In two seasons, only one as a regular, Rick Mahorn has acquired a reputation as one of the meanest, toughest and, yes, dirtiest players in the National Basketball Association.

He has been fined a total of $1,500 for elbowing and fighting this season and his picks have sent players flying from the Kingdome to the Omni. But the Washington Bullets' center merely laughs at the labels.

"I'm just out there playing as hard as I can, trying to win games," he said yesterday. "I'm not out there to hurt anybody. I know I'm not a dirty player, and it doesn't really bother me that some people feel I am.

"People are going to put a jacket on you one way or another and it's going to stay with you until they've been around you long enough for them to see what you're really like . . . I do like contact, though, don't get me wrong. I set a lot of picks and get hit all game long, but those hits make my adrenaline flow and get me into the game. This is a contact sport anyway, and I'm just playing the game the best way I know how."

Mahorn's latest fine was levied last week for elbowing Detroit's Bill Laimbeer in a March 30 game at Capital Centre. Several teams have complained to the league office about Mahorn's elbows and have sent videotapes to Commissioner Larry O'Brien.

Whenever Mahorn has been caught swinging elbows, it's been on rebounds as he tries to clear the ball from traffic. He says it's more a flaw in his technique than an act of aggression.

"I'm playing the same way I played before the fine, but I'm more aware of what I'm doing," he said.

Going into the last week of the season, Mahorn is one of only four players in the league who have committed more than 300 personal fouls. James Edwards of Cleveland, Steve Johnson of Kansas City and Tom Chambers of San Diego are the others.

"Sometimes I think the refs are looking closer at me than at other people," Mahorn said, "but there's nothing I can do about it. Besides, I like attention and they're sure giving me plenty of it."

An ankle injury has hampered Mahorn the last six weeks and he said he is just now starting to feel the way he did early in the season.

His last three games have demonstrated Mahorn's impact on the Bullets. He led them to a 97-85 victory over Indiana with 17 rebounds last Wednesday. The next night he intimidated the Chicago Bulls in a 114-98 victory with four blocked shots, 16 points and five rebounds.

In his last game, a 115-114 defeat of Milwaukee Saturday at Capital Centre, which clinched a playoff spot for the Bullets, Mahorn scored 24 points, and had nine rebounds and two blocked shots. For the season, he is averaging 12 points, nine rebounds and nearly two blocked shots.

"Rick is very important to us," said Coach Gene Shue. "In some ways, he is our most important player. Until he hurt his ankle he was just outstanding night after night. Now he is starting to play that way again as his ankle has healed. Jeff (Ruland) has been steady all year, Spencer (Haywood) has really given us the offense we needed, but it's been Rick who has done much of the dirty work."

Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff said Mahorn "is still learning how to play. His defense is ahead of his offense now and that's good for this team because that's where we need him the most right now. Our press has been very successful and he is the anchor on it. Once he gets a few more offensive moves down, he's going to have to be reckoned with at both ends of the floor.

"Rick is one of those people you don't have to worry about. You know he's going to do his job without being told. He's going to be a great one because he wants to be great and he'll work at it until he is great."

Mahorn already has earned the respect of many of his peers, most of whom don't think he's overly aggressive. "He bangs," said Moses Malone, the NBA's ultimate banger. "That's what you have to do if you want those rebounds."

Bob Lanier, who didn't get one rebound in 28 minutes against the Bullets Saturday, said Mahorn is "quick and active. He does the things they want him to do, which is rebound, block shots and score when he has to. The main thing he does, though, is set picks."

"Washington always has strong, physical players who play a rough game. That's just their style," said Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers. "Mahorn fits that mold. They passed the legacy to him."

The similarities betwen Mahorn and predecessor Wes Unseld are starting to surface in bunches: the picks, the unselfishness, the quiet leadership.

"I guess I got that stuff from Wes," Mahorn said. "I'm not trying to imitate him. I followed him last year, and if he was still here I'd still be following him. But since he isn't, I'm still doing the same things and people are following me now. It's weird, but I like it."

There is one other similarity. Unseld was listed in the Bullets' program as 6 feet 7, but admitted late in his career that he truly was only 6-5 1/2. Mahorn is listed by the Bullets as 6-10, but says he's really only 6-8.

"Maybe it makes people feel better to think I'm 6-10," he said. "But I'm not. Maybe just 6-8 1/2."

Truly, Mahorn's body hasn't grown since he left Hampton Institute, only his reputation.