The ball squirts from Scott Bishop's hands and bounces at his feet. Gangly, surprised, the junior center from W.T. Woodson High School grabs vainly through a flurry of quicker hands. The ball skitters toward midcourt, both teams tearing after it, sneakers pounding on the shiny gym floor.

Greg Ward, the whippet-quick point guard from T.C. Williams, breaks from the pack, seizes the ball at the top of the key and lifts off near the foul line. At the top of his leap he reaches high, lays the ball gently off the glass backboard and spins to watch it swell the skirt of the net.

This is as good a place as any to freeze the action, with Ward still hanging in the air, the score tied at 34 and about four minutes remaining in the third quarter. In another era the image would take root in a thousand memories. In the '70s and even the early '80s, Woodson and Williams almost never got together unless there was a championship on the line. The gyms were filled then with fans and college scouts and half-crazed parents screaming at the referees.

But when Greg Ward lands he hears only faint cheering. There are about 115 people in the Williams gymnasium counting the junior varsity teams -- and the cheerleaders. He is a hero without portfolio.

This is a new role for a sports star. Americans have idolized the high school jock. We have "Rabbit, Run" and a library of boys' books to prove it. But in some places, such as the Washington suburbs, his fortunes are in decline.

High school basketball no longer means what it did in the days of the neighborhood school, when maybe the point guard's father sold you insurance and the leading scorer's mother ran the summer bazaar and everyone was tied to everyone else through a network of mutual acquaintances. Today's suburban school districts are half a county wide and everybody's parents commute half an hour to work.

But if big games and star players no longer galvanize communities, high school athletics remains an atmosphere in which a lot of growing up gets done. And the Woodson-Williams game offers a chance to watch two very different sets of young men struggle with the issues of maturity.

The Roy Rogers on King Street in Alexandria is under occupation by the varsity basketball team and cheerleaders from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax. Longhaired girls in short pleated white skirts jam the line at the cash register. Boys in blazers and rep stripe ties are crowded into plastic chairs having their way with bacon double cheeseburgers.

High school students, particularly in groups, have a knack for transforming even the most mundane surroundings into significant places. The gravity with which they regard their lives seeps somehow into the atmosphere. All the restaurant is a stage.

"That'll be $60," says a man wearing a funny hat to a cheerleader holding a hot cup of tea.

"Sixty dollars!" She is playing her ironic indignation to the hilt. "Well I just don't know."

At a booth in the corner Ryan Hickey and Chris Brown are tinkering with the inside of a Walkman. Hickey is intense but ingratiating, a short, muscular sophomore guard. Brown is warm but shy, a tall junior forward who has not yet grown into his body.

These are children of privilege. Woodson is one of the two or three most affluent public schools in the metropolitan area. The student body now is almost entirely white, the parents almost uniformly prosperous. Just look at the developments where the school bus stops: Springbrook Forest. Canterbury Woods. Silverbrook. Sutton Place. Woods of Ilda.

Woodson kids have traveled abroad. The juniors are already visiting college campuses in New England and the South. It doesn't figure that pregame fried chicken in an Alexandria shopping center would inspire such happy chatter.

But there is something about being on a team that makes it easy to be convivial, especially with teammates. And there is nothing like a road trip to confer that sense of belonging to an exclusive club. This is an experience that nonathletes don't have and their lives are different because of it.

Playing high school basketball means practicing two or three hours a day, five or six days a week. It means scrimping on either studies, sleep or social life. The perks, however, are impressive. Instant respect from most of your peers, self-confidence, a certain cachet with members of the opposite sex.

Cliques are groups that have agreed to be unique in the same way, and a team is the ultimate clique. Being on the team satisfies a psychic requirement -- to be involved yet separate at the same time. There is no reason a feathery jump shot should be more valuable than a way with words or a head for figures. But try explaining that to a high school class.

Just after 6 o'clock, Red Jenkins, who has coached basketball at Woodson for as long as there has been a Woodson, spreads the word that it is time to board the bus. A couple of blocks down King Street stands T.C. Williams High School, home of tonight's opponent, the Titans. Coach Jenkins is suffering through a miserable season, but an upset over Williams would give him his 400th victory as coach of the Cavaliers. That, at least, would be something to celebrate with the other coaches who meet him for pizza and beer at the Red Derby.

