Dale W. Dover survived a South Bronx housing project, earned two degrees from Harvard University, and was a diplomat in Israel and Denmark.

He was drafted by the Boston Celtics, played professional basketball in Portugal and is a lawyer with a prestigious Washington law firm.

To cap that list of achievements Dover wanted something more -- to be mayor of Falls Church.

This month, combining the shrewdness of a streetwise New Yorker and the sagacity of an Ivy League scholar, Dover got his way. Using a slick maneuver that angered some of his colleagues, he grabbed the mayor's position with the ferocity of a slam-dunk.

Dover, 40, admits he is young, arrogant and ambitious, and says some people in this small, two-mile-wide city of 10,000 residents just don't understand that.

"My aspirations exceeded my parents' tenfold," Dover said. His parents, a New York City cabdriver and a seamstress, never thought he would be "American consul to Israel," he said, "that I would speak seven languages, and they never thought I would be mayor of Falls Church, as far as I could tell."

Dover said he was cajoled into running for the job by neighbors who knew his legal specialty was dispute resolution. City Council meetings had become five-hour partisan harangues where little was accomplished.

But from day one, the dispute resolver has courted nothing but trouble.

After his election May 1 to the Falls Church City Council, Dover asked his three council colleagues with the Citizens for a Better City party to nominate him for the mayor's job. They declined and selected someone else.

Undaunted, Dover did the unthinkable. He went to the members of the opposing party and asked them to nominate him as mayor. He figured that because he won the most votes in the council election, he should have the top job, regardless of how he won it.

So the opposition nominated him. The council voted and Dover won last week over his own party's candidate.

It was an act of perfidy that has not been forgotten.

"People call me irreverent, arrogant, confident," Dover said. "It's probably all true. It doesn't make me any less capable" of being mayor.

Dover said that as mayor he can play a middle ground and help the council focus on the "best interests of the city" instead of on longstanding political squabbles that have divided the city's two parties.

Last Monday Dover got his first test. At his first full meeting as mayor, two party colleagues on the council openly challenged Dover by daring the mayor to evict them from their chairs and make them sit according to his seating plan.

"I said in a way not characteristic of the South Bronx, I said can we do this nicely and quietly and not make a scene," Dover recalled. "They wanted to mess with me."

The two members would not budge, so during the meeting a vote was called to make them move their seats, and the opposition voted with Dover. The two members were forced to move.

That's a lot of bitterness over a $200-a-month job that traditionally consists mostly of planting ceremonial trees and cutting ribbons. Even in Falls Church, where partisan disputes have erupted over building sidewalks and naming streets, the scene was unusually acerbic, observers said.

David Minton, a member of Dover's party whom Dover defeated for mayor, said Dover is not loyal enough to the party.

"At first I must say I was absolutely floored by it," Minton said of Dover's maneuverings to be mayor. "I was very upset and so were my colleagues. Since then I've got to know Dale better and I think he's apolitical. He appears to be very dedicated to demonstrating his ability to bring the people together on the City Council, which has in the past two years been engaged in long-winded disputes, if not terribly important disputes."

Some people have suggested that racism is a source of Dover's trouble. He is the city's first black mayor.

"People have said there is a racist element in the CBC," said Susanne Bachtel, a council member with the Falls Church Citizens Organization party. "Maybe people don't want a black mayor. My response to that is the voters are colorblind, because he got most of the votes" in the City Council election.

Minton said there is no racism in his party. He said that the party did not nominate Dover for mayor because "he wasn't sufficiently well qualified for this position at this time," having little experience in local government.

Dover was offered the CBC council members' support for vice mayor, Minton said, but rejected it.

"If anything frustrates people, it's that there are a number of roles people wanted for me that I've not been comfortable with -- vice mayor instead of mayor, basketball player with a great team instead of Harvard, vice consul instead of consul" in Israel, Dover said.

"I don't live roles that make other people comfortable," he added. "I live roles that make me comfortable. You almost have to be black to understand that."

It's been a circuitous route from the South Bronx to Falls Church. After attending public schools, he applied to Harvard because "the Kennedy boys" and President Franklin Roosevelt had gone there, he said.

No one from his neighborhood had ever attended the school. He said he felt out of step at first, being surrounded by so many bright students from moneyed backgrounds, but he slowly fit in. He said he learned in the Bronx to think quickly and to scramble to get what he wanted, and that helped.

He was drafted by the Celtics after college, but two months later decided to play in Portugal.

After three years of international sports, Dover joined the Foreign Service, first as vice consul to Denmark. Then he became consul to Israel. He received a law degree from Harvard in 1983 and began practicing law at Steptoe & Johnson that year. He met his wife at Harvard, and they and their two children have lived in Falls Church since 1984, he said.

On the surface, there seems to be little South Bronx left in Dover. He is polished, cerebral, very lawyerly, very calm. He seems to be faintly perplexed by the venom spewed against him, and sometimes views Falls Church's politics with the detachment of a big-city intellectual, referring to "this Neighborhood Watch that we call the City Council."

He tutors students at Banneker High School in the District and coaches children's basketball teams in Falls Church. For relaxation he plays basketball and rides a bicycle.

He speaks philosophically, even when discussing his passion for basketball. It's as though he is analyzing his life.

He said that when he plays ball he is the playmaker, the one with a vision of the entire court who anticipates what all the players will do. He isn't the conventional basketball giant, but he uses that to his advantage.

"If you're 6-2, you ought to be fast," Dover said. "I'm very fast and very smart. The way I see it, the whole court belongs to me."

Staff writer Whitney Redding contributed to this report.