Ray Meyer, the De Paul basketball coach, was sitting in his Chicago office on a gray day last January when his telephone rang. The caller was Dicky Beal, a 5-foot-11 whiz kid guard at a Covington, Ky., high school.

"Coach," Beal said, "I want to come to De Paul next season. I want to commit now."

Meyer was delighted. Beal was just the quick point guard he wanted for the 1980-81 season. Meyer called in his son Joey, his top recruiter, and gave him the good news.

"When Dicky committed to us," Joey Meyer recalls, "we stopped recruiting point guards. We told the others that we had Dicky Beal. When a kid makes a verbal commitment to you, it isn't just one way. You make a commitment to him, too. We stopped recruiting at his position because we figured he would be playing it for us."

But Beal will be at Kentucky next season.

Did Kentucky steal Beal from De Paul? Or did Beal, as Leonard Hamilton, a Kentucky assistant coach, contends, change his mind and call Kentucky?

Some sources say that Kentucky, Georgia and Cincinnati recruited Beal after he had announced for De Paul. Hamilton says he never called Beal after Beal told him he was going to De Paul. He says Beal called him.

The De Paul people feel betrayed, the Kentucky people justified. "One coach (not at Kentucky) told me that Beal announcing for us just made us a target to shoot at," Joey Meyer said. "He made no bones about the fact that they kept recruiting him."

Therein lies the basic problem. If one school doesn't respect a player's word, other don't either. And, if a school which thinks it has a player loses him, it is apt to make a last-minute move for another committed player to recoup its losses. High school players frequently change their minds. "You would be amazed the number of times that happens to us every year," Hamilton says.

Rarely do players call press conferences -- such as Beal did -- to announce they will attend one school and then change their minds. But recruit stealing -- recruiting a player after he has verbally committed himself, but before he signs a letter of intent -- is commonplace.

Ask almost any coach and you'll get the same answer: "Everyone does it. Whatever we get an early commitment from a player we have to stay on him because we know people are going to come after him. But we don't try to steal recruits. If a kid tels us he's going somewhere else, we write him a letter wishing him luck.It's over."

After that speech, the coach might add, "and if you believe that, I've got some waterfront property on the Mojave Desert I'd like to sell you."

The problem generally arises when a highly recruited player decides too early.No player can sign a national letter of intent before the second week in April. But because recruiting is so intense, players announce their intentions as early as September to get recruiters off their backs. Rarely do they accomplish that.

"I think they ought to allow a kid to sign a letter of intent any time he wants to," Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell says. "If he wants to sign July 1, let him. That would eliminate a lot of the game-playing, I think. If a guy signs, he signs. That's it."

Others, such as Joey Meyer and North Carolina's chief recruiter Eddie Fogler, agree with Driesell. But some see problems with that concept.

"You do that and people are going to be going full blast recruiting kids during their junior years and even into their sophomore years," South Carolina assistant Bob Wenzel says. "This isn't a problem with one solution. If you plug the dike in one place, you're going to create a leak someplace else."

Three years ago, Wenzel was involved in a highly publicized recruiting incident. Then an assistant at Duke, he and his boss Bill Foster got a verbal commitment from Eugene Banks on Feb. 7. Banks called a press conference and said he was going to Duke.

However, several schools, notably Notre Dame, continued to recruit Banks. The Notre Dame coaches said Banks contacted them.

The situation came to a head at the D.C. Armory in March during the Knights of Columbus tournament. Irish Coach Digger Phelps, with Wenzel standing a few feet away, showed up with former Irish stars Collis Jones, Sid Catlett and Bob Whitmore.

While Wenzel watched, visibly struggling to control himself, the Notre Dame quartet talked to Banks about the school.

When they were finished, Wenzel took Banks aside. "You okay?" he said.

"Sure, Coach," Banks answered. "I'm fine. You're the one that looks sick."

Three years later, Wenzel is philosophical about the incident. "It goes with the territory," he said. "You recruit a Gene Banks and you know it's going to be war to the very end."

Hamilton, who says Kentucky loses verbally committed players every year, agrees with Wenzel. "Once, I asked another coach if he was still recruiting a youngster we had a commitment from," Hamilton says. "He said, 'Sure I am, what do you expect me to do, quit? Give up? I've got a job to do.' That's the way I look at it. These guys have a job to do, just like me."

Georgetown Coach John Thompson does not think coaches who end up with players committed elsewhere should be vilified.