The junior varsity game is underway in the T.C. Williams gymnasium. In the stands, about five rows behind the Titans bench, Greg Ward is leaning against Kevin Brim, who is leaning against Jay Carr, who in turn is leaning back against Brim. The trio of seniors constitutes three-fifths of T.C. Williams' starting lineup. Brim repeats the word "nobody" over and over until the trio is laughing so hard they can barely support each other. The joke is buried so thoroughly within their own network of references that it is useless to attempt an explanation.

"They tend to be very tight-knit on the basketball team," says Richard Powell, who teaches accounting at T.C. Williams. "They tend to look out for each other."

Stacy Coleman, a junior guard and the team's leading scorer, sits off to one side, says the word "nobody" a few times himself. He doesn't laugh so hard. His right leg is stretched on the bench beside him and his ankle is wrapped in ice. He's missed the last two games, but wants badly to play tonight.

"I feel like a different person when I'm playing basketball," he says. "I feel like I do it better than anything in the world."

On the seat beside him sits a garment once referred to as a varsity letter jacket. The letters say "L.L." on one sleeve, "Cool J." on the other and "Fashion Club" on the back. It is at once rap and retro. Confused, but cool.

The guys are not wearing what you would call their game faces. Woodson is fifth in its six-team district. Williams is second but has no chance of catching Lake Braddock, a regional powerhouse. Given that it's a Tuesday night, they aren't expecting much of a crowd.

The tiny turnout at Williams games may also have something to do with ethnic and racial divisions within the school. The 2,300-member student body is roughly 40 percent black, 40 percent white and 20 percent Hispanic, Asian and other minorities. De facto segregation on the athletic teams seems to help determine what kids support which sports. The crew team, for instance, is primarily white, the football team primarily black. There are no white kids on the varsity basketball squad.

Students say the divisions cause little tension. "Blacks mix with whites at parties," Coleman says. "I think everybody knows where everybody else is coming from."

Mike Hynson, the varsity basketball coach, is 47, and a home-town guy. He attended Hammond High School in Alexandria when there were only two black kids in the entire school. After a few years in his family's sporting goods business, he found his way into coaching. It was more than just a matter of diagraming plays on a blackboard and figuring out ways to get your best shooter open for the 10-foot jumper.

"In 1971 {when Williams merged with Parker-Gray, which was primarily black} they had a lot of racial problems that carried on for a couple of years," Hynson says. He saw the tension up close, not only in his own school, but when he took his all-black basketball team on the road. "At one time I think we intimidated people, being black," he says. "That was worth at least 10 points."

But the notion that Williams was a tough school has outlived the reality. "People overreact to the stigma of T.C. Williams," says Hynson. "A lot of people look at it as a die-hard black inner-city school that is really rough," Hynson says. "When I went to get these new glasses the guy said to me, 'You teach at T.C. Williams? Do you carry a gun?' This is one of the mildest places."

The jayvee teams are pounding up and down the court, deep into their second quarter, when the Woodson varsity, Walkmen in place, file into the gym, climb the bleachers and settle in to affect disaffection. Because high school kids are expert at collecting the currency of cool, the tiny cassette player has become a favorite item among local basketball players. It puts a high-tech spin on the "admire but don't intrude" message once sent by a pair of dark glasses. This is a bonus that comes with athletic skill; people will pay attention to you without you paying attention to them.

"Everyone gets to know you if you're on the basketball team," says Greg Ward. "When you walk down the hall people talk to you about the game last night. We get invited to parties. People make sure they tell the basketball team what they are doing that weekend."

"It helps with the ladies and everybody knows that's a good feeling," Coleman says.

Woodson players reap the same reward. "You get respect from your peers," says Darin Gleason, a junior forward.

Some of Woodson's jocks and cheerleaders constitute a clique called "The Lobby Group," named for where they hang out between periods. Earlier this year a group of seniors, some of them jocks, printed up T-shirts to let everyone know they were "Team Cool."

Lenny Silvia, a junior swingman, wasn't on that Team, but he knows the advantages of being a ballplayer. "I like everything that goes with it," he says.

But what exactly does go with it?

A ballplayer's experience at Williams is different from the experience at Woodson in much of the same ways that black Alexandria is different from white Fairfax County.

Ninety percent of Woodson's students go on to college. The emphasis on upward mobility and academic excellence means that sports plays a secondary role in most of their lives.

