In one of the toughest sections of Southeast Washington, D.C. Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. took command of a microphone last night and encouraged dozens of young men to spend their nights shooting -- basketballs, that is.

Fulwood took to the floor of a stuffy gynmasium to help launch "Late Nite Hoops," a basketball tournament that police officials and others hope will divert at least some young men from trouble on the streets.

Addressing some 300 people gathered in the gym at the Patricia Harris Education Center on Livingston Road SE, Fulwood dismissed as "nonsense" talk that nothing can be done to stem the drugs and violence that are plaguing the District.

"If you believe that your life is worth something, you will do something about drugs and violence," Fulwood said. "We know that of all the people in this gym . . . none of you are going to die of violence tonight."

The four-day tournament is a precursor to what officials hope will become a late-night basketball league lasting 10 weeks. The fledgling program is patterned after one launched in Chicago in the mid-1980s and another that began about four years ago in Prince George's County.

In addition to the police department, the effort is being sponsored by the D.C. Board of Education, the city's Recreation Department, the National Basketball Association's Players' Association, Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola.

John Love, a consultant to the program, said the idea behind it is simple: "We hope that when they leave here they're exhausted and go straight to bed."

Fulwood said that in addition to the games, the effort will include a program called "Champs Against Violence," in which professional boxers -- such as Riddick Bowe, former Olympic gold medalist Andrew Maynard, and possibly Sugar Ray Leonard -- will go into troubled neighborhoods to try to persuade young people to live peacefully.

Asked if he saw a contradiction in professional fighters preaching against violence, Fulwood said, "You can get up from their violence. You don't get up from {being shot with} a 9-millimeter."

He also noted that many of the fighters came from difficult backgrounds and could talk about overcoming obstacles through discipline.

The tournament that the officials kicked off last night includes eight teams whose players range in age from 17 to 25.

Within the first three minutes of the game, one player drew wild cheers when he swooped in for a spectacular, flying one-hand dunk off a fast-break. The player had a technical foul called against him, and the basket was disallowed. "No slam-jams allowed," the announcer declared, because of the threat to the rims.

The players said they liked the idea of organized late-night basketball and said they thought it could help keep some people out of trouble.

"Most of the crime happens at night," said Harry Jackson, a 21-year-old player. "This gives people a chance to think. Most of the time when it gets dark there's nothing happening, some people try to make something happen. This is something good to do, a place to come."