A flurry of well-worn orange and brown basketballs are through the air towards the hoop. Some "swish" through the basket, others thud against the backboard and rebound into straining, outstretched hands.

Someone shouts, "Let's play!"

Quickly, teams are chosen and a game begins. Children peddling tricycles gaze admiringly at the older players. From nearby backyards, a chorus of canines bark and whine unceasingly -- always off key. Mulberries fall from surrounding trees, bounce along the ground and wait to be crushed under the players' feet.

This Capitol East "sports center" is not a city-run park, a school playground, the YMCA or the Boys' and Girls' Club. It is a back alley -- a block from the D.C. Armory and within sight of RFK stadium.

Area residents and their friends, from 3 to 33, come from blocks around to watch or to play ball in The Alley -- a chunk of Southeast Washington bounded by 18th and 19th streets, Independence Avenue and A Street.

The pock-marked court is rudimentary: concrete and cramped. Its boundaries are defined by cracks in the pavement and the nearest parked cars. Car hoods and trunks serve as spectator stands. The basket, put up by neighborhood kids about five years ago, is a hoop bolted to a splintered wooden backboard nailed to the top of a graffiti-covered cinder block and brick garage.

That basket -- and a ball -- are all these kids need for what they consider serious "three-on-three."

Someone is almost always playing ball in The Alley. (During the fall and winter, the alley becomes a football field.)

The smack of leather against concrete, the whack of speeding balls against the backboard, are heard throughout the afternoon and evening. The kids play in sunlight, lamplight, and when there is one, moonlight. Playing in the dark, some of the players say, helps them develop what former basketball pro Bill Bradley called "a sense of where you are."

If darkness is no obstacle, neither is weather. Kids play in drizzle, in heat, in cold and sometimes on ice. A hard rain will clear the alley, but not for long. The "neighborhood" is back before the last raindrop hits the ground.

While the older kids play, 8 and 9-year-olds choose teams and play off to the side using a trash can as a basket and a building wall or shed door as a backboard.

The alley games -- "to 32 by two, got to win by two" -- are competitive and rough, but rarely unruly.

"Crashing the boards" here means crashing into the corrugated metal garage doors below the basket. Heads, arms and shoulders pounding into the doors rattle windows all along the alley.

Players and spectators alike cheer crisp, clever passes and twisting shots, jeer missed lay-ups and unnecessary "hot dog" moves. Players hug and slap hands after successful plays and game-winning shots. People waiting to play smile, joke, box with one another, talk about girls, or simply concentrate on the game.

The players who frequent The Alley prefer it to school courts and playgrounds.

Don Parker, a strapping 19-year-old who works in the mailroom at the Department of Health and Human Services, explains: "The quality of the games are good. Everybody's cool with each other. We know there won't be any fights. We fuss a lot, but most of the time there are no fights."

Ted Gale, 13, an eighth-grader at Eliot Junior High School says he comes to play because the court is close to home and "all my friends are here."

Gale cites another reason the alley court is so popular: it was built by neighborhood kids for neighborhood kids. "THEY built this court" he says pointing to a couple of the older players, "so we play on it."

The kids come to the alley to exercise, improve their game, rap and hang out with their friends. They also learn about winning and losing.

"You've got to want to win here," says Ashby Hawkins, a 17-year-old Phelps High School student, letting a ball fly from the corner. "You don't win, it's a long wait before you play again." The ball hits the rim and bounces to the pavement.

"The games are serious," says 19-year-old Jimmy Parker, a pressman for a D.C. printing company.

"When some of the people lose around here, it's like losing the NBA championship. I've seen some of the little kids cry," the lean and wiry Parker says.

It was Jimmy Parker, who, five years ago, along with his friend James Bailey and a few other neighborhood kids, bought a rim, borrowed tools and ladders, fashioned a backboard from discarded wood collected from a nearby Metro construction site, and plastered it to the alley garage.

Until then, the kids played in another alley using trash cans, and later, the rim of a bicycle wheel, as baskets. The kids moved to their present site after an irate neighbor repeatedly tore down the wheel rim.

Parker, only 14 when the basket was erected, says he never dreamed how popular the alley would become. Neither did the residents of the block.

Some of the residents probably wish that such a good thing for the kids, wasn't such a bad thing for them. The problem: Noise.

Bouncing leather on concrete does not make for peaceful, easy sleeping. And the language, which can get heated and sharp, is not the kind of talk parents want to hear echoing through their yards or have their children imitate.

"It's irritable," says James Rich, a retired federal government employe who's lived in a row house next to the alley for 17 years. "At 10, 11, 12 at night, when you're trying to sleep, that bam, bam, bam is irritable." He adds that the kids "don't hurt anybody."

His wife, Alzada, a retired nurse, says, "They're not destructive. It lets off energy. It's good social interaction. They're very respectful kids. They don't cause problems. We've watched some of those kids grow up."

Mrs. Rich, standing on her back stoop watching the games, pauses a moment and adds, "Where would they go if you tried to keep them from playing? That's a question you have to consider."

The kids know they've got something good going. They know they've got a place to go and something to do with their friends.

Mac Lambert, a 27-year-old U.S. Postal Service worker who often plays after work to "sweat it out and get some exercise," says, "It keeps people out of trouble. Keeps your mind occupied."

Jimmy Parker adds that being able to play here means being able to influence the younger children.

"I try to set an example for the little ones," he says.

Parker's teammates wave him onto the court. It's time to challenge the winners.

Parker puts the ball to play, cuts to the basket, takes a pass from Lambert, fakes a defender, goes up for the lay-up and scores. Parker grins. Lambert smiles. Onlookers nod approval. Another game in The Alley is underway.