He was signed on a Monday, after having been out of basketball for nine months, played 22 minutes on Wednesday and was starting by Saturday.

That's how badly the Washington Bullets needed Ricky Sobers.

Sobers has been with the team 18 games now and Washington has won half of them, the biggest probably coming Friday night at Capital Centre against the defending National Basketball Association champion Los Angeles Lakers.

The key man was Sobers. He scored the Bullets' last seven points, all in the final 52 seconds, to secure a 96-93 victory.

If a pattern has been established, it is that Sobers is the man who wants, and gets, the ball at the end of a game.

"That's what we got him for," said Coach Gene Shue.

The Lakers game was critical to the Bullets (26-32) because they had lost four in a row and seven of their last eight, and were fading from the playoff picture. They still trail the New York Knicks by three games in the race for the sixth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Another of the teams the Bullets are trying to catch, the Atlanta Hawks, will be at Capital Centre this afternoon for a 1 o'clock game. The Hawks, with the fifth-best record (31-29) in the conference, have won six in a row. They have beaten the Bullets all three times the teams have played this season, the most recent a 91-89 decison at the Omni Thursday night when Sobers barely missed a three-point shot at the buzzer.

Sobers is averaging 15.9 points and 5.1 assists while shooting 86 percent at the free throw line. He also has made 10 of 21 three-point shots. But those statistics reveal only a small part of what Sobers means to the Bullets.

"The thing this team needed was leadership," he said. "It was easy to see. Sometimes it's difficult to lead, but I took it as a challenge. They looked to me as a leader right away. That's what the coach wants and that's what the players expect.

"I'm a bit surprised at how quickly I was thrust into things, but it has gone better than I anticipated because the players have accepted my style of play and my capabilities."

Shue said Sobers is the player "we wanted all along. He was the best possible player we could have gotten and so far he's been exactly what we had hoped."

It's been a long time since the Bullets have had a guard like Sobers. He listens to his coach, respects his teammates and doesn't take a step back from anyone.

"I've always been tough and physical," said Sobers, 30. "It goes back to my childhood. I grew up in the Bronx and I had to fight for everything I've had in my life."

It didn't take long for Sobers to make an impression on his teammates.

"He gives us a lot more toughness," said Jeff Ruland, "and you know I like that."

Greg Ballard said he has been waiting a long time for the Bullets to get a player like Sobers. "He's what we've needed all along."

Bullets coaches, starting with K.C. Jones and on through Dick Motta to Shue, had tried to land a player like the 6-foot-3 Sobers--a guard who could play defense, handle the ball, shoot and generate his own offense, yet be unselfish enough not to erode the team concept.

On Jan. 24, the Bullets signed the free agent who had played the last three seasons with the Chicago Bulls.

Sobers didn't play basketball in high school, but played at Southern Idaho Junior College and then at Nevada-Las Vegas. He was a first-round draft choice of the Phoenix Suns in 1975, two years later was traded to Indiana and two seasons after that went to Chicago. Going into this season, he had a 14-point career scoring average.

Denver, Atlanta and New York, in addition to Washington, were interested in him, but he chose the Bullets and signed what is believed to be a three-year contract calling for $300,000 a year. The Bullets gave the Bulls two second-round draft choices as compensation.

"He's the first player of that type we've ever had," said Bernie Bickerstaff, the assistant coach. "We can match him against anybody. He isn't about any fooling around, either. He just does what you ask of him."

What does Sobers like best about the Bullets?

"Their personality is a lot like mine," he said. "They're fearless."