"I'm sure in later life that managing basketball and studies teaches you how to have more responsibility," says Darin Gleason. The idea seems to be that being a very busy adolescent prepares them to be what their parents are, very busy adults.

"The main problem here is pressure about which college they are going to get into and is it high enough to satisfy their parents' desires and is it high enough to satisfy their desires," Red Jenkins says.

"They get crushed when these letters of acceptances start flying around," says Bernie Thompson, a special projects teacher at Woodson. "A lot of them are afraid to tell people they are going to George Mason or Virginia Tech. Good schools, but they are embarrassed. It's a two-edged sword, these high expectations."

Gleason has already visited Harvard, Dartmouth and the University of Virginia. Chris Brown plans to see a few schools sometime around Easter.

"I guess it gets pretty competitive," Brown says. "U-Va. doesn't take a lot of people all from the same area. Even if everyone from Woodson was qualified, we wouldn't all get in."

Woodson kids say they play the game because they love it. Their parents take a somewhat longer view. Terry Gleason, Darin's father, sees basketball as a character builder. "The disappointments, the effort, the rewards all help to develop a young man to be an adult," he says.

For athletes at T.C. Williams, basketball fulfills more immediate needs. "It's something to keep him out of trouble, to keep them motivated," says Clara Carr, who attends all of her son Jay's games. "I look at it as a reason to get good grades, something to stay out of trouble and to get a scholarship. He's got so much interest in it. It would be a shame to throw his talent away."

Williams sends about 70 percent of its kids on to college. The elusive scholarship motivates most of its ballplayers. They call it "getting the four years."

"They all talk about colleges," says Richard Powell. "But I don't know what the plans are."

The belief that the world is full of colleges waiting to hand out scholarships is one of the most damaging in high school sports. The demand far outweighs the supply, but year after year teachers are confronted with athletes who think they can ignore their studies, concentrate on their sport and come out with a free ride through college.

"The teachers are always telling you not to try to use basketball as a way to go to college," says T.C. Williams senior Lawrence Morgan, a forward who hopes to attend North Carolina A&T. "I was trying to use basketball as a way to go to college. Maybe if they {A&T} were looking for a certain kind of player I would have a chance, but you got to keep the grades."

Athletes at both schools have to maintain a 2.0 average and have an eligibility card signed each week. "It seems like I do much better in school when I'm playing," Greg Ward says. "Most people say your grades go down when you play sports, but me, my grades go up."

Ward has college aspirations and Hynson thinks he's got a shot at a scholarship. "He has his eye on business, so I'm trying to coordinate with schools that offer that," Hynson says. He's one player on whom coach and faculty agree. "I find him to be a very good student, a hard worker, a very caring person," says Powell.

Mike Hynson won a state championship for T.C. Williams in 1978, capping an undefeated season. People still talk about the game that year when Woodson froze the ball for the entire second half and closed the gap to 19-18 with seconds to play.

That game doesn't mean much to this year's team. They were 6 and 7 years old at the time and most didn't even live around here. It is hard to sustain a rivalry in an area that is growing so quickly. Families move, school districts get redrawn, institutions lose their memory.

Coaches don't.

"From about the mid-'70s until about '82, those were the great days of this rivalry," Hynson says. That was when he built the better part of his 262-97 career record. "With Woodson it seemed as though one of them was winning or knocking the other out. Two years ago they beat us here and the noise through the duct from their locker room was as though they'd won a championship. People for a long while used us as a standard."

Williams used to qualify for the state tournament every other year. "We counted on that," Hynson says. "When we stopped making it, I never really did accept it."

Hynson feels the program is a casualty of Alexandria's affluence. "In the last four or five years the caliber of the player has fallen off," he says. "They took down some of the public housing and sold the land."

Two years ago he submitted his resignation. "The program was going down and I thought I should turn it over to someone else who could bring it back," he says. Within a few weeks he'd changed his mind. "I missed the kids," he says.

Red Jenkins misses the days when Woodson was less homogeneous. It is an odd fit between him and his school district. Jenkins, 51, is one of the best known and best connected high school coaches in the area, an expert at placing players who need scholarships in college programs. That's not a skill he's called upon to use very often at Woodson.

"Most of these kids live in homes that are worth upwards of $200,000," he says. "They don't need tickets out. Their ticket is paid for. I really should be in the inner city teaching kids and getting them in college."

