It began as a modest three-on-three tournament on a junior high school blacktop that raised $3,000 in 1996 to help send four low-income students to college.

Yesterday, the ninth annual Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund basketball tournament bore the marks of the big-time: a main stage with music, canopies emblazoned with the logos of corporate sponsors, politicians mingling in the crowd, a celebrity game coached by professional athletes.

The one-day, $3,000 operation in 1996 is now a multimillion-dollar, year-round nonprofit program that has attracted the attention and financial support of some of Washington's heaviest hitters. In addition to the scholarships, it offers internships and links low-income students with about 600 mentors, many who live right across the Anacostia River in a part of the city that sometimes seems a world away.

"I talk to him every day," Michael Hendrickson, 20, said of the mentor who is trying to help him realize his dream of breaking into the world of sports management. The mentor to the Hampton University senior and former Woodson Senior High School student is in a good position to do so: He's Ted Leonsis, vice chairman of America Online and owner of the Washington Capitals and Wizards.

Other students are connected with political figures, lawyers, engineers, business executives and -- evidence that the program has matured significantly -- former Hoop Dreams scholarship recipients.

"We're just starting to come full circle in that way," said Susie Kay, a former teacher at Woodson in Northeast Washington, who founded the organization in 1996 after watching students struggle to get the financial and academic resources to go to college. "A lot of our scholarship recipients are coming back to help now."

Yesterday, more than 100 teams hit 20th and C streets in Northwest Washington for the three-on-three tournament, and Kay seemed to be everywhere at once -- organizing, greeting volunteers and serving as a walking definition of enthusiasm.

"I think this has been so successful because it filled a need in Washington by bringing communities together," said Estee Levine-Little, a Securities and Exchange Commission attorney who has volunteered at the event since the first year. "You could find a charity event here every weekend, but one that brings two communities that live side-by-side but rarely interact is more unusual and, I think, more special."

Yesterday's tournament raised about $10,000 for the organization, Kay said, but she added that the event has become more of an annual celebration instead of the driving force behind fundraising.

"This one day it's about basketball," said Todd Sherbacow, a commercial real estate executive who has mentored four students for Hoop Dreams. "But other times, it's really about a lot more than that."

"The real power of today is the people who get together here," Kay said.

While the celebrity matchup rolls on, Taslim Zinneremon, 5, waits for her chance to play.Monica Logan, left, and Christine Brennan enjoy the charity basketball tournament downtown, which raised about $10,000.