glass home in the hills near the Oak-land-SanFrancisco Bay area is a fledging music promotion business. And the 300 or so bottles of imported wine in his wine cellar. And the vintage Jaguar in the backyard that is threequarters restored. And the gourmet cookbook. And the fishing rods to catch those elusive trout. And the extensive record collection that reflects his maturity and changing tastes from year to year.

He also can pick up the tennis racket he calls "polar bear."

"Why that name? "Because a polar bear believes that anything that isn't a polar bear is good for eating," said Johnson with a twinkle in his eye. "I've never lost with that racket. Never practice much either and now, no one will play me."

Johnson is a gamesman, but his sphere extends far beyond sports. He is jousting with life, trying to squeeze as much of the elixir of enjoyment out of it that he can before it's too late.

Basketball is an active part of that world, but it does not dominate his existence. He plays, he says, "because basketball deals with infinity. Every situation every day is different from the day before and the situation before.

And besides, it's my means to a comfortable life. It's a way to free me to do what I want to do with the rest of my years.

"This is a very vulnerable sport. You don't have pads or helmets to protect you. It's a challenge to survive, to concentrate so boos or cheers don't affect you. I like challenges."

That is how Johnson got into many of his various pursuits: the beckoning challenge.

As a youngster, he wanted to see how cars functioned, so he worked on repairing American makes. When they were found wanting, he switched to the more intricate, more demanding masterpieces created by European craftsmen. He never has bought a new car and won't touch anything built after 1969 to avoid "dealing with cars that have marshmallows for bolts."

The apple wine of his earlier days soon gave way to better-grade California varieties. Then he decided to compare those with the imported wines. He preferred the latter and began tasting his way through some of the best vintages French winemakers could produce. Now he spends some of his free time searching wine stores, hoping to find an underpriced bottle of Chateau Laffitte Rothschild.

"I don't want to be stagnant," he said. "I want to be stimulated almost every moment I'm alive. Maybe that is one reason I haven't had a headache for years. I don't have time to be bored or sad or think sad thoughts. I don't try to be pleasant; I want it to be that way."

Johnson's bachelor life style is uniquely West Coast: laid-back, informal (T-shirts, no ties), without schedules or many binding responsibilities. He is fiercely independent, so much so that he says he wants "to be self-sufficient in every way possible. I don't want to rely on anyone or anything if I can help it, because no one knows me as well as I do."

But he is not arrogant or haughty about his beliefs. He does not push his thoughts on anyone or try to dominate with his intelligence. Instead, he demonstrates a maturity far beyond his 29 years.

"You don't 'bogard' (push around) Charlie Johnson," said Bickerstaff."They know where he stands. He doesn't just talk to talk.What he says comes after a lot of thought and you respect that. You also know when you need a big play, he won't cave in either. He's a rock out there."

Which is one reason the Bullets can put up with his occasional horrible shooting streaks. More than once, he has been asked why he keeps putting them up on those bad nights.

"The law of averages," he'll reply with a hurt look only shooters are able to assume. "You have a 50-50 chance when you release the ball. I know they eventually have to start falling."

Then he will pause and smile.

"But I didn't say which game they'd start going in."