Today is the first day of the rest of Vernon Maxwell's life. Unless he goes 11 rows up into the crowd again. It is all out there for the Houston Rockets' 29-year-old shooting guard. He can be the good friend, charity-minded soul and doting father that he is, or he can shove another referee. He can fit in with Clyde Drexler and accept whatever role he has now that Drexler has been brought in from Portland, or he can get tossed out of more playoff games.

The problem with being Vernon, though, is that for one part of his personality to exist, the other has to come along. For Maxwell to be the best clutch shooter in the National Basketball Association, perhaps since Larry Bird, he has to stoke himself up to some frantic emotional level where he could quite easily explode. And, often, he does.

That guy is Mad Max, the swearing, beyond cocky trash talker who often impersonates Maxwell on the basketball court. That's the guy who's been fined $49,000 since 1991 for, in order, throwing a punch at Sidney Green, bumping official Jack Nies, flagrantly fouling Nate McMillan, throwing a flagrant elbow at Christian Laettner and, in last season's National Basketball Association playoffs, failing to leave the court in a timely manner and verbally berating officials.

The Rockets' 102-101 loss last night to Dallas, during which Maxwell scored six points in 25 minutes, was his first following a 10-game suspension -- the second-highest in league history -- and a $20,000 fine. Those penalties were levied on Maxwell after he left the Rockets' bench, ran up to Row L of Memorial Coliseum in Portland and confronted a fan named Steve George who was heckling him in the third quarter of the Rockets' 120-82 loss Feb. 6 to the Trail Blazers.

Maxwell struck George. Maxwell says George shoved him; George says Maxwell punched him. George says he was lightly taunting Maxwell; Maxwell says that George used racial slurs and invoked the name of Maxwell's late daughter, Amber.

Mad Max strikes again?

Maxwell says not this time. But Maxwell, who hates the nickname, gets into trouble off the floor. He's a recovering substance abuser. He's the one who faced assault charges in separate incidents in 1992 and 1994, charged with resisting arrest in July 1993, and he's the one who pleaded guilty a year ago to a misdemeanor charge of illegally carrying a gun in his car.

Maxwell hates his reputation. He thinks it keeps most people from even trying to get to know him. But in the next breath, he says he prefers it that way, anyway, that he's uncomfortable with most people other than his wife, children and buddies.

"I don't feel like I owe an explanation to anybody as far as anything that happened in my career," he said, quietly, in the otherwise empty Rockets' locker room the other day.

"Everybody pretty much already has a perception of Vernon," Maxwell said. "It doesn't really matter now. Whatever they have is okay with me. As long as they keep it to themselves. If they don't like me, if they keep it to themselves, they can voice their opinion. I go out sometimes and people look at me like I'm some crazy, this killer or something. It's not like that. I feel like I'm one of the most soft-hearted persons off the floor, and anybody that knows me will tell you that."

But Maxwell is also a father of three who has been with his wife Shell since junior high. (They have reconciled after she filed for divorce last year.) He cares enough about fatherhood to have volunteered to contribute a chapter on being a dad for a soon-to-be published book about fathers and sons. He's a co-chairman of the Give a Gift for Christmas Project here that produced more than 3,000 toys for local kids.

And he still grieves over the loss of his daughter, stillborn in October 1993. He'd written her name across the back of his basketball shoes last season as a tribute. Now, he's starting to write her name on the front.

"He reacts a lot," says Hakeem Olajuwon, the MVP center, of Maxwell. "And suffers afterwards. He regrets a lot of things that he does. This was a big lesson, where you don't have to try and talk to him. He knows what to do. This is taking you legally and penalizing you legally. We're talking about a lot of money. That's a way to get somebody's attention. He didn't realize the extreme to which the NBA was going to take it. He realized he was lucky that that was just 10 games. He could have been suspended for the whole year. When he realized the magnitude, then he wised up. And that's what it's going to take."

Maxwell has been advised by his attorney, Dick DeGuerin, and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, not to talk publicly about the Feb. 6 Portland incident until all matters have been adjudicated. He's filed a lawsuit against George for slander. Maxwell dropped his appeal of the suspension last week after originally saying he wanted to draw attention to increasingly vulgar fans around the league. And, after meeting with league officials in New York last Friday, Maxwell was reinstated on Monday.

DeGuerin says he will produce two witnesses who have "been going to games for 20 years" who will back up Maxwell's version of what happened. That version has been questioned in part because Memorial Coliseum is one of the quietest arenas in the league, with some of the most polite fans.

The two witnesses "were very upset with the fact that no one was coming forward to answer the fan's conduct," DeGuerin said. "Vernon didn't make a move to hit the guy until the guy came toward him. Vernon said, What's your problem?' Then the guy came at him and Vernon pushed him . . . the guy was extremely obnoxious . . . the witnesses say it was the worst they'd ever seen. The woman complained to a security guard. She asked why this guy hasn't been ejected at halftime. And the guy said because nobody had complained about him."

When Maxwell was at the Rockets' shoot-around on Monday, he tells a waiting group of media that he learned from the incident and will take a different approach to dealing with fans.

