As Dereck Whittenburg observed, the rewards for winning the national college basketball championship keep getting better and better. And yesterday's reward--a meeting with President Reagan at the White House--is the best yet.

Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe, two-thirds of North Carolina State's D.C. Three, joined Coach Jim Valvano in meeting the president at noon. Thurl Bailey missed the greeting because of final exams, but drove to Washington in time to join the others for a luncheon honoring them at the Touchdown Club.

Originally, the entire team was to visit the White House a month ago, shortly after N.C. State beat Houston on April 4 in Albuquerque to win the NCAA title. But the NCAA found problems with the funding of such a trip and would not sanction the visit.

At that time Valvano alone visited the White House, representing the team.

But now, with classes ending, the players drove home and started summer vacation with a limousine-escorted trip to the White House.

"He was with the new soccer team, Team America, when we got there," said Lowe. "So we toured the White House, saw the Oval Office and the library. Then when we saw him, I mean actually met the president, I got a little nervous. You know, he's pretty tall; it seemed like about 6 foot 2. He's pretty athletic looking. We discussed the championship game."

Lowe and Whittenburg were accompanied by Morgan Wootten, their coach at De Matha High School. Wootten gave a copy of a book he wrote to President Reagan, prompting Whittenburg to remark, "In all the time I've known him, he's never given me a copy."

Whittenburg, who met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican several years ago, said, "The president was real nice. I mean, you figure, the president. He doesn't have time for this. But he was on our level. He didn't act like he was busy or anything. He was really nice. It was great."

On the eve of the championship game, it was Bailey, a well-spoken forward from Bladensburg High School, who wished so hard that the District of Columbia would in some way recognize the three if N.C. State went on to win the national championship.

"I never really imagined," Bailey said, "that we'd be in this type of position--to be honored by the people of Washington. But then, you realize you're growing up, getting older. Things happen that you never expected as a child.

"It feels so great to be home."

At the luncheon, Valvano said, "These three people won the national championship. I just went along for the journey."

And after calling Washington his favorite city in the world "other than Albuquerque," Valvano turned philosophical.

"In Raleigh, we've been getting 500 letters a day," he said. "We've got four full-time secretaries who handle the mail. And the overwhelming message we're getting from people is that what we did (winning despite overwhelming odds) restored the ability to hope and the ability to dream."

Valvano told of one letter from an unemployed air traffic controller who had been contemplating suicide, then started following N.C. State through a sometimes unbelieveable string of come-from-behind victories en route to the national championship. The man said in his letter that he learned, again, how to hope and dream . . .

"This is heavy stuff," said Valvano. "Not just 'this is only a game' but heavy stuff. It has forced me to reevaluate the role of sports in American society. These kids have touched this country, and I didn't realize that.

"It's like Oliver Wendell Holmes said--did Holmes say it? Well, if he didn't he should have.

"Holmes said that democracy is like sex. When it's good, it's great. And when it's bad, it's still good.

"Well, that's the way I felt about college basketball this past year. When it was good, it was great. And when it was bad, it was still good."