March 7, 1981 ...The Palestra, the hallowed hall of college basketball in Philadelphia ... The building is packed and it has been rocking with emotion for two hours ... Mark Nickens, a graduate of Mackin high school in Washington has the ball. He dribbles once, twice ...

Five thousand people know he is going to shoot. Gary Williams, Nickens' coach, for once is silent. All he can do is watch ... Nickens stops, picks up his dribble, twists in midair and shoots ... The clock is at :09 when Nickens softly flicks the ball off his wrist ...

Time freezes as the ball floats toward the basket. If it goes in, American University will play in the NCAA basketball tournament.

The shot spins around the rim as six bodies crash together angling for position. The ball bounces off the rim, high in the air and looks for a moment as if it will drop through the net. Instead, it nicks the rim again and bounces into the groping hands of Tony Costner of St. Joseph's.

Seconds later, it is over. St. Joseph's is in the NCAA basketball tournament. The final margin is 3 points on the scoreboard but it is actually only the inches that separated Nickens' shot from sinking.

Seven days later, in front of a national television audience, St. Joe's upsets De Paul, the No. 1 team in the country. Five minutes after that game, St. Joseph's Coach Jim Lynam stands waiting to be interviewed on national TV. As he does, he has a sudden thought:

"This could have been American University. They were that close. And that good."

The Eastern Basketball Coach of the Year got out of his car, squinted into the sunlight and pointed at the antiquated, peeling-paint building in front of him.

"There it is," he said, spreading his arms wide, "our palace."

Briskly, he walked through the front door into the dingy lobby, spun to his left and through the door of his office. On the door was a piece of paper telling the fencing team where to practice.

There were two men sitting in his office and when The Coach walked in, they acted as if it was their office as much as his.

It is.

The Eastern Basketball Coach of the Year shares an office, a small one, with his two assistant coaches.

"No, no, I have my own office," he said. "... I draw lines around my desk and make people knock on the air before coming across the lines."

Gary Williams laughed. This is a coach who won 24 games last season, who won several awards as one of the best basketball coaches in the nastion. He is also a coach without his own office and without a gym. Call his office and he is as likely to answer the phone as anyone.

But he doesn't complain. Williams came to American in 1978 knowing exactly what the situation was. He knew the school had played its games at Ft. Myer--in Arlington, 10 miles from campus--since 1963. He knew a new gym was not imminent. He knew the athletic budget was small.

He also believed The American University, a school with fewer than 6,000 undergraduates located in upper Northwest Washington, a school known more for its school of international service than anything else, could win basketball games on a bigtime level.

American has always played basketball competitively. In the late 1950s, playing in the NCAA small college division, the Eagles had three straight 20-win seasons. At the start of the 1960s, Wil Jones was a small college All- American. In the last 12 years, American has had only three losing records.

But home has never been home for AU. The team has played at Georgetown, at George Washington, in the D.C Armory and, for the last 18 years, at Ft. Myer. With each new coach, AU has tried to take its program a step further. First, Tom Young had proven the school could compete in Division 1. Jim Lynam, the St. Joseph's coach whose team beat American by inches, also coached here and proved that good athletes could beat great athletes if well coached. Williams' job would be to try and start getting very good athletes--with no gym.

Bob Frailey, the athletic director, had been honest with him. "I first came to American in 1949," Frailey said. "And when I got here I was told we desperately need a new gymnasium.

"We still do."

Frailey has been American's athletic director since 1964. During that time he has hired three basketball coaches who have established themselves as top men in their field. The first was Young. The second was Lynam. Williams is the latest. And, one year ago, even losing his best player 10 games into the season, Williams took American where it had never been before.

Twice, in the same week, American won games in the Palestra. That had never happened before. The Eagles beat Old Dominion on its home court seven days before Old Dominion beat De Paul at De Paul. The 24 wins was a school record. The team played in the National Invitation Tournament for the second time in history after missing the NCAA.

And so, Gary Williams is asked the same question again and again: How did you do it without a gym?

And American's students keep asking the administration: When are you going to build a gym?

Williams answers his question easily. "We worked very, very hard. We surprised some people, including maybe ourselves. And, we were confident. Each win built confidence. By the end, we really believed we could find a way to beat almost anybody. Our guys found out they could play our style-- pressing defensively for the entire game--and succeed."

The administration's answer is not so simple. "The need for a gymnasium is not a new one," said President Richard Berendzen. "When I took over (January 1980), I inherited a problem that may be a quarter of a century old. It is our No. 1 priority right now because it is something that would benefit the entire school.

"Right now, we need to transform enthusiasm into dollars. It's wonderful for fans and alumni to be excited and happy about the success of the team. It's better for them to write a check.

