Four years ago, Kevin Porter was a scapegoat, cast aside by the Washington Bullets because he no longer was wanted, or needed.

Tonight, Porter returns to Capital Centre in a Bullet uniform as a savior, the man the Bullets are counting on to lead them back to the promised land of the National Basketball Association.

Not since the Bullets acquired Elvin Hayes from the Houston Rockets back in 1972 has the acquisition of one player caused as much excitement and anticipation among management, teammates and the fans.

When the playmaking guard was a Bullet from 1972 through 1975, it seemed as if everyone was a Kevin Porter fan. The 5-foot-10 Porter, who strutted down court like a little drum major on fast breaks, added pizzazz to an otherwise no-frills team.

It is just another exhibition game tonight between the Bullets and Atlanta Hawks, but to Porter it is very special. He has waited a long time for this night and he says there will be a lump in his throat when he takes the floor in that red, white and blue uniform with the No. 1 on it.

The Bullet-Hawk affair at 9 p.m., is the second game of a doubleheader. The Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets play in the first game at 7.

Porter's years away from the Bullets have been hard on him at times. He was singled out as the weak link that needed fixing when the Bullets lost the 1975 championship series to the Golden State Warriors in four straight games. He was traded to Detroit for Dave Bing.

Porter had a serious knee injury in his first season with the Pistons and later ran into personality conflicts with Coach Herb Brown. He eventually was traded to New Jersey in the 1977-78 season and then was dealt back to the Pistons last year.

There were times when he thought about giving up the game.

"A couple of years ago my wife quoted a scripture to me saying I would suffer a lot of humility before honors came to me," Porter said. "I believe in the scriptures and I certainly learned humility in my years away from here and I really think the honors will come now."

The honors actually started coming last season when Porter, even though he played for the poor-shooting Pistons, set an NBA record 1,099 assists, a 13.4 average. He is the only player in NBA history to get 1,000 assists in a season. He also averaged a career-best 15.4 points a game.

The 29-year-old Porter played out his option with the Pistons and signed with the Bullets this summer.

He now has come full cycle and it has changed him.

Outwardly is is the same fancy-stepping, crowd-pleasing, ball-handling whitz of old.

Inwardly, he is by no means the same.

Porter has matured as a basketball player and as a person. He is confident. He doesn't make all those foolish fouls any more and he does not let his temper get the best of him.

"I've changed by attitude toward life in general since I left here," he said. "The biggest change has been accepting Christ as my savior."

As hurt as he was over the Bullets trading him to Detroit, Porter says he now understands why it was done and why they were so anxious to get him back.

"When they traded me they felt I was immature and that they weren't getting enough scoring from that position," Porter said."I thought my role was to get the others their shots. But evidently management wanted a scorer there so they went for Dave Bing.

"Now they have all the scorers they need and they want someone to get the ball to them."

There probably is no one in the NBA better at doing that than Porter.

Porter is quick to point out, however, that it is unlikely he will have another 1,000-assist year this season because of the makeup of the Bullets.

"My role here is a lot different than it was in Detoit," Porter said. "I don't have the freedom on offense I did there. When you have dominant players like Elvin, Wes (Unseld) and Bobby Dandridge, you get them the ball and let them put it in the basket.

"In Detroit they wanted me to shoot, but here I can picture us winning big with me being just a play-maker. I averaged 10 to 12 shots a game for my career, but last year I was taking 15 to 17 shots a night and that just isn't my game.

"I like to score, but the biggest thrill to me is still an assist," Porter said.

"In Detroit I felt I could go out and get 15 to 20 assists a night because the ball was in my hands 98 percent of the time," Porter added. "We were basically a fast-breaking team and I must have had 90 percent of my assists off the break. We run the fast break here a lot, too, but we have more pattern and I won't be handling the ball as much and I don't think I will have quite as many assists."

Porter has looked sharp only in spurts so far this preseason, and the Bullets have lost four of five exhibition games.

"I'm still not comfortable here yet," he said. "It's a new coach and a new system and the players have different roles. I'm getting there though."

Porter is at his best when he is off and running helter skelter down court leading his fast break. But he also has tremendous value when the team must set up and run plays. Porter always seems able to get the ball to the right person at the right time.

"When I get the ball on a three-on-two fast break, I know we are going to get a basket," Porter said. "I see people, not just jerseys, when I'm racing down the court and I know who can make what shot and from where. That determines who gets the ball on the break. Sometimes I might pass out to the corner to a man for a jumper when another man appears closer to the basket. If I do that it is because that man in the corner can make that shot and maybe the other guy isn't as effective even though he's closer in.

"In certain situations, you have to get the ball to certain people, even on the break."

All of Porter's razzle dazzle has a purpose. He says he does it partly because the crowd likes it, but mostly because it works for him.

His stutter-stepping hesitation dribble often freezes a defense and gives him that extra half step he needs to penetrate into the lane. Once he gets there, the defense is in trouble.

"If a situation calls for a behind-the-back or a between-the-legs pass then I'll make it," Porter said. "But if the situation doesn't call for it, I'll make a normal bounce pass or a chest pass."

Porter, who always seems to be in control of the game, says in reality no passer or shooter controls the game. It is rebounding," he said. "Whoever controls the backboard controls the game. "None of the things I do on the floor are possible if we don't get the rebounds first.

"If you don't control the boards you don't control the game. It's that simple."

When Porter takes the floor tonight he says it will be something special. "From the way people treated me when I was here before I know I'm special to them and they are also very important to me. It's only an exhibition game, but it won't feel like it. I've come home."