Similar scenes have occurred at construction sites, offices -- and certainly in police stations -- across America. But nothing quite like it had been seen on TV, not even on "NYPD Blue."

After an apparently gang-related slaying, veteran white cop Andy Sipowicz encounters a savvy black activist whom he'd like to bring in for questioning. The activist tauntingly informs Sipowicz -- who's known on the street for his acid mouth -- that he's dealing with one brother who knows his rights.

Except he doesn't call himself "brother." The activist says "nigger."

Furious, Sipowicz returns the taunt, flinging the word -- that word -- back at him. Ultimately, and for reasons beyond his uttering the N-word, Sipowicz is questioned about whether he's racist by his partner, his black lieutenant, even his wife.

The "NYPD Blue" episode, "The Backboard Jungle," was praised by critics for its complex handling of a complex issue. Its author, David Mills, was nominated for an Emmy for "best writing in a dramatic series."

Sunday, Mills, 34, will sit in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and learn whether he won. Which might not be such a big deal if, just a few years ago, he hadn't sat in my den, fantasizing about perhaps writing for TV someday.

Man, do some dreams come true.

Since Mills, who ascribes much of his success to "great luck," always was mesmerized by the power of words and of race, it's no surprise his nominated episode examines their intersection and "our societal inarticulateness about race."

"We don't know how to talk about it to each other," says Mills, who's black. "I wanted to get into all the complexities."

In fact, such complexities helped spur the D.C. native's transition from Washington Post Style section scribe to TV drama writer. Though he'd longed to write for TV since childhood, Mills, a grad of DuVal High School in Lanham, had no idea how to do it -- until David Simon, a writer pal from his University of Maryland days, sought his collaboration on a script for a new TV show based on Simon's book, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets."

The successful "Homicide" script -- which eventually starred Robin Williams -- led to Mills's doing in January 1994 what some found incomprehensible: leaving a great writing job in his home town for an iffy freelance writing career in La-La Land. But "when a chance like that {a major star appearing in your first script} opens up, you figure the universe is on your side," he explains.

Needing a solo script, Mills crafted, quite coincidentally, an unsolicited, never-produced "NYPD" episode that got him an agent. After writing a freelance script for "Picket Fences," Mills was hired on staff.

Then, a brush with "racial complexity" changed his life.

David Milch, the eloquent, Emmy-winning writer and producer for the groundbreaking "Hill Street Blues" and executive producer of "NYPD Blue" was quoted in The Post as having told a writing seminar that TV writing was a "meritocracy" for which few black people qualified.

Offended, Mills shot off a page-and-a-half letter to Milch explaining that in his experience, "not every white person who has a job writing for television is a good writer," Mills recalls. "So how dare he make a public issue of black incompetence? . . . Nobody ever talks about white incompetence or mediocrity. . . . It's not a meritocracy."

To his credit, Milch called Mills, setting up a lively breakfast in which Milch said his preference for white writers wasn't about morals but practicality -- writers with backgrounds similar to his are easier to manage. But, countered Mills, that preference has moral implications, resulting in blacks being frozen out of an influential area of employment.

The meeting led to Mills's writing a freelance "NYPD" script, which was produced the next spring and earned Mills a staff writer postion.

So Mills is a happy man, doing what he loves and receiving the occasional "My man!" phone call from "NYPD" regulars Jimmy Smits and James McDaniel. Another plus: writing small, rich parts -- like last season's ditsy receptionist and a brilliant-but-bonkers killer -- for black actors, who too rarely get them.

Ask how much his identity -- as a young brother enamored of African Americans' many, lyrical languages -- adds to his value as a writer, and Mills pauses.

"I just view myself as a writer . . . which transcends race," he says. "But I realize few white people have heard the vast range of black voices that I have in my head."

Another pause. "I'll do sports metaphor," he says. "While that -- writing the real black character that the white writer might not get -- may be my 100 mph fastball, that's not the totality of my game.

"I have a complete game that my career will rest on."