For Elvin Hayes, the oldest player in the National Basketball Association, coming home to the Houston Rockets has rejuvenated his interest in basketball after what he describes as a depressing final season in Washington.

After nine seasons with the Bullets, the 35-year-old forward is back home, back where he was voted college player of the year, back where he owns a 160-acre ranch, back where he feels he's wanted.

"I'm very, very excited about the game again," Hayes said, his enthusiasm obvious even via long distance. "I'm running four or five miles, I'm doing wind sprints, I'm shooting for half an hour, I've never worked this hard to get ready to play before."

On the eve of last spring's college draft, Hayes was traded to the Houston Rockets for a pair of second-round draft choices, a move that gave him one more chance to win another NBA championship.

As a final token of their appreciation for all he did for the franchise -- highlighted by winning the world championship in 1978 -- the Bullets will retire Hayes' No. 11 in a ceremony before the Rockets' game at Capital Centre Nov. 20.

"What a different atmosphere down here," he said. "This team is trying to do things to make it a winner. We know, that barring an injury, we've got a shot at the title. Everything is very positive, plus we've got super players."

The Rockets shocked most basketball fans last spring by upsetting Los Angeles, San Antonio and Kansas City in the playoffs before losing to Boston, 4-2, in the finals. Now, with everybody back, plus the addition of Hayes, optimism is high in Houston.

"It's like night and day compared to last year with the Bullets," Hayes said. "The atmosphere really changed up there last season. One year everything was loose and free and everybody had a lot of confidence.

"It was like going from a birthday party to a cemetery," Hayes continued. "We used to get together after practice and everyone was together. But last year it just wasn't the same anymore. It was really a bad situation."

After qualifying for the playoffs for a record 12 successive seasons, the Bullets faltered and now face a rebuilding process.

"I can't see them finishing nowhere but last," Hayes said of the Bullets' prospects this season. "I could see last year that they weren't doing anything to improve. When we had injuries and needed help, they just brought in players like Anthony Roberts and Andre McCarter just to fill out a uniform.

"It was like staring at a brick wall," the perennial all-star said. "After 12 years in the league, there was nothing I could do last year to help us. When they didn't go out and try to get good players, it just killed my incentive.

"They acted like they didn't want to compete with the other clubs, like they didn't really want to win. They just weren't willing to spend that kind of money.

"I hate to see it, really," Hayes added. "The Bullets had so much respect around the league and now they've got nothing."

Hayes, of course, has many fond memories of his career with the Bullets. Although he never matched the 28-point-a-game average he had at San Diego, he blended his skills with other talented players and helped the Bullets reach the NBA finals three times in five years.

"I'll miss the fans, I'll miss the area," he said. "I made a lot of friends up there and I really enjoyed living there. But the time came to change jobs, to find a better atmosphere and I couldn't be happier in Houston."

Although his scoring average slipped to an all-time low of 17.8 points per game, Hayes still led the Bullets in scoring for the fifth successive season and seventh time in nine years. He also led the team in rebounding, blocked shots and minutes played.

"There may never be another player like Elvin," Bullet Coach Gene Shue said on the night Hayes scored his 20,000th career point. "He does it all, scores, rebounds, block shots, run the court and he comes to play every night."

As Hayes enters his 14th professional season, he ranks third in games played behind John Havlicek and Paul Silas, third in rebounds behind Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell and fourth in minutes played.

The most remarkable achievement in Hayes' career is that he has missed only seven games and never played fewer than 80 in an 82-game season. Now he says he doesn't see any reason for that to change with the Rockets.

"This is a great situation for me," he said. "I've been double-teamed and beat on all my life, but they won't be able to do that when I'm playing with Moses (Malone). Playing next to him, I should be able to play for three more years."

The Rockets just re-signed Billy Paultz, their starting power forward at the end of last season, for two more years and that, too, made Hayes happy.

"I'm glad they were willing to spend the money to bring Paultz back," he said of the 33-year-old former center. "He'll be like Mitch (Kupchak). He'll be able to come off the bench and give Moses and me a breather. Last year Moses would be dead in the fourth quarter, but now we'll all be fresher at the finish."

After referring to Kupchak, Hayes reverted to his assessment of the current Bullets and expressed dismay over how the team has crumbled so quickly.

"The Bullets are like an expansion team now," Hayes said with a trace of sadness in his voice. "The fans are just going to have to be patient."