"We want to have at least 50 percent of the money pledged, more in fact, before we break ground. We've had so many false starts that we don't want to disappoint people again. Once we say we're going to do this thing, we're going to do it."

The target date for the gymnasium-convocation center's opening is 1985. But no one is shouting. There are no artist's renderings of what the building will look like. Intentionally, those in power at AU are treading softly.

"When I first got here in 1949, one of the things everyone agreed we needed most was a new gym," Frailey said. "Since then, we've had four campaigns, four architect's plans and--sweeping his hand around his office in the 35- year-old Cassell Building-- here we are, practicing downstairs and playing in Ft. Myer."

The most recent chapter in AU's gym saga began in April 1978. It started with Abe Pollin, the owner of the Washington Bullets and Capitals. His wife, Irene Pollin, is a member of the university's board of trustees.

Pollin wanted to build a memorial to Marc Splaver, an American graduate who had worked as Pollin's publicist for the Bullets.

In 1977, Splaver was diagnosed as having leukemia. The disease went into remission that fall and Splaver returned to work with the Bullets. But in the spring, while the team was making its run to the NBA championship, Splaver had a relapse. On May 3 while the Bullets were in the midst of their Eastern Conference championship series against Philadelphia, Splaver died.

Pollin, who had been close to Splaver, immediately announced plans for the "Marc Splaver Center," the gymnasium American University had always needed. The school's board of trustees was delighted.

That same week, Williams, who had been an assistant coach at Boston College, was hired as coach. He was also thrilled to learn of Pollin's participation in the gym project.

Exactly what happened next is unclear in the minds of everyone. The board had assumed that Pollin's announcement meant he was taking over the fundraising. Pollin apparently believed that he was to be an adviser on the project which was going to be directed by the school.

Nothing happened. "There was a breakdown in communication," said L. Victor Atchison, the university's vice president in charge of development. "Our board thought that Abe was taking over and he wasn't. We still consider Abe Pollin an important part of this project and an important friend of the university."

There is a "but" line Atchison won't voice. When the building is finished, it won't be "The Marc Splaver Center." The reason is simple: Berendzen is planning on getting three or four major contributions that will constitute perhaps as much as 80 percent of the estimated $10 million it will take to build the center. One of those contributions will be what Berendzen calls a naming gift. The donor will likely have the gym named after him.

Berendzen, Atchison and Frailey all say there will be some kind of memorial to Splaver in the building but it is unlikely the center itself will be named for him.

Pollin will not discuss the situation publicly. "We have no comment to make," a Pollin spokesman said. Privately, friends of Pollin say he is upset with the university for abandoning the idea of naming the building for Splaver and is unlikely to be involved in future fundraising.

Even if everything does finally fall into place and the gym does open in 1985--it is part of a project known as "AU-'85"--none of the current players will ever bounce a ball in anger there. They will finish their careers playing in drafty, dingy Ft. Myer.

And, in all likelihood, Williams will be coaching elsewhere before the new gym ever opens. That is the nature of American University's basketball program. Young coaches arrive, make a name for themselves, and move on to bigger, wealthier programs.

Still, American wins basketball games. And this year, Gary Williams and his players think they have a chance to capitalize on last year's success and make themselves a name, gym or no gym.

One hour into practice Gary Williams was angry. That is not unusual. The first word anybody who knows Williams uses in describing him is "intense."

"Away from the court he's one guy--funny, even relaxed," point guard Gordon Austin says. "But once that door closes for practice, you better be ready to play. Because he's always ready."

This day, midway through the team's second week of practice for the season, Williams did not think his players were ready.

So, Williams had to work to get his players to work. He had already stopped the drills on several occasions to correct mistakes. At one point, upset with a number of lackluster passes, he stepped into the middle of a drill, demanding a ball from a manager.

"This," he said, demonstrating emphatically, "is how you throw a bounce pass. Now, come on, try to give a ----."

But it did not get better and finally, Williams exploded. "ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT, JUST HOLD IT. When are you guys going to get serious? If you don't take pride in what you do now it will show in the way you play. You didn't come to practice ready today. What the HELL is the story? How about making a GODDAM layup, okay?"

None of the players blinked an eye. They had heard this before. This outburst was rather mild.

"That's why we never have trouble playing hard and pressing for 40 minutes," said junior guard Ed Sloane. "After our practices, games seem easy. We never get tired."

Practices are held in the Cassell Center, which became headquarters for the university's athletic and recreation programs in 1946. The gym itself has no name. It probably isn't worth the effort. It is so small that when more than a half-dozen spectators sit along the "sidelines,"--an area of no more than two feet between the walls and the actual court --they become an intrusion during practice.

