On a recent gray afternoon at Fort Meade, Gus Williams alternately soaked his sprained, swollen ankle in a tub of nearly scalding water and stood, like a wounded race horse, in a bucket of ice.

He was off in a little room, alone. Out on the basketball floor, where the Washington Bullets pushed and shoved through the numbing repetition of half-court drills, the hum of something in the air died. An electric fan? Or expectations?

No, it couldn't have been all the hope that's been blown, like new air, into this upcoming season, which will begin Friday in Chicago. After all, it's only October and Williams, the indispensable factor in the Bullets' latest equation, will only be hurting a little while. He's anxious to get out and do what he does best on a basketball court: take the outlet pass and go.

Williams loves to run. He gets others running. The Bullets got him from Seattle to make them run like a basketball team, not thick catsup.

"I'm excited because everybody else is excited," says Williams, shifting from ice bucket to hot tub. "Everybody is looking forward to some good things happening. I'm looking forward to the same thing."

Then he looked down at the pool of swirling water that covered his sore left foot. The excitement vanished from his face. "I was feeling really good about everything till this happened," he says.

Gus Williams has come to play, not soak. He has his millions, his big cars, a home on each coast. He could sit around and think about his possessions. Or roar off someplace.

Funny, what matters most to him -- always has -- is basketball. A February game in Indianapolis can excite him. Once, he sat out an entire season -- he believed he wasn't being paid his worth. That season he felt like he had nothing.

Says a friend of his in Seattle, "I've never met a player who loves playing as much as he does."

This is the kind of person Gus Williams is: He owns a $172,000 white Rolls-Royce Corniche, but he hardly ever drives it. Too shy, his friends say.

When he left Seattle this summer, he threw a party for the city. Where's the last professional athlete who picked up lunch for two?

If he's on the road -- he's got friends at just about every National Basketball Association stop -- he's apt to turn down an invitation in favor of a nap. On game-night afternoons, he hangs out the do-not-disturb sign.

He's single. He lives alone.

His life revolves around the game.

"He's an interesting paradox," says Nancy Welts, a former public relations director for the Sonics and close friend of Williams'. "He's flamboyant on the court, but in real life he's down to earth. Very real. Very, very real."

Here comes Williams now, walking into the big wooden gym at Fort Meade. One imagines a platoon of soldiers streaming after a Dr. J. Hardly anyone turns toward Gus Williams. He is 6-foot-2, and wears plain clothes and no jewelry -- not even his Sonics' championship ring. The glare from a ceiling light covers his balding head. But, on inspection, he does give off a certain assurance with each gimpy stride. He shakes hands quietly with two new acquaintances and then goes off by himself to dunk not a ball but his foot.

"It was frustrating, boring -- mostly frustrating," he says. He was talking about not playing all of 1980-81, his holdout season. That was a lot worse than missing a week of practice with a sprain. "I wanted to get back to playing. I played with friends -- they loved that. But being a professional, you want to play against the best. The NBA means playing against the best. That's where the frustration came in."

Without Williams, the Sonics were frustrated, too. The league champions of '79 plunged to last place and stuck like an elevator.

When Williams returned for '81-'82, having signed a five-year-contract for almost $700,000 a year, the Sonics became super again. Not only hadn't he lost a step, he played his best season yet, leading the team in seven categories. Almost a bargain at $700,000.

The Bullets, too, will have themselves a bargain -- if Williams' career form holds. It's always gone this way: a period of adjustment, then success, even championships.

Chapter One: At Mount Vernon (N.Y.) High, Williams was cut from the basketball team as a freshman and sophomore. As a junior, he made the junior varsity. As a senior, he led the varsity to the state championship.

Next chapter: Still, Mount Vernon didn't get much respect from the guys on the playground in New York City. "They called us farmers," recalls Williams, "even though we were only 20 minutes from Manhattan and I could walk to the Bronx." Down to the city they went -- Williams and teammates, the likes of Earl Tatum and Rudy Hackett. Believe it, they got respect.

On to college: Already something like 120 college coaches, Williams estimates, had found their way to Mount Vernon. Williams picked Southern Cal. "It wasn't a hard decision," he says. The city, the weather. But USC played second fiddle to UCLA, perennial national champion in those days. The Bruins already had their quota of potential all-Americas, and had expressed no interest in Williams. But Williams -- he's hard to discourage -- was happy just playing against them, even though his USC varsity never managed to beat them. "I always wanted to play against the best instead of with the best anyway," he reasons. "I always felt that would bring out the best of things in me."

His education continues: After becoming USC's third all-time career scorer and its top assist man ever, Williams became a second-round draft choice of Golden State. Though he just barely missed rookie of the year in '76, '77 was less productive. He considers these get-acquainted seasons. A free agent for '77-'78 -- "After two years as a professional, I knew what professional meant" -- he signed with Seattle. Seattle made him a starter.

