The American University basketball coach, the story goes, had shown the recruit nearly every point of interest on the Northwest Washington campus. When they finally approached a giant construction site, the coach pointed and said, "Before you graduate, that will be our new gym and people will be packing the place to see you play."

The punchline of the story, which is more than a decade old: the coach was showing the recruit the site of the school's new library.

As of Saturday, however, American University coaches will no longer have to recruit on the basis of 40 years worth of blueprints, dreams and quick talk. They will be able to walk recruits into the 5,000-seat Bender Arena, the focal point of the $20 million Adnan Khashoggi Sports and Convocation Center that dominates the middle of the campus.

Saturday's 7 p.m. basketball game against James Madison University ends a nomadic existence for the Eagles, who recently played their last home game at the often chilly Fort Myer gym in Arlington.

The opening of the new sports complex is also seen as the start of a revitalization of an athletic program that broke the discrimination line among major area college basketball programs in 1957. American has long struggled for a share of attention among local colleges and universities, some of them with national reputations and all of them with home arenas.

"I think playing at Fort Myer hurt our program in that people always threw that at the kids we were trying to recruit," said Bob Frailey, who retired last year after 39 years at the school, including 25 as athletic director. "It hurt us trying to form a league because no one wanted to play there. We used to play Syracuse and St. John's, but we held onto those games because of friendships, and eventually even those were not enough."

Frailey said he had seen four sets of plans for proposed field houses, dating to the post-World War II era.

"Athletics is just the tip of the iceberg," said Frailey. "Ninety percent of the building will be for nonintercollegiate sports. This will change the whole school. All the other good ingredients for recruiting were already here, and I don't think there is any question major schools will be willing to come and play us now -- if nothing else, to expose themselves to the Washington-area recruiting market.

"And something like this will bring out alumni that have never been interested in the program, and that in turn leads to things like donations."

Those unfamiliar with American University often know of only one incident involving a former Eagles star. The most famous athlete in the school's history, Kermit Washington, threw a punch in a professional basketball game that shattered the face of Rudy Tomjanovich.

Sometimes forgotten is that Washington is still among an elite handful of basketball players who have averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds per game for one season.

Those familiar with the program know American has been a springboard for coaches such as Gary Williams, currently at Ohio State; Jim Lynam, former head coach of the NBA Clippers and now an assistant with the 76ers; ex-Rutgers and current Old Dominion Coach Tom Young and Dr. Tom Davis, a former American assistant who is now coach at Iowa. Five other former players have gone on to become college or professional coaches.

Many have the impression the history of Eagles basketball began when Young took over in 1969-70 and recruited Washington, who was not even a high school star.

But there was basketball at American well before then. In fact, not only was it good basketball, it was precedent-setting. Civil Rights Step

Staff (Pop) Cassell, the head coach for 11 years between 1937 and 1952 (he did not coach for four years during World War II), had a good friend who owned one of the first professional basketball teams. Every day at noon, at what was then known as Leonard Gymnasium and now bears the late Cassell's name, the gym would be closed to students to allow the Washington Caps to scrimmage against the Eagles.

Cassell's friend was Red Auerbach.

It was in 1957 that the university struck a blow for civil rights. Coach Dave Carrasco, at the urging of then-university president Hurst Anderson, brought in Dickie Wells and Wil Jones. They were the first two blacks to play basketball at a major, predominantly white Washington university.

"I think one reason American was first was that it is a Methodist university and president Anderson had been involved in a lot of church work," said Carrasco, now head of the El Paso, Tex., Job Corps program. "What we did was monumental, but I think improving the basketball team was also an important consideration."

During the three years of Jones, Wells, Eddie Clements and Blanton McDonald, the Eagles were 64-18 and went to the small college national tournament three straight times. Jones, who is now head coach at the University of the District of Columbia, set a number of school records, including the still existing single-game record of 54 points against Evansville in a 101-91 tournament loss in 1960.

The success came with a price: discrimination against the Eagles. A trip to New Orleans that would have opened the first integrated AU season was cancelled by host Loyola. AU players were often taunted by fans and players of American's Mason-Dixon Conference opponents.

"We knew it was going to be an impact situation, but I had no idea it was going to be like it was," said Jones. "When I was growing up in Washington, we just didn't go across 13th Street because that was our side. It wasn't until I got into this thing that I ever felt what integration was all about."

Perhaps the worst incident occurred in a victory at Roanoke College.

"I'll never forget it," said Jones. "The whole game they were singing 'Bye Bye Blackbird' and I scored 44 points."

The real trouble began after the game.

"There was a pool near the locker room, and our players were so happy they all jumped in to celebrate," said Carrasco. "But in those days, blacks did not go into white pools. One of the school's administrators ran up to me and said, 'Your niggers are in our pool. What are you going to do about it?' I told him to follow me and went down to the pool and, with all my clothes on, I jumped in with them."

Jones made another contribution to the school's basketball history.

"It was Kermit's first year there," said Jones, who is 5 feet 11. "I came back for an alumni game and scored 46 points against him. After the game, I told him, 'Don't worry. I've done that to a lot of people.' I think it was right after that that he started running those stairs and building himself up."

Before Young and Washington came to AU, the Eagles featured one of the first black 7-foot collegiate stars, Art Beatty, a graduate of McKinley Tech. Beatty twice led the nation in rebounding and went on to be drafted by teams in both the NBA and ABA in 1969.

Washington and Young completed their careers at AU in 1973, highlighted by the Eagles' first appearance in the NIT and Washington being named first-team all-America, the first D.C. player to earn the honor. The Los Angeles Lakers made Washington the fourth selection in the NBA draft.

"Kermit was our first recruit, but no one knew how good he could be," said Young, who watched the former Coolidge High School quarterback/basketball bench sitter try out for a spring all-star game. "He did more to get the program going in the right direction."

When Young left, he was replaced by Lynam, who in five years coached AU to the East Coast Conference championship.

"We totally destroyed the myth AU couldn't beat the Philadelphia schools. We beat La Salle, Temple and St. Joseph's," said Wilbur Thomas, a former All-Met at Roosevelt High and a four-year star at AU. A 24-5 Record

American's basketball program continued to rise when Williams arrived and proceeded to lead the Eagles to two NIT performances and one of the top regular-season records in the country in 1980-8l at 24-5.

"Our team was a bunch of people who were good players, but maybe their size wasn't exactly what you wanted," said Williams. "They were very effective. The major disappointment was not making the NCAA tournament. That year, they still only selected 32 teams."

Williams left in 1982 and was replaced by Ed Tapscott, who has struggled to maintain the program's excellence in the face of growing recruiting pressures and a stronger schedule that includes playing in the Colonial Athletic Association.

"The biggest impact {of the new arena will be} in recruiting," said Tapscott. "It will be eliminated as a recuiting negative. It makes us competitive with our conference and schools in the area.

"It gives us a gym to show, guarantees a greater participation in the {basketball} program by fans, students and the university community and improves our facilities which support the program."

"AU has been lucky to get good players and coaches, but the building is necessary to take the program another step forward," said Kermit Washington. "Of course, if they had the building before, they would have been getting better players and I might have been overlooked."

Right now, AU would love another Kermit Washington to go along with its new building.