He hasn't had much chance to do that since 1965, when the school integrated. "That was the best year we'll ever have, ever. We took in about 150, 200 black students from Luther Jackson High School. More learning got done that year than in any five years. Now we have maybe a dozen black kids in the school. Their parents are colonels in the Air Force or a vice president at Mobil Oil."

Jenkins has had feelers from Robinson High School and South Lakes, but he's decided to stay at Woodson. He's used to these kids and claims that he doesn't care so much about the won-lost record. "This is truly a chance to have an influence on every life that comes down the pike," he says.

What he tries to instill is a touch of hunger. It isn't easy. "One of my kids, his parents bought him a brand-new car the day he turned 16. He had a soft, cushy life and he played just like it. He was a good kid and I was fond of him, but he was a marshmallow. It was hard to motivate him to bust his butt. Sometimes the coaches, we're joking, we call this a marshmallow farm."

"P-S-Y-C-H-E-D. Psyched is what we want to be."

The Williams cheerleaders' voices are thin in the gymnasium, which is about one-fifth full.

When Stacy Coleman is introduced he strolls to center court sipping from a Styrofoam cup. "We live with him and die with him," Hynson says.

Coleman is the kind of player who drives a coach wild. He doesn't practice hard and isn't a team player, but just a flick of the left wrist shows you his charm. The junior guard is a gifted shooter with a precise touch.

He is a role model for some of his younger peers. "I feel the eyes on me," Coleman says, "but that doesn't bother me. I feel I should set a good example for young kids in the school. It's not easy. There's nothing easy about it. I try to do what I do wrong away from their eyes."

His relationship with Hynson is erratic. The Titans lost one game this season when Coleman defied orders to freeze the ball with Williams nursing a narrow lead late in the game.

"I have a tendency to make bad decisions," he says. "I apologized to him for that. Sometimes we have a good relationship and sometimes we don't. Sometimes I do things that get on his nerves and sometimes he says things that get on mine."

Woodson's Lenny Silvia is as reflective as Coleman is brash. "I used to like baseball more, but now I'd say basketball because you can practice alone," he says. "If I can get people to play, I like that, but either you come or you don't. You have to persuade them."

Silvia is hoping that one sport or the other will pay his way through college. "Everybody around here has parents who don't have to worry about it," he says. "But not me. If it was basketball I'd like to go to a big school. The Big East or the ACC. But that's kind of unrealistic. If it was baseball, the better teams are in the South."

The players on both teams trade what pass for handshakes and array themselves for the opening tap. Scott Bishop, who is 6 feet 7, outjumps Lawrence Morgan, who is only 6 feet 2. He's been pressed into service because the starting center is on academic probation.

There aren't even enough kids in the stands to make those little "tssh!" sounds where the cymbals are supposed to be during the National Anthem.

Somewhere in the second half, Woodson gives the game away. Bishop scores eight first-half points, but tires and can't hit short jumpers. The offense grows impatient. Lenny Silvia doesn't get the ball much but he still finishes with 13 points.

Lawrence Morgan, playing out of position, has the game of his life, pouring in 26 points and leading all rebounders. After Greg Ward's breakaway layup in the third quarter, Williams never trails. Clinging to a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter, the Titans sprint to a 76-62 victory.

The gym empties quickly. This game was not the kind that electrifies a crowd. It produced no new episodes for the coaches' grapevine. Morgan had that moment of glory that a young athlete will always want to recapture, but it was a fairly typical game.

What most games, particularly high school games, give you is not catharsis but a multitude of small, slowly developing plots. Will Stacy Coleman, who managed only eight points, regain his shooting form? Will Woodson, which starts no seniors, field a better squad next year? Will Lenny Silvia and Greg Ward find their scholarships? How will they turn out?

That is really what you want to know, maybe what they want to know, too. Will they be all right? You should never take your clues from the score.

"Cheerleaders on the bus," one of Woodson's chaperons calls. The girls crowd out the door while the jayvee players remain in the now-empty stands, waiting for the varsity to shower and dress.

Epilogue: Three nights after losing to the Titans, the Cavaliers defeated Oakton to give Red Jenkins his 400th victory. They finished the regular season Friday night with a 5-15 record and were 4-6 in their conference, good for fourth place.

Mike Hynson's team finished its regular season with a 12-8 overall record and was 6-4 in the district, good for second place. Both teams begin postseason tournament play on Tuesday at Lake Braddock High School.