Williams loves it as a practice court. "We don't have to tell anyone they can't watch because it will be a distraction and sound like we're being mean," he said, flashing the grin that girls describe as boyish. "The fact is, there's just no way to get anyone in here who isn't going to be on the court."

Williams is 35, a sharp dresser who walks with his shoulders hunched over, his feet bouncing as if his shoes were too small. He is always moving, talking, figuring his next move. He is a gym rat, always thinking basketball, always looking for a game.

Frailey, his boss, says: "He's so intense, he's a constant headache. But what good coach isn't? I don't send him a Christmas present; I send his wife one."

Gary Williams has always been a worker, a competitor. Growing up in Collingswood, N.J., a Philadelphia suburb, he took up basketball early and then turned to it as an antidote when his parents were divorced just after he turned 13.

"I started playing when I was 5 and it was really the only sport for me. Basketball's the kind of sport you don't like, you love. For me, a big Friday night was skipping out on the dance and finding a court with lights and playing until late.

"When my folks split, it was very traumatic for me. I turned to the game even more. My coach became like a father figure for me. I used to eat at his house almost every day. Without him, I probably wouldn't have gone to college."

Williams was an all-state guard as a senior at Collingswood High School and was recruited by schools like Pittsburgh, Clemson, Furman and Maryland. He desperately wanted to play for one of Philadelphia's "big five" schools, but the only one that recruited him was Pennsylvania and in those days a B-minus student couldn't get into Penn.

So, Williams chose Maryland. That was 1965, and Cole Field House was considered one of the palaces of college basketball. He started for three years, a nonshooting, playmaking guard who once made 15 shots in a row from the field.

By his sophomore year, Williams had figured that a 6-foot guard who wasn't terribly quick and got by mostly on toughness and guile was not going to get rich in the NBA. His major was business administration, but he knew he wanted to be a coach.

Tom Davis was a graduate assistant coach at Maryland then and he liked Williams. When Williams graduated in 1968, he took a job as an assistant coach at Woodrow Wilson high school in Camden, N.J. But before he left, Davis told him, "If I ever get a head coaching job, I'm going to call you."

Three years later, Davis called. He had been hired as head coach at Lafayette and he wanted Williams there as his assistant. There was one catch: because of Lafayette's limited athletic budget, Williams had to be the soccer coach. He knew nothing about soccer.

When Williams wavered, Davis was insistent. Williams took the job. He ended up coaching soccer for six years and he had a winning record. "The kids got me through it," he said, "especially that first year when I was still trying to learn the rules."

When Davis was hired by Boston College in 1977, Williams was tempted to stay behind to become Lafayette's head coach. But he was 31 and wary about following Davis' record--Davis' teams had won more than 70 percent of their games. Williams also wanted more recruiting experience.

A year later, when Lynam left American University to take the coaching job at his alma mater, St. Joseph's, Williams decided to try for the vacancy.

Fraily remembers his thoughts about Williams then: "I wanted a young one and he was certainly that, and he had been at Lafayette, which is similar to us financially and academically, so I knew he would know what he was dealing with. And, I just liked the way he presented himself."

Williams took over a program with one star player, Russell (Boo) Bowers. His first priority was to do something American had not done recently: recruit talent from the local area. Within three years, Nickens and Sloane from Mackin; Juan Jones from McKinley; Andre Adams from Anacostia; Jay Samonsky from DeMatha and Fernando Aunon, from Fairfax's Stuart High School had become part of the program. Some were transfers, players who had left the area, didn't like it away from home and returned. Now, having established a track record, Williams is beginning to get players from the area right out of high school.

"There's no reason why we can't sell this program to local players," Williams said. "They know what AU is, where it is and they know about guys like Kermit Washington (the school's only Division 1 All- American) and Boo. If we can't recruit here, we can't recruit anywhere."

Williams has also recruited his own home area, Philadelphia and its New Jersey suburbs. Austin, the team's spark, is from Linden, N.J. and two of this year's freshmen are from the Philadelphia area.

Williams has not just recruited talent. He has recruited a specific kind of player: quick, willing to work, willing to press full court for an entire game. The university's success last year was predicated on its defense.

"I think we play like he coaches: hard," said Nickens. "We know he expects a lot from us. After a while, though, we expect a lot from us too. We know what we're capable of. We found out last year."

Loach beast year did not start auspiciously. American had been a one-man team Williams' first two years--Bowers averaged 26.9 points a game. The combined record for those two seasons was 27-27--only respectable.

The Eagles opened at Rutgers: a loss. Game two was at Maryland, a big game for Williams. He was back in the building where he had played for three years, on the campus where he had lived for four years. He badly wanted his team to play well against the Terps, ranked No. 4 in the country.

