In the National Basketball Association there are players with ambition, players looking forward to "never working a day in my life" and a few workaholics.

Regardless of their philosophies, professional basketball players know that their careers are limited. A 10-year tenure in the NBA is the exception, and only a gifted few are still collecting those enormous paychecks at 35.

Elvin Hayes is an exception. Not only has he been blessed with extraordinary talent, but he also has been fortunate enough to play 14 seasons without suffering a serious injury.

When he lines up with the Houston Rockets for the opening tip-off tonight against the Bullets (WTOP-1500 at 8:05), Hayes will be playing in his 1,071st NBA game. Only John Havlicek, Paul Silas, Hal Greer and Lenny Wilkens have played more. With eight more starts, Hayes will pass Wilkens.

The oldest player in the league, Hayes celebrated his 36th birthday Tuesday by scoring 17 points at Indiana. Both Havlicek and Silas retired at 37, but Hayes has no plans to join them next season.

"I think I can play two more years," Hayes said in an interview. "It's been a wonderful life. I love the game of basketball, and I am thankful that the Lord has given me the chance to play for so long."

At halftime, a replica of Hayes' No. 11 Bullets jersey will be hoisted to the rafters and hung alongside the 1978 world championship banner and Wes Unseld's No. 41, formally retired Nov. 3.

"I'm very excited about it," Hayes said when asked how he felt to have his number retired. "I've been kind of laying around thinking about it on this trip. Then I have to tell myself that I've got other games to play first.

"It will be nice, though. I've got a lot of friends in Washington, and I'll always remember the wonderful years I spent there, the championship we won and all the guys I played with.

"It will seem strange being on the other side of the fence," he continued. "You don't think much about the Bullets when you're playing other teams, but when I see those uniforms, well, I just hope I can have a good game."

Despite a difficult period of adjustment with the Rockets, Hayes seems to have settled in and is playing the role Coach Del Harris envisioned when he agreed to the deal that brought the perennial all-star forward to Houston in exchange for a pair of second-round draft choices.

"It wasn't easy at first, but Elvin is fitting in well now," Harris said. "He always has played down low, but with Moses (Malone), he's had to move outside. It was different for him, facing the basket, but we're primarily interested in his rebounding, and he's done very well in that area."

Despite the presence of Malone, the game's greatest rebounder, Hayes has retained his usual spot among the league leaders, averaging 10.3 per game. He's also blocked 11 shots in 11 games and has a 14.0 scoring average.

Any time a standout player switches teams late in his career, he is going to have problems fitting in. Hayes, a person with what Harris calls "a strong personality," is no exception.

Tempers have flared on several occasions. Last week Harris and Hayes exchanged words at the beginning of a workout after the coach told the players to shut up and listen to him.

During another practice, after the team continually made mistakes on an in-bounds play, Harris said the players didn't have the retention of a 2-year-old. The remark was not directed at Hayes, but he took offense.

"It upset me that remarks were constantly being made about the mentality of the players, things like we didn't have the mentality of a 2-year-old," Hayes said. "And I don't appreciate being told to shut up. I'm an adult, and I'm not going to listen to stuff like that."

Harris never has hesitated to criticize his players, and his frequent run-ins with Rick Barry hastened the departure of that superstar at the end of 1979-80 season. The coach didn't want to discuss the incident with Hayes, and said the matter was closed.

"Elvin's presence makes us a much stronger inside team," Harris said. "The adjustment between him and Moses has been no problem whatsoever. Both are veterans and can read each other perfectly.

"They are learning how to change up their play, so that when one goes inside, the other stays out. The last three or four games, they have coordinated very well."

After losing two games in a row by two points, the Rockets have won their last three, including an impressive come-from-behind victory at Boston Wednesday night.

"I can play with anybody," Malone said in his usual succinct style when asked about teaming with Hayes inside. Malone, obviously, hasn't been affected by Hayes' presence. He's third in the league in scoring (behind George Gervin and Adrian Dantley) with a 29.4 average and has pulled down 14 rebounds a game.

"It's sort of funny, but I'm playing Wes' role here," Hayes said with a laugh, referring to Unseld's passing and picking duties with the Bullets.

"The way big Mo plays, we want him inside as much as possible. Then when teams try to double up on him, it frees me. But when they go with single coverage, we try to get him the ball, and I just play defense and hit the boards.

"Sure, it's been a change for me," the NBA's sixth all-time scorer continued. "I always was the guy inside, but now I move in and out. One game, I looked at the stat sheet and I had eight assists. Another time I had six. That's kind of hard to believe, huh?"

What may be difficult for the customers at Capital Centre to accept tonight will be Hayes' sinking his familiar turn-around jumper for the opposition while the Bullets try to score more than 100 points for only the second time this season.