Ever since the 1950s, when Elgin Baylor began making playground basketball a local obsession here, college coaches nationwide have sought Washington-area players to help build their programs.

And, in the wake of N.C. State's being led to the national championship by three Washington-area players, chances are that many schools will put a bigger premium than ever on recruiting here.

There are 131 area athletes playing Division I college basketball. The metropolitan area has become such a fertile recruiting ground that coaches from Oklahoma to Athens, Ohio, are relying on the talent.

In a Washington Post survey last week of all 274 Division I schools, it was found that 57 teams have at least one player from the Washington area, and 21 have two or more.

Consider St. Francis (Pa.) Coach Dave Magarity, who said he told one of his assistants last week: "Why should we keep bumping our heads against the wall by going to Pittsburgh, Philly and New York? Let's jump on Rte. 70 down to Washington and just live there. If we need four kids, get 'em from the D.C. area. They're better prepared to play basketball than almost anybody and they have less trouble academically."

Said Magarity last week: "They've got enough quality players in Washington to support a number of programs." Five Washington-area players were on the St. Francis roster last season.

"I think more recruiters will flock here hoping to get another Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg or Thurl Bailey," said Joe Davidson, coach at Dunbar High School, referring to the three area players starting for N.C. State. "This area has long been declared rich in basketball talent and the entire area profits in a situation like this."

Gene Doane, coach at Seneca Valley and other local high schools for the last 23 years, said, "The success of Lowe and the other guys might not bring in any other Division I coaches because they've saturated this area for years, anyway. What will happen, though, is that the Division II and III schools will intensify their efforts in recruiting here. Many have neglected to come here for financial reasons, but I think many may change their mode of thinking and come here first."

What do the recruiters see in the Washington area that they don't see elsewhere?

Out-of-town coaches surveyed cite a number of things, including some as simple as cheap air fares and airport accessibility.

"If you want to recruit a kid in West Virginia, you have to fly into Pittsburgh, then drive for an hour and a half, and he might be the only kid there you're interested in," said Tom Young, a former coach at American University who had five Washington-area players on his Rutgers team this season.

"But in Washington," Young said, "you land in the middle of the city. You can look at several players there in one day, then you're within a half-hour drive from suburban Virginia and suburban Maryland where there may be 10 or 12 more outstanding players."

"D.C. is centrally located," said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. "Coaches from the North feel they can recruit there because it isn't too far away, and coaches from the South feel the same way."

Krzyzewski and most of the other coaches are quick to point out that what really attracts them to Washington is the talent and the level of play, one reason they also concentrate on players from New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. It is a level of play that started with Baylor, progressed through the '60s with Austin Carr and Dave Bing, was refined in the '70s with the summer leagues and Adrian Dantley, and has taken another step in the '80s with the national-championship appearance of Georgetown last year and N.C. State's title this year.

"What happens," said Johnny Dawkins, formerly of Mackin High School and now at Duke, "is your father or brother or somebody knew Baylor, played with Dantley or is in some way connected with the tradition. The foundation is already there. And you wind up making sure you try to keep up the tradition without realizing it. It's important to almost all the kids in D.C. It's a question of manhood. It's basketball or bust."

Young said simply: "The Washington area has more quality players per square mile than any city in the country."

Coaches like Danny Nee of Ohio University in Athens (who has three players from Washington in Athens) say success leads to success. "They've got coaches like Morgan Wootten (at De Matha), Joe Davidson and Joe Gallagher (St. John's) who set a standard many years ago," he said. "By the time they get to the college level, you don't have to reteach them fundamentals. They come equipped with certain basics."

"The high schools and summer leagues are amazingly organized," said Krzyzewski. "Those guys you mentioned are not November-through-March coaches. They're year-round. You ask a kid from the Catholic League what his plans are for the summer and he'll tell you, 'I'm playing in Jelleff, Sidwell Friends and the Urban Coalition.' I don't see that organization in other cities. And it certainly begins with the coaches up there. They're so knowledgeable."

Red Jenkins, coach at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, agrees, then credits Wootten for setting the tone at De Matha 27 years ago.

"Morgan beats it in his kids' heads that they can't lose," Jenkins said. "Take Whittenburg and Lowe. There are kids with more talent than them, but they've got more guts than two burglars. Morgan does that and we have to chase him.

"He's our psychological leader. He's forced the other coaches to keep up, and as a result, it's created some very well-prepared players going into college. I know of no area where high school coaches are as prepared as in the D.C. area."

Jenkins tells the story of a young Thurl Bailey, who wasn't an outstanding prospect at Bladensburg High School after his junior year. "Thurl wasn't a great player," said Jenkins. "But because he was from an area with great pride, with great tradition, he worked with coaches and learned."

On a typical summer evening at the Jelleff or Sidwell Friends summer league games, you might see Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps, Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano of N.C. State, Young, plus local coaches like John Thompson of Georgetown and Lefty Driesell of Maryland (or their assistants) evaluating talent.

Dawkins, who played in the Jelleff league for three summers, remembers playing before some of the biggest names in coaching.

"You'd look up and see maybe 15 assistant coaches and head coaches," Dawkins said yesterday. "You'd spot them because they were the only people with clipboards. And you always wondered if they noticed you."

In addition to the 131 players in Division I, at least that many play in divisions II and III and at NAIA schools.

Some middle- and lower-level Division I schools recruit only the third- and fourth-best players on a high school team here.

"(They) are often better than the best player in some hick place where the kid is averaging 40 points a game and the high school coach is trying to tell the kid and you he's the next Pete Maravich," said Magarity.

"We've done very well with the second-, third- and fourth-best players on a team. We've got Jeff Hamilton from Spingarn, who they said was too small at 6-foot-4 to play forward. He's done well here, and he has a 3.0 academically."

So Jenkins sits back and awaits an influx of college recruiters. "Recently," he said, "there were some guys in town from junior colleges in Laredo, Tex., and Laramie, Wyo.

"Do I expect more recruiters trying to find the next Bailey, Whittenburg and Lowe? Absolutely."