Billy Ray Bates is a show stopper, one of the most exciting players in the National Basketball Association.

But in the prime of his career at the age of 26, he was waived out of the league Sept. 20, allowing the Bullets to sign him as a free agent, without having to outbid anyone for his services.

The Bullets have taken a chance; and Bates knows it could be his last.

Bates' complex and unended story includes his agreement after last season to enter a two-week alcohol rehabilitation program after living what he says was a "fast life." It's the reason, he says, he is no longer with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Bullets Coach Gene Shue and General Manager Bob Ferry have been cited by some of their NBA rivals as running a haven for unwanted players. They respond that they are trying to build a basketball team the best way they know how, which is to take chances with some players other teams don't want.

It paid off with Spencer Haywood, who was exiled to Italy two years ago because no NBA team would sign him. And the Bullets still are hoping it will pay off with John Lucas, who admitted last season to cocaine use.

And, now Bates. Ferry says: "You have to gamble on talent."

Shue says: "Whatever he did in the past, I don't care. He's here now. I'd heard all the stuff about alcohol. But I'm judging him on what he does here and now."

That's exactly what he told Bates in their first meeting last week, Shue said.

"He wanted my word that I wasn't going to mess up here and that I would do the things I was supposed to do," said Bates. "I gave him my word and I'm a man who sticks with what I say. I won't screw up this chance."

Portland General Manager Stu Inman, who both signed and waived Bates, said he is "happy Gene and Bob saw their way clear to sign Billy. Gene has a good record of turning kids around. I don't think there's a better situation for Billy anywhere."

In David Halberstam's book, "The Breaks of The Game," Bates, the second-youngest of nine children of Mississippi sharecroppers, is described as "dazzling; a player of awesome, almost completely undisciplined talent . . . There was something extra Billy Ray Bates had, something that could neither be studied nor taught and that was an essential instinct for the game. It was something you were born with and Billy Ray Bates had it."

Because he was so raw coming out of Kentucky State, he played first in the Continental League for the Maine Lumberjacks. He was an instant star and crowd favorite. He got his chance with Portland at the end of the 1980 season and was an instant hero.

The Trail Blazers apparently soured on Bates last season and, three weeks ago, he was waived and went unclaimed, even though he had one more guaranteed year left on a contract he signed two seasons ago. If he makes the Bullets, Portland will pay part of his salary this year.

Inman said he won't talk about Bates' problems, saying Bates was cut "for basketball reasons."

"We had determined that it was in our best judgment that there wasn't a place for him anymore. It wasn't an easy decision to cut him."

Bates said, however, that he feels he was cut for nonbasketball reasons.

He averaged 11.1 points a game last season and had a 12.3 career average with a career high of 40 points, all done averaging only 19 minutes a game. He has a 26.7 average for six playoff games.

Bates thinks, "Portland made the decision to cut me on a lot of hearsay . . . "It wasn't a question if I could play or not. It was my off-the-court behavior that upset them. There was a time when everything was going my way, but that all changed. I could have been a superstar there, but when they told me I was being waived, there wasn't anything I could say or do.

"I really don't know what went wrong in Portland. Maybe the city was just too small. Everything I did got back to the team and they didn't like some of what they heard. I was single and I like to experience things and I did it in the public eye.

"Early in the summer they felt I had an alcohol problem. I drank, but I didn't think it was a problem. I agreed to go to a rehabilitation hospital because that was what I thought was the right thing to do. I was seeing a psychologist one day a week after that. Then I was waived.

"I didn't say anything when they told me because they (management) have the say on your life. We've got the talent, but they have the say.

"I'm smarter now than I was then, though. I realize I'm in the public eye and people are looking up to me so I have to act a certain way. I didn't realize that before. This is my chance to show that I can be a dedicated player.

"I don't want to run around, have any alcohol around me or anything like that anymore. I have a few close friends now like Greg Ballard and his wife Donna and I want to meet a nice girl from D.C., settle down, have a couple of kids and make this my home, and then be able to go into some kind of business when I'm through playing. I don't want any excitement until I hit the court."

The Bullets are convinced Bates can score, but they aren't sure he can play defense well enough.

"In Portland, my role was to come in when we were 10 points down, excite the crowd and bring us back," Bates said. "I'd be sitting on the bench and the crowd would start screaming, 'We want Billy, we want Billy.' I'd go in the game with fire in my eyes and want to go down and dunk on somebody every time I touched the ball.

"Here, I think it's more of a team game. All I want to do is fit in."