It was a disaster. Bowers, the offensive key for the team, had one of the worst nights of his career, shooting horrendously and scoring just nine points. Buck Williams destroyed the opposition on the boards. By halftime, the Eagles were down by 20 points. It never got closer.

As he walked off the court, Williams' head was spinning. He had never wavered from his run-and-press approach and the result had been a 30- point loss. What to tell the players?

"We expected him to walk in and blow us out," Austin said. "We probably deserved it."

Instead, Williams never raised his voice. His players, used to his chalk-throwing, jacket-tossing moves, were shocked. "I just told them that I thought we had all learned a lot. We went out there and all of us, including me, were awed. They found out, I found out, that was silly. They also found out that I was committed to run-and-press no matter what."

Slowly, the team began to get better. It won the next five games, including a one-point win over Lafayette on a buzzer basket by Bowers, and went into its next big game--at Old Dominion--thinking it could at least compete.

"We thought we could stay on the court with them," Sloane said. "But I don't think we really thought we could win. I remember looking up at the clock and thinking: 'We're still close, pretty good.' Then, towards the end, I looked up and we were still winning. All of a sudden, I thought, 'We can win.' "

They did, 79-75 with Bowers scoring 36 points. The streak was six, a roll. But two games later, late in an easy victory over Delaware, Bowers went down with a twisted knee.

Bowers was to American what Jim Brown was to Cleveland, Earl Campbell to Houston, Bill Russell to the Celtics, Fernando Valenzuela to the Dodgers. The lynchpin. The one player AU could not afford to lose.

Williams had to move Nickens, who had been coming off the bench, into Bowers' spot. The bench was weaker but Nickens, 6 feet 4 inches, a sophomore, reacted to his new role like the understudy who gets his big shot when the star gets sick on opening night.

Without Bowers the team got better. The streak reached 12 before it ended and the night it did was as memorable as any victory. That night, with Ft. Myer packed and rollicking, the Eagles came from 16 points down against Georgetown in the second half before losing 72-70. The comeback began after Williams drew a technical foul for a remarkable, spinning, pirouette that ended with the team's meal money spread all over the court.

"We lost that game but what it did for our confidence was amazing," Williams said. "We had played a top team (Maryland) in December and been blown out. Now, we had played a top team and had a real chance to win the game."

People were beginning to notice the Little-Team-That- Could. There was no one in the starting lineup taller than 6 feet 7 inches, but they made life miserable for the opposition with their press, rebounded like their lives depended on each loose ball and seemed to come up with every clutch play.

The regular season culminated in the Palestra with victories over St. Joseph's and Temple. One columnist described the St. Joseph's game this way: "It was as good a game, as well played, as well coached as any you would like to see. This was basketball the way you want it, the way it should be played."

The Philadelphia victories gave American the East Coast Conference regular season title and a record of 22-4. In the conference tournament, the winner going to the NCAA Tournament, American beat Drexel and Rider to reach a rematch in the final with St. Joe's.

Again, the site was the Palestra. Again, the evening was remarkable. Back and forth the teams went. Lynam had put together a superb team, a big, deep team. But American's quickness kept it close.

"They were as tough a team for us to play as we faced all season before Indiana (in the NCAA final eight)," said Lynam, now an assistant coach with the Portland Trail Blazers. "You don't find a team better coached than American was."

At the finish, though, luck, not coaching, won. The last play for Nickens, with the Eagles trailing 61-60, was just what Williams wanted. "We had the ball in the hands of our best player, he had a good shot," Williams said. "It just didn't go in. Next time though ... next time."

For American, there will likely be a next time. Four players who keyed the team after Bowers was lost--Nickens, Sloane, Austin and Jones --are back and all are just juniors. Four good freshmen, Steve Nesmith, J. D. Springer, Jim Lutz and Jay Samonsky have been added along with 6-foot-8-inch transfer Andre Adams.

The schedule is tougher, though, and the gym will still be cold and dingy. A lot of people have already written off last season. "I pick up preseason magazines and read where people say we were a fluke," Sloane said. "We still feel we have a lot to prove this year. I guarantee you, we'll do it."

American is not a place where guarantees can be made lightly. There is no guarantee the new gym will get built, no guarantee Williams will not be wisked off to a more prestigious program. But everyone at the school, from the students who last year staged a mock groundbreaking for the new gym, up through Berendzen, are convinced American can play with most teams.

"If you look at what we have accomplished and think about how much a new building would mean, I don't see any reason why we can't be one of the top 10 teams in the country sometime in the future," Berendzen said. "I think with the right ingredients, we can compete with almost anyone. It can happen here."