Later, with no one else around, he says, "I feel like it was unfair. I really didn't get to tell what happened. Everyone heard what he had to say and nobody heard what I had to say."

Now comes the test. The Rockets, gamely defending their championship, are in a struggle with San Antonio, Phoenix and Seattle for home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Key players such as forwards Robert Horry and Carl Herrera have been injured during the season. Now, they're trying to fit in Drexler, who just happens to play Maxwell's spot. For now, Maxwell will be coming off the bench.

The last thing they need is more trouble from Maxwell. He says he won't have any difficulty with the sea of fans who surely will harass him the rest of the season, if not the rest of his career. His teammates are cautiously optimistic.

Says guard Kenny Smith, Maxwell's backcourt partner the past five years: "Some of the things that happen overshadow what happens on the court. And it holds back the casual fan from understanding how good he is. The things surrounding him become louder than the things he does on the court."

Yet Maxwell doesn't think he'll see the final year -- next year -- of his contract in Houston. He came here from San Antonio for $50,000 in 1990 after being dealt on draft day from Denver, which took him in the second round, to the Spurs. He had a checkered career at the University of Florida, starring for the Gators but getting into trouble by failing several drug tests.

Maxwell thinks the Rockets are making a scapegoat of him and forward Otis Thorpe -- who went to Portland in exchange for Drexler and forward Tracy Murray -- for Houston's so-so past two months after a scintillating start. And he can't fathom how a championship team would not be allowed to defend its title intact. (Neither can several of his teammates.)

"I figure this will probably be my last year here," Maxwell said. "I don't think that I'll be around after this year is over with. I think it will probably be best for me and the team. It's a lot of changes, or whatever. Maybe not needing me as much as they used to. I think it will be best for me and the team."

He says he's not knocking Drexler, and he'll sacrifice minutes as long as he's not the only one. But he wonders if he's being phased out of the Rockets' future. Even though he leads the team with 102 three-pointers, as of yesterday he was shooting just 41 percent overall from the floor.

"I've just never known a championship team to be broken up halfway through the {following} season," he said.

Rockets officials say that Drexler's arrival means Maxwell can't hold them hostage anymore. They don't necessarily want to deal Maxwell, and they say he's not being blamed for Houston's lesser performance this season. But while they hope Maxwell has changed, they're not sure.

"You're always going to go back to your human nature," one official said. "Which is a shame."

But it would be hard to trade Maxwell, and not because of his attitude. He's a "base-year compensation" player, which means that although he's making more than $1.6 million in the third year of a four-year deal, the Rockets can only trade him for a player making $390,000 -- the salary Maxwell was paid in the final year of his previous contract.

Teammates are occasionally exasperated with Maxwell. But they say that no player on the Rockets has improved more the past couple of seasons, changing himself from a gunner with no conscience to a team player who will pass the ball into Olajuwon, then float out to not only shoot the three-pointer, but make the extra pass. No one has more game-winning or tying shots at the buzzer the past two seasons than his half-dozen.

They say that Maxwell always has been a hard-nosed defender who's never backed down from anyone. Maxwell was one of the few shooting guards in the league who never backed down against Michael Jordan. And they say Maxwell has toned down his off-court troubles.

"Vernon has made a great effort to try to get out of situations on the floor or around basketball that would be considered over the line," Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "He really made a conscious effort to do it, and was really making great strides . . . Rod Thorn {the NBA's vice president of operations, who levies the fines} agreed with me . . . he said that he also thought Vernon had made great strides in controlling himself."

To that end, the league rescinded a $5,000 fine it had levied on Maxwell last December when it determined that Maxwell had not berated an official who had thrown him out of a game against Golden State.

But the moment will come soon, in some arena, when somebody will yell something he or she shouldn't at Vernon Maxwell. And then we will know.

But if he is elsewhere after this season, he says, at least he's proven that you can win a championship with Mad Max, shooting from the hip. He's contributed as much as anyone else to the Rockets' success save Olajuwon the past two years.

"When I wake up every morning and see my kids getting ready for school, and they tell me Dad, I love you, have a good day,' that makes my day," Maxwell says. "It would have been unprofessional for me to be out in the streets with my team playing. I've definitely been keeping a low profile. I think I'm going to continue to do it that way. I feel a lot better."

And then, seconds later:

"I'm a streety person," he says. "I grew up in the streets. I know the streets. I know how to handle the streets, and when it's time to go home and be a father, I know how to be that way, too. I separate the two. But street life, that's me. That's one thing my wife will never try to change in me. I feel it's good to have street sense, and then common sense. That's part of me. My mom says You're a streety guy.' A lot of people that run across me try to straighten me out. They're always trying to slow me down. But I'm not out there that much. I know when it's time to go home."

A peaceful coexistence. CAPTION: VERNON MAXWELL CAREER STATISTICS (This chart was not available) CAPTION: Some observers consider talented Rockets guard Vernon Maxwell, shown fouling Spurs' David Robinson earlier in the season, a lock to court trouble. CAPTION: Vernon Maxwell is not one to hide his emotions: "Everybody pretty much already has a perception of Vernon," he says. "It doesn't really matter now."