It was his second year in the league and the Washington Bullets were playing College Park. Kevin Porter, who insists he is 5-foot-11 3/4, drove the lane on Wilt Chamberlain, who, at 7-1 3/8, didn't have to insist on anything. "Wilt said, 'Hey, little fella don't come back in here," Porter recalls. "I said, 'wilt I've got to make some money, too.' I kept coming and kept coming. He knocked me dowm twice . . . that I can remember."

That has been the story of Porter's career. Like in the Frank Sinatra song, he gets knocked down and he gets back on his feet. "I just keep on coming," he said.

He does not believe in reincarnation. But he does believe in rebirth, which may not be overstating what has happened to Porter in the last two months. He began this season as he began the last, by losing his starting job. In the last month, said Kevin Grevey, Porter has become the nucleus of the team.

"He is the biggest reason for our success over the last three weeks," said General Manager Bob Ferry. "I've seen him play this well before; every time we saw him after we traded him."

Last week's loss to Portland was a fair indication of how much the Bullets have come to rely on Porter, Ferry said. In the first half, he scored 21 points and the Bullets led by seven. In the second half, he played only 11 minutes becuse of fouls and the Bullets lost by 20.

"Porter is the conductor," Ferry said. And the Bullets move to his penetrating, fast-breaking, stutter-stepping music. Over the last 21 games he has averaged 19.1 points and 12.5 assists while shooting 54.6 percent. He bacame the second active player in the league (Nate Archibald is the other) to go over 5,000 assists, and is the 10th all-time in the NBA. Going into tonight's 8 o'clock game percent from the field and 78 percent from the free throw line for the season.

"I'm not in the ozone," Porter said. "I'm in the confident zone."

"K.P. was always able to get assists," said Bernie Bickerstaff, the assistant coach. "Now he's getting winning assists, instead of looking out for K.P., like he did sometimes in Detroit and New Jersey. There are such things as insignificant assists. Now he's playing for the win."

Five thousand assists, Porter said, slowly, as if to savor them. An up and down player? Uh-uh. An up and down person?Okay. "I've been down and I've been up," he said. "I'm not going to come down again, no matter what the situation.

"I've matured," he said. "I only use the word because smart people use it.

I mean I've grown up."

But then again, he said almost sweetly, "That was the fun part of being young -- knowing you might mature some day."

His four years away from Washington may have had something to do with that. Porter was exiled to Detrot after the Bullets were humiliated by the Golden State Warriors in the 1975 championship series. When he heard the news of the trade he felt like he "wasn't in the NBA any more."

That year, he wrecked his knee, played only 19 games and almost wrecked his life. "I was on the verge of breaking down mentally," he said. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I would say I was about a 7. I knew I should have been enjoying life more. Basketball was everything. It definitely meant too much."

Some people would have gone to a psychiatrist. Porter went to religion. Since then, he says, "Basketball has been secondary in my life."

Porter was traded to the New Jersey Nets after a conflict with Coach Herb Brown ("we touched chests"), and back to Detroit, before returining to Washington as a free agent two summers ago. "One guy in New Jersey said to me K.P., you've had such an up and down career.'" Porter said. "I said, 'It wasn't up and down until I made it that way.' If I wanted it to be up, like I am now, I was up. If I'm thinking down, I'll be down. One night, I'd have a bad game, so I'd say, 'I can't do it, I'm not doing it.' Now if I have a bad game, I take a shower and leave. I know I can do it." n

In the old days, Bickerstaff said, "he would raise hell and 10 minutes after that he would cry."

"His problem before that was he would end up sitting on the end of the bench pouting when he was taken out," Ferry said.

That was something he did not do last year when Dick Motta started Larry Wright ahead of him as the playmaking guard. "It had to be tough," Bickerstaff said. "He was brought back because of the fans, to lead the Bullets out of the doldrums, to give us more scoring. He kept it pretty cool, too. You watch guys come into a gym who have never touched a basketball. They take a shot and they miss and they get angry. You can imagine what kind of egos these guys have."

"Dick Motta did not like Kevin Porter's game," Grevey said. "He likes the big, strong, defensive guards like Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier. He played Jim Cleamons ahead of K.P."

"I came into a situation where it was a patterned ballclub, not run and gun," Porter said. "I always played in a running system. Dick Motta was successful with the slowdown game. You can't knock him because the system was successful here and in Chicago.

"But if he was any type of a man, he would have advised me before he brought me into the situation. No explanation was given. And he didn't feel he owed me an explanation."

In the past, Porter said, he would have been in Ferry's office after every game demanding to be traded, and he expected to be. He says Ferry had lost confidence in him, although Ferry says he had lost confidence only in Porter's ability to play within Motta's system. "I really expected the Bullets to go out and find a playmaking guard somewhere," Porter said.

The Bullets drafted Wes Matthews and, later, Porter told Shue to start Matthews ahead of him. Shue did untile Matthews threw away the ball and ultimately, his job with the Bullets. "I feel bad for Wes," Porter said. "I see him doing the things I used to do.

"Lots of people have told me I've changed," he added. "Even Gene came to me one and said he'd seen a change. My old self might come back for a second. Like at training camp, Gene screamed at me for something that I needed to be screamed at for. I said, 'I'm 30 years old. What's this guy screaming at me for? I started to get uptight, but I realized was just trying to coach me."

As Ferry says, Porter always has been "so much fun to watch." But, he always was to rigid, to intense, too high strung, Shue said, "to take the attitude, 'This is fun.' Now I say to him, 'You're doing great, enjoy it." a

Enjoyment was the part of the game that came least naturally to Porter. "When I was young, I didn't think I had anything to lose as a hothead. I was third-round draft choice no one had ever heard of and I was 5-11. I had a lot of things going against me. "

It was tough enough to make a guy defensive and guarded. "If you look at the small people in this league, they're tough," Ferry said. "Nate Archibald has a mean streak. Without it, they might not have made it this far."

Only in the NBA could someone 5-11 feel out of his league. "I'm intense and I'm small," Porter said. "A small person has to be aggressive. If you're not aggressive you're taken advantage of."

And being the oldest of 10 children from a "a poor, but not real poor family Chicago," it was a situation he felt he had to take advantage of. "I felt I had the world on my shoulders, that I had to help the family out a little," said Porter, who supports seven of his sisters and brothers as well as his mother. "Early on into my college career, I felt I had to prove, a lot to do. I think, if anything, me wanting to be successful in things I did probably was the main thing that made me so intense, so ready to fight anything."

Of course, he ended up fighting himself more than anyone else. Now he has learned to turn the other cheek, to accept the limitations of being 5-11.

Still, next time around, he wouldn't mind being 6-4, a nice height. No 6-11 for him. "I like to dress," he said. "If I didn't have a million-dollar contract, I couldn't get my clothes tailor-made. At 6-4 I could buy 'em off the rack."

Austin Carr, who strained his back in Sunday's game against Milwaukee, did not practice yesterday and may not be able to play against the Knicks.