The Fort Myer gym looks most bleak in the spring. Empty and dimly lit. Cold and impersonal. And, when the wind comes in over the stables, uniquely fragrant for a major college basketball facility. So . . .

"I never did see it till I came here to play," said American University's Gordon Austin, a sophomore point guard from New Jersey. They did show me a couple of pictures, though. They have some real good pitcures of the place."

AU has a better picture of where it would like to play. It must be the only major college in America that has a name for an on-campus arena, that even has broken ground, after a fashion -- and yet has no earthly idea when construction might begin. Perhaps what is playing inside Fort Myer at the moment will be the impetus for the court of AU's dreams.

For anyone who appreciates athletic overachievers, the Eagle basketball team is boundless joy. Nobody in basketball works harder, runs longer or plays with more spirit. Without as gifted a player as most in the country, the injured Boo Bowers, a oneman team of promise has become 10-man team of distinction.

AU could lose for a major reason it has won 18 of 22 games: a gambling, pressing defense the fights for every foot of space, as though Fort Myer were Fort Knox. For mustering more with less, Gary Williams will be the area's coach of the year, although Catholic University's Jack Kvancz might deserve it for somehow surviving catastrophe.

The Eagles' success has once again certified the area's reputation as arguably the best for high school players in the country, capable of being the foundation for major (Georgetown) and near-major winners at home and dozens of others beyond.

"A lot of people said AU couldn't recruit the local players when I came here (three years and two recruiting seasons ago)," said Williams. "But we've go six area players on the team. I'm comfortable here now. (He is a New Jersey native who played three years for Maryland in the mid-'60.)

"It took me two years of really hitting the summer leagues. The thing that's good here is that every (high school) team has a team in a summer league somewhere. So you can get a really good line on who's going to be seniors next year.

"I like that. People say: 'How can you spend your summers at basketball games?' But 'I'd rather do that than go to a movie or a baseball game. To see a young kid develop is special, to see him raw at the start of summer and then see the improvement by the playoffs. You really hve to stay on 'em, especially the big kids."

Or somebody with a large gym or a larger reputation will happen by, not always by accident, and grab the gem William has unearthed.

"That's the only problem with this area," he said. "It is overrecruited. You can fly in here, see four great players in two days and fly right out. (There are) schools that can afford that. Which hurts us a little bit. We've lost players I thought we had a really good shot at because of that McDonald's Classic.

"There must be 100 coaches there -- and all of a sudden they see a kid we've been on all year throw in 20 points in the preliminary game. And he's 6-6. So some Big Ten school will take him, just to get a player. You just have to hang in there."

You have to hang in there and hope a Mark Nickens is unhappy away from home, say at Texas Christian. Or that the star-gazers overlook a Juan Jones or a Ed Sloane. Or be bright enough to realize that a relatively mediocre senior in high school might develop into a productive player in two years or so.

"A lot of things you donht appreciate until you go away," said Nickens, who went from Mackin High to TCU to AU in two years and became eligible this season. "Now I know what to appreciate, and why. This is a real team. We pull as one.

"On the (D.C.) playgrounds (until recently), you didn't hear much about AU. It was just another school. We all knew Kermit (Washington) went there, but that kinda wore off. Lately, it was just another university. But I talked with (assistant coach) Ed Tapscott after I knew TCU wouldn't work out and was pleased."

On a higher level, athletic director Bob Frailey has freustrations similar to Williams. He has an unerring eye for choosing very good coaches. He also knows that without an on-campus court a Williams is not likely to be rivited to AU. So when will the Marc F. Splaver Sports and Convocation Center become a reality?

Not soon.

The enthusiasm among Abe Pollin and AU officials to build a facility after the death of the former AU and Bullet publicist nearly three years ago has waned. Each apparently is dissatisfied with the financing plans of the other. By playing exceptionally well, the team has kept talk of the arena alive; some students have gone a bit farther.

Last week, angered over lack of progress, a few hundred held a mock groundbreaking at the proposed site for the Splaver Center. Nearly everybody dug a bit of earth and about 150 students dug into their pockets and produced symbolic checks for $1 to the office of development.

The Splaver Center and AU basketball have a common thread. Williams was talking about the future of one with a philosophy that applies to both: "You can have the greatest lines, the greatest pep talks ever, but without the right people and the right feeling you're not gonna do it."