"If a girl on the street wants to be flirted with, she will be flirted with," Thompson said. "If she doesn't want anyone messing with her, no one will mess with her.

"It's the same with basketball players. If they're being flirted with it's because they want to be flirted with. The responsibility lies with the kid and with his parents.

"The NCAA can't legislate honesty anyway. Any rule they make someone will find a way around it."

Georgetown is one of the few remaining schools outside the Ivy League that does not honor (or ask recruits to sign) the national letter of intent. "I don't believe you can ask a kid to put in writing that he's going to play for you 100 percent," Thompson said. "That's in the heart. I'd rather lose a kid than have him sign something and be forced to go to Georgetown when he wanted to go somewhere else.

"People say I'm at a disadvantage because I don't get kids we recruit to sign a letter. But that also means that if I want to I can recruit a kid who has signed a letter elsewhere."

Asked if he did that, Thompson answered, "none of your business."

Most coaches at large schools favor alowing athletes to sign letters of intent whenever they want to.

But some coaches say that would hurt smaller schools.

"Schools on our level can't afford to be running around the country in July and August," Catholic Coach Jack Kvancz says. "We're still trying to find out what our budgets are then. The big schools can go out then and have several kids locked up before the season starts. They do it now, verbally anyway.

"I think it would be a great idea to let kids visit anyplace until they finish playing their senior seasons. Then, when they visit, let him play against guys on that team. Some of the players in the second echelon might find out that they can't play at UCLA, or at Notre Dame or at Kentucky.

"That way some kids who go to big schools and sit might go to a smaller school and play."

Conversely, Kentucky's Hamilton favors a deadline for campus visits. An athlete can visit six schools any time during his senior year.

"Why not cut it off on Jan. 1 and then let youngsters sign starting Jan. 15?" Hamilton says. "That way if I'm recruiting someone and by Jan. 1 he hasn't visited Kentucky I know I can't sign him. That would cut down on a lot of problems. Everyone would know where they stand earlier."

Driesell would like a deadline on the letter of intent. "If a kid wants a basketball scholarship he should have to sign by April 15 or something?" Driesell said. "Let the basketball players have to make their minds up at about the same time as all other high school students do.That way you wouldn't have these things dragging into June" (as Albert King did).

Driesell has been involved in two of the better-known cases of recruit-stealing in his 20-year career. In 1966, while at Davidson, Driesell thought hehad Charlie Scott. Scott applied for early admission at Davidson and was accepted.

But there was no letter of intent in those days and Scott visited other schools.

In April, Scott told Driesell he was going to North Carolina. What did Driesell do? "I recruited him all summer long," he remembers.

Four years later Driesell turned the tables on Dean Smith. Smith believe he had Tom McMillen when the 6-11 Pennsylvanian signed a letter of intent. But McMillen's parents wanted him closer to home and refused to sign the letter. Driesell continued recruiting McMillen. In September, McMillen showed up in College Park. r

"As long as college basketball is played in big arenas and as long as coaches are hired and fired based on winning and losing, people are going to play games in recruiting," Wenzel says. "Is it fair to the high school kid to create a situation where he's recruited as a junior? Or is it fairer to do that and let him make a decision sooner and get it over with? Who knows?"

"All you can do is try and adapt to the rules, whatever they happen to be," Joey Meyer says. "We thought we had Dicky Beal. Next year we'll think twice if a kid wants to commit early. We'll think about what went wrong this year and try not to let it happen again.

"Losing Dicky was a tough experience. But I just put it down as a recruiting experience and go on to the next kid."

Hamilton also put the Beal affair down as a recruiting experience. "Maybe it's because I've been through it so many times on the other side that I don't see it as a big deal," he says. "People say that Dicky's father had a lot to do with him changing his mind. I only talked to his father once and that was to say hello at a game."

Perhaps Thompson makes the critical point when he notes that recruiting has gone too far in an ultracompetitive era.

"Kids are being recruited way out of proportion to their ability," he says. "They start thinking they're better than they are and don't work like they should.

"In the end, recruiting is like fool's gold anyway. A kid can be contacted by 100 schools. He can travel and visit all he wants. But in the end he can choose only one school. That's all. Just one."

But some, like Dicky Beal, choose one, then are pressured to choose another.

"It doesn't happen that often," Driesell says. "But when it happens to you, you feel burned. It hurts, it hurts bad."

"But," he adds, "it can work both ways."

And the vicious circle continues.