Spencer Haywood began his professional basketball career a dozen years ago at the age of 20, and he has the scars to prove it.

Like the proverbial cat with nine lives, the Bullets' latest acquisition has survived another potential disaster and landed on his feet.

Haywood was the youngest player in professional basketball when he signed with Denver after earning all-America honors in his sophomore season at the University of Detroit. Now, when the National Basketball Association season opens Friday, he will be one of the oldest.

"I'm here to stay," the 32-year-old forward said after signing a two-year, nonguaranteed contract with the Bullets. "I want to prove to myself and fans all over the world that I can still play with the best."

Despite a career scoring average of 20.5, Haywood is on trial again. In his last stop in a turmoil-plagued career in the United States, he was suspended from the Los Angeles Lakers in the midst of the 1980 championship series with Philadelphia.

Haywood received a cruel mental blow when his teammates in Los Angeles voted him only a quarter share of their playoff payoff. Butch Lee, who had been acquired Feb. 15 and played just 31 minutes, received a full share.

Admittedly hurt and disillusioned, Haywood sought solace abroad. He didn't want to face his peers, so he played for Carrea of the Italian League last season, and says he was the leading scorer and the league's most valuable player.

"I had to get away for a year, to get myself together both physically and mentally," he said the other night in New York. "This team wanted me last year, it put trust in me, but I wasn't mentally ready to come back. Now I am. This is the right time and the right place."

Some may question whether the rebuilding Bullets, a team of impressionable youngsters, a team destined to lose this season, is the ideal situation for a controversial, occasionally self-centered former superstar.

Bob Ferry, the Bullet general manager, played in the NBA for 10 years before beginning his administrative duties and vividly remembers how players think and react. He can relate.

The philosophy behind the Haywood acquisition: to try to improve the team's woeful scoring punch and to take the pressure off the young players.

Ferry realizes that it's going to be difficult for the Bullets to win this season. He doesn't want fans to become discouraged about promising young players such as Rick Mahorn, Frank Johnson, Jeff Ruland and Charles Davis.

"I've seen some rookies in losing situations lose their confidence and never get it back," Ferry said. "This way we won't have to rush them and put them in difficult spots too soon."

Still, Washington may not be the ideal place for Haywood to launch his comeback because he is being united with two former teammates, Jim Chones and Brad Holland, who were involved in the incident that triggered his departure from the Lakers.

Haywood's problems in Los Angeles began, he says, when Paul Westhead replaced the injured Jack McKinney as coach Nov. 8. He says they didn't reach the breaking point until May 7, following the second game of the championship series.

After the game, Holland was using tape-cutters to strip the tape away from his ankles. Haywood, who had played just three minutes and obviously was frustrated, yelled at the reserve guard for taking too long. Chones, who had replaced Haywood in the starting lineup, stuck up for Holland and yelled at Haywood.

"That was the final straw," said a Laker official. "Spencer had been late to practice the day before, and earlier he had fallen asleep during stretching exercises before a practice. After the outburst, he was told he wasn't going with the team to Philadelphia for the next games."

"I had a lot of problems in L.A.," Haywood explained. "My wife was pregnant with our second child and then lost the baby in the middle of the season. My mother was dying of cancer. I'm the youngest of 11 children. My father died before I was born, so my mother was very, very special to me.

"All of these problems compounded and I needed an outlet for the tension. I needed to be out on the floor to let my aggressions out, but I was sitting on the bench and I became negative toward basketball."

When Haywood was obtained from Utah Sept. 13 in exchange for Adrian Dantley, he was supposed to team with Jamaal Wilkes at forward, filling the rebounding void at forward. However, the Lakers also traded for Chones (giving up Dave Robisch) and by Oct. 21, Haywood had lost his starting job.

Haywood said his problems started the day McKinney fell off his bicycle, suffered severe head injuries and was unable to coach the rest of the season. Westhead, in his first season as an assistant, took over, and Haywood's playing time decreased.

"I was a McKinney man in Westhead country," Haywood said. "He brought me to the Lakers and I believed in his system and was outspoken about it. I constantly reminded the guys that Westhead was using Jack's system and taking all the credit for its success."

Haywood started just 13 games that season, and his scoring average plunged from 20.9 the year before at Utah to 9.7. He played briefly against Phoenix and Seattle in the playoffs, averaging 5.7 points for 11 games, but was used for just five minutes in the first two games against Philadelphia.

"I tried to talk to some of the players about my problems, but they were all caught up in their own heroics," Haywood said. "They were winning and didn't want to think about anything negative."

The final humiliation was the voting for the playoff share. The hurt is still there for Haywood.

"It absolutely was a shock to me," he said. "I worked so hard to help the team get to the playoffs. It was an injustice, and I still feel that way. I've thought about filing suit because I believe that money belongs to me, but I'm not going to."

Neither Chones nor Holland will discuss the vote now. "That's all in the past, and you know I can't get involved in it," Chones said.

Coach Gene Shue talked with Haywood for four hours one day this summer in Philadelphia and was eager to add the 6-foot-8 forward's scoring and rebounding skills to the Bullets.

"I'm going to judge Spencer on what he can do for us," the coach said. "I know he's had some terrific problems, but that's in the past. Sometimes it's good to get a player after a setback. He really wants to be back in the NBA, and I think he'll work very hard to stay here."