VALPARAISO, CHILE -- Night is falling, and through the tough downtown streets of this hilly port city lopes an improbably tall figure, a gym bag at his side. He turns a corner, and someone he does not know recognizes him. He waves; by now, he is used to being noticed.

The tall man ducks into a doorway and down a long corridor, emerging into a small gymnasium where about 50 diehard fans sit on wooden bleachers, awaiting his arrival. Terry Jones, from Compton, Calif., 6-foot-6, 26 years old, star of the Sportiva franchise of the Chilean professional basketball league, is ready to suit up.

Jones grew up playing ball, dreaming a kid's dreams of stardom among America's best sharpshooters and dunk artists. In a college game he once guarded Michael Jordan. But for now, he has ended up as one of 15 Americans who make a livelihood of playing basketball up and down Chile -- a country long in the way that he is tall.

In some ways, it is a bleak life. The players are thrown into an alien culture -- one American per team, with little support. Black players, in particular, encounter the shock of spending weeks traveling through Chile without seeing another black face. The teams play in hole-in-the-wall gyms where a crowd of 1,000 is a good night. They travel by bus, sometimes in trips of 18 hours. The salaries are adequate by Chilean standards but minuscule compared to those in the United States, and the quality of play is lower than that of urban playgrounds in the states.

But after three years, Jones is living happily and believes things are looking up. He has applied a gumption that kept him lying awake in bed his first few months in Chile, patiently learning Spanish from a dictionary, seven words a night. He now speaks it fluently.

"I just had a positive attitude," Jones said. "I began to see that people here do a lot for foreigners. They try to help you. That kind of attitude you don't see a lot of in the United States. People in the States are more concerned about themselves."

Jones lives with his wife, Yvonne, and their 11-month-old son, Thomas, in a small but comfortable apartment in Vina del Mar, the beach resort near Valparaiso where the Sportiva team is based. Yvonne is Chilean; they met in her hometown of Curico, south of Santiago, where Jones played when he first arrived in Chile.

They have helped each other adapt.

He has taught her to make what may be the best, if not the only, fried chicken in Chile, just like his mother, Albertine Jones, used to make back in Compton.

She has taught him to eat Chilean dishes, although not always to enjoy them. Most important of all, she has helped him come to terms with Chile and the Chileans.

"Their humor -- I still don't understand their humor," he said. "But one of the main things is that, being a foreigner and being black, too, you're like a celebrity here. People ask you so many questions. They want to know so much.

"Now, since I understand, it doesn't bother me. But when I first came down here I thought people were making fun of me. People would say, 'Hey, Blackie.' Kids would ask their mothers, 'Why is he so black? Doesn't he wash his face?' I had to realize that in some of these towns, they had never seen a black person. They just didn't know."

He invites other black players to the apartment when their teams come to play in Vina del Mar, partly because he enjoys the company and partly because he wants his son to grow up knowing there are other black people in the world. "He's getting used to it," Jones said. "He knows he's black."

Jones grew up in Compton, a mostly black city in the Los Angeles basin, with his mother, sister and three brothers.

During his childhood, Jones dreamed of playing in the National Basketball Association, with all the glamor and money that comes to an American pro.

After attending junior college he ended up at Pan American University, a small school in Texas -- not the perfect launching pad for an NBA career but still a Division 1A school, the top rank in college basketball.

His junior year he averaged 14 points a game and seven rebounds, and he drew favorable glances from the Detroit Pistons. "They said they liked the way I played," he recalled proudly.

That year, Pan American played in a tournament in Tulsa that included the University of North Carolina, among other teams. Jones, a guard-forward, was assigned to check Michael Jordan, now an NBA superstar. "I did all right," Jones said. "They won, of course, but Michael only got 16 points. After they beat us, they went on to win 15, 16 games in a row. I guess we built up their confidence."

The next season, though, Jones spent a lot of time on the bench, and his statistics went down. When the day of the college draft came, no one called Jones' name.

"After that, I got a phone call from an agent," Jones said. "He told me they had gotten players into Australia, into the CBA {a kind of second-string American professional league}, and into Chile, and that if we'd be patient there might be other countries where they could get me to play. I went to New Jersey for a camp for playing in Europe, but I didn't get picked up. Then they called me and said I had an offer to play in Chile."

