Tyrone popped back into my life the other day. I was crossing 15th at K, thinking about Poland, of all things, when he came right up into my face the way he used to on the basketball court.

He stuck out his hand and said hi. I stuck out mine and said long time no see, big guy.

He asked how it was going. I said fine, and how about you?

He said not so good, Bob, not so good. It was going good for so long, but now . . . .

Tyrone was one of the kids with whom I used to play basketball on Monday nights, at a junior high school off Georgia Avenue. Someone knew the janitor. As long as we promised not to break anything and bought him a pint of something serious every couple of weeks, he would let us into the gym for a couple of hours.

Tyrone was 15 when I met him. He had gone to this junior high when he was younger. Now he went to Cardozo High School -- sometimes.

I asked him about it once. He told me that high school didn't interest him. The teachers didn't care, the kids didn't care. He got depressed by going there. So after his mother went off to work, Tyrone would often sit around and watch TV.

Or play basketball. Tyrone was a natural. I'm sure he had never been coached, yet he knew when to shoot, when to pass, when to switch to another man on defense.

Among a crowd of kids who were only concerned about slam dunking and dribbling between their legs, Tyrone was a throwback, a fundamentalist, a team player. His contemporaries made fun of him, said he played like some kid from the suburbs. For the first few times we played, I didn't intervene to defend his style. Why embarrass the kid?

But one day, I couldn't restrain myself. Tyrone passed the ball to me, his teammate, as I stood at the foul line. Immediately, he darted for the basket. I passed the ball back to him as he broke free near the basket and he laid it in. Two points via the old "give and go," exactly the way my old high school coach used to diagram it.

I called a timeout. I walked over to Tyrone and gave him five.

"That, my friend, is how you play the game," I said.

Tyrone and I got closer after that, although I never asked him his last name and he never volunteered it. He would ask me about newspapers. I would ask him about his mother and his sisters. He once asked me if I could find him some size 11 sneakers "for cheap." I managed to do so, and he couldn't have been happier.

One cold night, as the janitor locked the school doors behind us, Tyrone asked me about a job. His timing couldn't have been better. A drugstore near The Post was looking for a stock clerk. I had noticed the ad in the window just the day before. I told Tyrone where the store was. He said he'd check it out.

A week later, the guard in the lobby of The Post said I had a visitor. I went downstairs. Guess who. Tyrone had gotten the job, and he wanted to say thanks.

That was five years ago. Within a couple of weeks, the principal of the junior high school found out that the janitor had been looking the other way on Monday nights, and there went our basketball game. But every few months, I'd stop in and see Tyrone at the drugstore.

One visit, he had gotten a raise. Another time, he had been promoted to cashier. He was saving to buy his mother a house, he told me grandly, when I saw him this summer . . . .

"So what happened, Tyrone?" I asked, as the midday traffic buzzed past us along K Street.

"They caught me stealing," he said. "I've got to admit it, up front. I was taking money from the cash register and the lady who owns the place caught me. At least they aren't pressing charges. But she fired me."

"Why the hell would you do something stupid like that?"

"I've asked myself a thousand times, Bob. I needed money to help my mother. She said I was the man of the family, and I had to provide. I didn't know another way."

I asked Tyrone what he was going to do now. He bounced an imaginary basketball on the sidewalk, brought it up to his forehead, then flicked his wrists and let it fly.

"I guess I'll play some ball. Don't have much else to do now."