Just about everything in the gym at Williamsburg Middle School in Arlington is small. The wood bleachers, which practically infringe on the basketball court's out-of-bounds lines, hold only a few hundred and the crowds, mostly parents, usually are half that. And most of the players, ages 12 to 14, barely approach 6 feet.

Then there is the very notable exception of Peter Prowitt. Six feet six, long arms, boyish smile, skinny as a yo-yo string, with size 17 feet. A 14-year-old amiable giant among teammates Lilliputian by comparison.

He might, literally, be the next big thing, especially judging by the level of recruitment taking place to land Prowitt. Coaches from some of the area's top private high school basketball programs come to watch him play. Few dispute what for many years was taboo at the high school level--that open recruiting is taking place, especially among private schools.

Recruiting has become more prevalent among middle schools over the latter part of the 1990s, many area coaches said. As players develop their skills at younger ages through basketball camps and summer leagues, several coaches said the prospects have increased for finding talented athletes who can make an immediate impact on their programs.

"In the last five years, it [recruiting] has really escalated," said Rob Jackson, executive director of the Potomac Valley Blue Devils Amateur Athletic Union basketball program.

"Early in the '80s, there was very little interest. But in the last three to five years, summer league basketball has taken root in the area and there are a lot of different programs out there. With the expansion of the summer clubs, you're going to expand the number of high school coaches coming out and watching."

Prowitt is among dozens of young players in the Washington area--including his 14-and-under AAU teammates, 6-9 center Roy Hibert, and 6-1 forward Anthony Stowe--who are considered major prospects by area programs.

Among the people watching Prowitt on a Thursday afternoon late last month were O'Connell Coach Joe Wootten and two assistants, each decked in sky-blue sweat suits emblazoned with the school's logo. The coaches were seated one row behind Prowitt's parents, Peter and Nancy.

Minutes after tip-off, it was clear why the O'Connell crew was here. Prowitt had no equal on this floor, scoring 12 points, grabbing nine rebounds and blocking five shots in barely more than a half.

He also displayed a deft shooting touch and passing skills uncommon for a big man. His favorite player is former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson, a 6-9 point guard who redefined his position, so Prowitt's complement of skills makes perfect sense.

Predictably, his team rolled to a 63-19 victory, finishing its regular season 8-0 and Arlington County Middle School champions. Prowitt, however, will continue playing through the spring with the 14-and-under Blue Devils (where he is coached by former NBA star Adrian Dantley). The team plays a 20-game schedule, mostly AAU tournaments held in cities along the East Coast.

"The most attractive thing about him is that he could be a 6-10 center with great hands and touch around the basket," said Matt Carlin, coach at Potomac School, another of the schools trying to land him (last summer Prowitt attended camp at the McLean school). "At his position, he could be a tremendous player. There are too few good centers in the game today."

Prowitt has narrowed his choices to three--O'Connell, Gonzaga and Potomac School. "He's a great young player," Wootten said before leaving Williamsburg at halftime. "He runs the floor well, passes the ball as much as he shoots and encourages his teammates with slaps on the back. I would love to see him come to O'Connell. He would be great to have."

Wootten's remarks are all the more striking when, just a few years ago, a private school would not have even acknowledged that it actively recruits.

Public school coaches long have complained that their private school counterparts hold an advantage because they are not bound to players who live in their school districts, while public schools must choose from students who walk through the door.

Today, for some private schools, recruiting has become a matter of maintaining enrollment at a time when it has declined for many over the past decade, according to school administrators.

"We don't like to recruit, but we recruit to stay in business," said Jerry Radford, athletic director at Gonzaga. "We go out to every eighth-grade class in the area to make our sales pitch to show that academics and sports can coexist."

The interest of Wootten, in his first year at the Arlington school, in Prowitt is explained by his need for that one player around which to build a program. The son of Morgan Wootten--who, at DeMatha, has become high school basketball's all-time winningest coach--Joe Wootten has aspirations of building a program similar to his father's.