In his first season there, the Sonics made the NBA finals, losing to the Bullets. The next season, they beat the Bullets for the title. Seattle loved the Sonics; record crowds came out. Williams was a key, maybe the key. At 25, he was still peaking, averaging 19 points and handing out assists that would increase in number every season there. He was the right age for that time and place, Gertrude Stein might have said, had she made it to the Kingdome.

"There's no other feeling like being the best," Williams says. He swings his leg into the ice. "Would you do this for me? This is the part I don't like." His leg turns to goose flesh.

The longest season: During his Great Holdout, Williams received "90 percent favorable" mail. The 10 percent hurt though, according to Nancy Welts. "It was a lot tougher on him than he let on at the time."

But as the team declined precipitously, doubting fans came to realize who the Sonics' MVP was all along. So, as Welts puts it, "he came back as a savior."

When he walked into his welcome-back news conference, he got a standing ovation from the Seattle press. Then he played his best ball. In the last two seasons Williams averaged 23.4 and 20 points, and handed out 1,192 assists. "I thought I could end my career out there. Everybody seemed happy with my play." But the Sonics gave a new, long-term contract to center Jack Sikma, reportedly worth more than $7 million. Naturally, they talked about rebuilding around Sikma and talk of trading Williams began. Cleveland was mentioned.

"That was a shock," says Welts. "So when it turned out to be Washington, it was a pleasant surprise."

A Seattle headline read, "Nobody Happy, But Gus Leaves Anyway." He was written up as a "legend."

But even legends need time to adjust. Seattle had been a home to him, he says. Finally, "I think he decided it was kind of a blessing," Welts says.

And, as if Williams' one last basketball wish could now be fulfilled, she adds, "One thing that concerned him was that he felt like he might not play on another great team again."

In early July, she drove him to the airport for a flight to Washington so he could be welcomed here and that's when he said he wanted to throw a party for the people of Seattle. "I almost went off the road," she says.

But a couple of Sundays later, a band played down at the waterfront. The mayor read a proclamation. More than 5,000 came. Toward the end, a receiving line was formed in a nearby building and the crowd filed by to shake Williams' hand. The line went on for 3 1/2 hours.

Indeed, a legend, at least in Seattle.

And now . . .

He was 31 on Oct. 10. Quick as ever, he thinks.

Portland Coach Jack Ramsay, a few years ago, said, "Gus is the best open-court player in the league." Yesterday, Ramsay gave an update: "I don't see any diminishing skills."

What's more, Williams is always thinking of winning. "Winning -- there's lots of indications of that in the first couple weeks of training camp," he says. "It feels good to have this kind of talent. It's a young, physical team. I'm looking for good basketball, especially the fast end of it. And that's what they acquired me for -- to run the fast break, to be an up-tempo team."

With that, Williams towels off and heads out to watch the last hour of practice. He sits on a folding chair and follows his new teammates, back and forth. When it's over, he makes his way around the periphery of the court where the players have scattered. From one to another he goes, talking to each. Even when he isn't playing, he is in the game.

The next day, the Bullets are introduced at a luncheon at the Touchdown Club.

In a back room beforehand, the players and coaches meet the press. Having tried and failed to get a video poker game operative, Williams sidles out the door into a hallway next to the kitchen, where he chats with Wes Unseld, ex-center, now a Bullets' vice president. Definitely, Williams' off-court style is low key.

"Everybody's talking running," Bernie Bickerstaff, the assistant coach, is saying back inside. "It's going to be organized running. The Celtics and Lakers run, but it's organized. The way we used to. You can't abandoned the other aspects."

He means, of course, the inside game -- the "Beef Brothers," Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn; newcomer Cliff Robinson, and, if he signs, Greg Ballard.

This year the Bullets are selling "thunder and lightning." Williams is the lightning. With him, the Bullets plan to run and expect to win. "At this point you don't know if the chemistry is going to work," says Coach Gene Shue, "but I would like to see something magical happen with this group."

Over lunch, expectations are sounded and Shue promises "more fast break, open court. We'll rely on the creativity of the players more." Translation: Gus Williams will be out on the break, keeping everyone awake.

As he turns to leave, Shue looks around for Williams, but Williams has drifted away to talk with another old Bullet, Phil Chenier. When Chenier played back in the '70s, the Bullets ran. "Gus, time to go," calls Shue across the room. He looks at his watch. The team bus motor is running outside and it's almost time for practice.

Shue waits and walks out with Williams, who is still limping. The coach seems to wince with every limp his player takes across the sidewalk. One thing for sure: The bus isn't shutting its door without Williams. The Bullets aren't going anywhere without him.