The offer was in Curico for $1,000 a month. He took it, stayed four months until the season ended and went back to Compton.

"It was like being a stranger that first time," he said. "You know, the first time you're away from home like that, you get that homesickness."

But he had not finished his degree at Pan American, and back home he could only find work loading trucks. Finally he found a job he liked, in parks and recreation, but he decided that the inner-city playgrounds of Compton were dangerous places to work. In August 1985, he returned to Chile.

The pay was still $1,000 a month, but it was tax-free, the team picked up the cost of his apartment and the cost of living in Curico was low.

"In Curico, the only friends I really had were the team and the coaches," he said. "They would invite me to their houses to eat. I like to be by myself a lot, don't really socialize. But people down here are different, they get offended if you don't come over. So once in a while I would accept. Here there's a different mentality. People are more sensitive about things like that."

Jones said he met Yvonne at a gym that his team shared with a volleyball team that Yvonne played on. "And right then and there I said, {she's} for me." They started a courtship. She baked him cakes and fixed curtains for his apartment. He came to see her as more simpatica than American women he had known. She was quiet, forgiving, not at all materialistic.

"I figured I'd marry this woman. I knew I'd never find a woman like that in the United States, and I had had a lot of girlfriends. I thought I was a real playboy. I guess we all did."

Marriage brought more of a sense of security and belonging, and also a quantum leap in his linguistic skills. His late-night sessions with the dictionary had taught him the essential vocabulary, words like bed, pillow, knife, fork, spoon. With Yvonne he began to absorb the language. "Most players down here never learn Spanish," he said. "I think that's a real mistake; it cuts you off. But most just don't."

If family life in Chile has been a dream for Jones, his life on the basketball court has been something else again. One recent Thursday night, Sportiva played an exhibition game against the University of Valparaiso. The Sportiva team at least ran plays and had uniforms that matched. The college team looked like a bunch of kids who had grown up playing soccer. Sportiva won by something like 80 points, but the game wasn't as close as the score.

"First you have to be aware of the referees, 'cause they don't really have that much knowledge of the game," Jones said. "Second, Americans who come down here really know more about basketball than the coaches, so you end up playing and coaching at the same time. And when you dunk you can't hang on the rim, because the glass is so weak. I've busted three backboards down here."

The American players are expected to be stars, to score at least 30 points a night. At the same time, the referees tend to compensate for the Americans' greater skill, Jones said, with the result that he gets fouled constantly.

But his pay is up to $1,500 a month now, and with the free apartment in Vina del Mar and Yvonne managing the family's money, they are able to tuck away a little savings -- something Jones doubts he could do in the United States. Other possibilities seem to be blooming as well.

In Curico, where Jones and his family go during the off-season, he has started a radio show. "Radio Fantastica, nueve cinco punto cinco," 95.5 on the dial, he says in his disc-jockey patter. He plays pop and rock, with artists like Michael Jackson. Chileans have not yet taken to rhythm and blues, but next year he wants to introduce them to rap music.

Last year he also ran his own basketball camp in the off season, and he said he has been approached to write a book about basketball. He has thought about opening a sporting goods store, capitalizing on the fact that he is such a novelty in Chile. "In this country, the people who work have practically nothing, and the people who own things have a lot," he said. "Guess which side I want to be on."

Still, Jones said he has mixed feelings about making a permanent home in Chile. "I sort of feel like I'm at home, but also I still feel like I'm in a foreign country. I try to make my lifestyle as American as I can -- color TV, videos, backgammon, dominoes, anything that's like what I knew growing up. It just isn't the same, though. It isn't what I grew up with.

"But here in Chile I'm always meeting people who want to try to help me build, like the thing with the radio. So I figure I can go either way. I'm still young. I might go home and finish school, but for now I figure I'll stay here as long as things keep working out."

Jones unfolds from the couch, offers a quick tour of the apartment, shakes hands and says goodbye. He has to pack. Later that evening he will board a bus that he will ride for 18 hours. Then he will rest for a while, go to a small gym and play a basketball game in the town of Ancud on the southern island of Chiloe.