Joe Wootten said his efforts to land Prowitt are part of the school's effort to recruit excellent students. Prowitt is an honors student who, through the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Academic Advancement of Youth Mathematics and Verbal Talent Search, already has taken the Scholastic Assessment Test. He scored 1,000, although he is only 14).

"We call it recruiting when we do it for regular students," Wootten said. "People have a tendency to equate negativity to recruiting when it comes to athletics. . . I don't think it gets out of control. Technically, it's student recruiting. I look at it as opening someone's eyes to O'Connell."

Wootten and Radford are quick to point out that the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, of which Gonzaga and O'Connell are members, has rules governing the recruiting of players to high schools. WCAC Commissioner Bob Hardage said that no coaches or parents have filed formal complaints with the WCAC over the recruiting of a player since he became commissioner eight years ago.

Under WCAC rules, school administrators who contact a student "may not induce that student in any way to apply for the purpose of the student's participation in athletics." Coaches cannot visit prospective athletes at their homes and financial aid can be granted only on a need basis.

"There is a right way and a wrong way to recruit," Hardage said. "You have to impress what you can offer in education and what they can achieve in play. The private schools have to fill up those seats. If they figure on 600 youngsters, they have to find 600 youngsters."

Recently at O'Connell, Prowitt was brought into the Knights' gym, where cheerleaders had drawn up a sign that read, "Welcome Peter Prowitt." Pitches aside, Prowitt's choice could hinge as much on academics as basketball.

"He's too modest to tell you that he's a good student and likes art as much as basketball," said Nancy Prowitt, a lobbyist with Alcalde & Fay in Arlington. She is 6 feet tall; her husband, who works in government relations for General Electric, is 6-5.

But it is basketball for which Peter Prowitt has been sought since the sixth grade. His parents got their first taste of recruiting when their son was approached to play for the Blue Devils while playing for another AAU team.

"It's funny," Nancy Prowitt said. "All this recruitment starts on the AAU level. But we're cognizant of not creating a spoiled athlete. It is about carefully considering where he is going to be happiest with basketball, academics and socially."

So before the Prowitts were besieged by high schools, the family narrowed his choices to three schools. He has visited each and has filled out application forms, and is waiting for letters of acceptance. Prowitt is flattered with the attention he has received from area coaches who want him to join their teams. When he knows scouts are in the stands, he said, "I'm always thinking about playing better."

He said he intends to make his decision about where he will attend high school on his own time. But he has had a relationship with the head coaches at all three schools, having attended summer camps or clinics run by them over the past several years. "It is a decision that I will make with my parents, unhindered by people out of the family," he said.

Prowitt has been honing his skills since he was a 5-4 third-grader. "Obviously, since I was so tall at a young age, people kind of pushed me into basketball," he said. "I would love to go with basketball as far as I can.

He continued: "It's weird sometimes being so tall. Whenever I look at myself as I pass by a window at school, it's hard to be normal. But people begin to accept you."

He still is growing into his body, sometimes lacking the coordination and agility that some much shorter teammates possess. Although Prowitt plays for one of the region's top AAU teams, Dantley does not start him. And area coaches who are heavily pursuing Prowitt aren't promising that he will play varsity as a freshman.

"I would never make such a promise to a recruit," Gonzaga Coach Dick Myers said. "You just don't know about kids. Some can be unpredictable. The one thing about Peter is when he does learn and gain the confidence to execute and take care of the ball, anything could be possible."

O'Connell assistant George Sumner, a longtime AAU coach, has tutored Prowitt the past two summers at O'Connell summer camps. Sumner knows that the same trait that leads to Prowitt's awkwardness might be his greatest asset.

"He has a good fundamental base with which he'll be able to go into someone's high school program already ahead of the game," Sumner said. "Obviously, he has one commodity that lots of coaches can't teach: size."

CAPTION: Peter Prowitt, at 6 feet 6 and 14 years old, towers above teammates at Williamsburg Middle School in Arlington. Talented young players such as Prowitt increasingly are being recruited by high schools.

CAPTION: "He could be a 6-10 center with great hands and touch around the basket," says one local high school coach who is recruiting Peter Prowitt.