Elvin Hayes will play against the Bullets at Capital Centre tonight.

Perhaps for the last time.

The Big E, now playing for Houston, thinks he's going to have one more NBA season with the Rockets, teaming perhaps with Ralph Sampson for a world title.

But, unless Hayes starts mending fences instead of burning bridges, he may find that nobody will touch him.

For 15 years, Hayes has set records for minutes played, points, rebounds and petulance.

Those buckets and boards have taken him to the top of the leader lists; by season's end, he'll be third in history in points and rebounds.

But now that Hayes' talents are dwindling, his flaws are finding him out.

The Rockets will soon have to decide if they can run the risk of keeping Hayes, who is considered by some NBA coaches and players to be a poor influence on teammates.

That the well-meaning, Bible-studying Hayes should find himself in such a situation may come as a shock to those who see him only from a distance, or to those who are fortunate enough to meet him away from the court where he's a generous and extremely charming, if often immature, person.

Hayes has always been one of the most popular of all NBA players with the general public, for good reason. He is one of the most tireless charity workers in NBA history; he's a willing soft touch for any good work. Also, his affection for children is genuine. On top of this, Hayes, who quotes scripture almost as well as he quotes statistics, doesn't smoke, drink or curse.

On the surface, the oldest player in the NBA seems to be finishing off one of basketball's greatest careers in grand style. Last month, Hayes, 37, broke the record for minutes played at 47,859. "Every time I step on the court, it seems like I set a record," says Hayes, who's averaging 13 points and eight rebounds a game in 29 minutes.

Hayes is living and playing back in hometown Houston, just where he wants to be, living on his 160 acre ranch. He's surrounded by his wife Erna, his four children, his quarter horses, his cattle and a city full of folks who've been crazy about him ever since he starred for the University of Houston in the l960s.

"The fire's getting low in the old stove," Hayes said with a chuckle this week, "but it'll be quite excitable coming to Washington. People will see me in a role which is all new. I'm playing about 24 minutes a game, like Paul Silas used to with Boston and Seattle. It's my job to be a veteran presence, be the jelling factor, police the area. It's made to order for me."

When he isn't playing for the woebegone 10-39 Rockets, Hayes has been watching his son, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who scored 16 points a game for the ninth-ranked high school team in Texas. "That's my consolation. I can rejoice in him. You see him dunking this way and that and you think he's trying to get to be the Big E and make me the Little E," says Hayes. "We might send him back up to De Matha next year because the level of competition is so good in Washington. I've gotta give (De Matha) Coach (Morgan) Wootten a call about that soon."

Despite all this good news, Hayes' personality will also live forever in the locker room lore of the NBA. He has long been called "the Big Enigma," but never has the nickname been more appropriate than now.

For the last eight games, Houston Coach Del Harris has taken Hayes out of the starting lineup; this is the first time in Hayes' career that something like this has happened. At first, Hayes fought the switch and denounced Harris publicly, resuming their open feud of 1981-82 when the pair sometimes had screaming matches.

Gradually, Hayes changed his mind and embraced his role as a third forward. Then, last Friday, Hayes played only seven minutes and exploded again, saying, of Harris, "This is just another one of those petty games he likes to play. To tell the truth, I expected it. He'll play me at home when all the people are yelling to put in Elvin. On the road, he doesn't feel that pressure . . . I'd like to know the real reason. This is just typical of what goes on around here."

"I've found Elvin basically to be two people," Harris said yesterday. "He can absolutely exhaust your resources in trying to find a way to respond to him. On the other hand, he can be just totally cooperative and eager to do the things that need to be done . . . It can all change from day to day. He lives straight out of his emotions, not his mind."

"I think, if you took a poll of coaches and players about Elvin, they'd say, 'Holy gee, he's the toughest guy in the world to deal with," says Ray Patterson, the president and general manager of the Rockets. "Elvin can be the most vitriolic person, just street talk you to your face, and it's always the same record about how 'Everybody crucifies me.' He just plays it over and over . . .

"Elvin has to realize that he's reaching the stage of his career where a lot of subterranean feelings toward him are going to come to the surface," continued Patterson. "What I'll always remember about Elvin is the complete childlike remorse that he extends two hours after that highly emotional, irrational side of him comes out. The next day, he'll come in smiling and greet you like nothing happened. He's sincere, but he's also totally oblivious of the havoc he wreaked on individuals the day before."

Both Patterson and Harris are, speaking generally, concerned about Hayes' future with the team. Hayes has a contract for 1983-84, part of which is guaranteed, but part of which depends on whether the team wants him back. "Elvin has matured some," says Patterson. "But you have to ask, 'How many more incidents will occur.' "

Harris, assuming that Houston, which has its own and Cleveland's No. 1 draft picks, will get Sampson, says, "It's very important as we start a new era that everybody, by then, be willing to be part of a most positive atmosphere."

Harris and Patterson's feelings are just the tip of the NBA iceberg concerning Hayes. Few athletes in any sport elicit such emotional reaction from current and former teammates as Hayes.

As trainer John Lally of the Bullets says, "For some players and coaches, being around Elvin every day is like a Chinese water torture. It's just a drop at a time, nothing big, but in the end, he's driven you crazy."

Even Wes Unseld, who rarely speaks ill of any man and says that he basically remembers his years with Hayes "with warmth," adds, "We certainly had some major differences . . . There were times when I wanted to strangle Elvin or break his back. Those thoughts definitely crossed my mind."

Hayes has lived out a career in which he has been, in many ways, personally lonely, professionally belittled and often misunderstood. He has spent a lifetime struggling for maturity, which some people felt he has never attained.

He's been judged, and criticized, by the same standards as any average person, when, in fact, he is not in any sense average.

"There's nothing so unequal as equal treatment of unequals," Patterson said. "In basketball, you find some people who are mature in one sense, but very immature in another area. They're 95 percent grown up on a basketball court and 15 percent grown up when dealing with money or power or people. In the overview, Elvin's made progress in closing the gap in the various kinds of maturity."

As Unseld says, "Once you get to know Elvin, and accept him as he is, then, when you add up all the pros and cons, the pro column is full."

Hayes once told Betty Cuniberti, a former Washington Post reporter, that "Athletes are really nothing but shy, spoiled babies. And I am one of them."

This week, Hayes told a story about his own stuggles to accept criticism in his days with the Bullets. "Clem Haskins was my best friend. We'd be riding to the Centre and he'd say, 'Big fella, I'm just gonna tell you how it is. You were dogging it last night. You let that guy kick your butt. Now, E, just shut up and listen sometimes,' " recalls Hayes. "He'd just go on and on like that. I couldn't choke him 'cause he was driving and I couldn't jump out of the car, 'cause it was moving. I respect a guy being straight with me. It's all in how it's said. Certain people can say something and I'll take it. Clem could and I would."

Now, late in his career, when he desperately wants to finish with dignity, Hayes must do years of maturing in months; by the time he's grown up, he may be gone. "This is a hard time for Elvin," says Patterson. "The more praise you get, the more you need. Elvin needs attention and he'll get it even if he has to extract it by outbursts . . .

"Sometimes, I think we'll worship anyone who's not boring. And believe me, we've never had a boring day since Elvin arrived."

"Sitting on the bench now, it's a hurtin' thing," Hayes says. "You see the game go by you and it's like you're helpless. Basketball is such a part of you. You say, I can do this. You're like a kid with a brand new wagon. You just want to get in the street and show it off. That's how I am with my talent. All I've ever wanted to do is show it off to the people."