IN an ill-tempered section of South-Central Los Angeles, rival members of the Crips and Bloods and other gangs come together several times a week to exchange jump shots instead of gunshots. They meet in the middle of the night on the satin hardwood floors of an inner-city gymnasium to play basketball.
They are part of an unusual new attempt in the nation's second-largest city to quell gang violence, even if for only a few hours in a few square blocks of town.
No one involved in organizing the games - neither the city, youth gang counselors, nor the police, who watch the games in prodigious numbers from the sidelines with nightsticks at their sides - expects the league to solve the problem of gang warfare in Los Angeles.
They know there is no magic elixir for a problem that claims hundreds of lives each year (more than in Washington, D.C., the self-proclaimed ``murder capital''), and has turned sections of Los Angeles into little Beiruts, each with its own warring militias.
Instead, in a city where 80,000 to 100,000 youths are now part of street gangs, more than the population of Charleston, S.C., the attempt to draw lines in the asphalt are more modest. They are carried out moment by moment, neighborhood by neighborhood, even gang member by gang member.
By putting a few members of the Six Deuce Brims or Little Hoovers on the basketball court a few hours each week, the hope is there will be that many fewer people on the street, that many fewer drive-by shootings.
``It is a long, hard road,'' says Andrew Williams, the director of the Harvard Recreation Center, the city park where the games are held. ``Some of these guys have been gang members all their lives. But if we can reach one of them, it is worth it.''
Athletics is a popular antidote for urban violence. In Los Angeles, gang counselors have set up softball, football, and even other basketball leagues, to give inner-city youth something to do other than brandish Uzis.
This one is different because it is held in the middle of the night, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., a time when many of the participants, if they were so inclined, would be doing their mischief. It is also aimed at 16- to 25-year-olds, those who often do the most damage.
``That is the age group generally written off as a lost generation,'' says Ed Turley of Community Youth Gang Services (CYGS), a group that works with gang members and one of the organizers of the league.
While significant strides have been made in certain parts of Los Angeles, gang violence continues to be one of the area's most obdurate social problems.
In the area of Los Angeles County patrolled by sheriff's deputies, there have been more than 50 gang-related homicides so far this year, almost double the record 1989 rate.
``I don't see it abating,'' says Sgt. Wes McBride, a member of the Sheriff's Department's special gang unit.
Things have been more reassuring in the city. Gang-related murders in the Los Angeles Police Department's jurisdiction have dropped 14 percent over last year, while overall gang-related violent crime is down 5.5 percent.
Even more heartening is one area where the violence has abated the most, in the department's South Bureau, which probably encompasses the toughest gang turf in America. Killings there are down 45 percent. Authorities attribute the drop to concerted police crackdowns and numerous anti-gang efforts by community activists and neighborhood groups.
``Maybe we have turned the corner,'' says the police department's Detective Sgt. Robert Jackson.
The midnight basketball league is one of these efforts. Modeled after a program in Chicago, the league includes gang members and nongang members. Sponsors of the $10,000 pilot project, which includes CYGS and the city Department of Recreation and Parks, with help from the police, hope the nonmembers will act as role models for the others.
``It is doing some good,'' says Gerald Foster, coach of one of the teams, a Los Angeles Raiders cap pulled snugly over his head. ``There are a lot of guys who want to play in this.''
Eight teams have been formed, each representing a particular neighborhood park (and usually rival gang) in South-Central. Games are held three nights a week. The league will run through early summer and culminate in a playoff series.
To reduce the chance of confrontations, organizers provide van service to and from the games for the teams. Players are spirited out, under heavy escort, immediately after each game.
About a dozen police are on hand for the matchups, providing security from the sidelines and patrolling the grounds outside the brick-and-stucco gym with walkie-talkies and flashlights the size of small fence posts.
In an area of town where the wrong color of clothing can cost you your life, organizers have provided jerseys in inoffensive tones (white, green, purple) - anything but the red and blue of the Bloods and Crips. Each is adorned with an ``MB'' insignia, for midnight basketball.
Although no major clashes have occurred, the atmosphere has not been completely civil. The first couple of nights a few spectators from the neighborhood - the games usually draw several dozen onlookers - jeered rival gang members who came to play.
On this night, a scuffle breaks out between two players near the end of an overtime game. A phalanx of police and counselors floods the floor, breaking it up before it goes beyond shoves and gang repartee. The game is called with 30 seconds left.
``They have scuffles in college basketball - what's the difference?'' asks Mr. Williams later, playing down the incident.
Players are mixed on whether the hoops will affect the hatred in the streets.
``It is something to keep us out of trouble,'' says one.
Another, Darnell Smith, a member of the local neighborhood gang, is less sanguine.
``It is a good idea to keep us off the streets at midnight'' he says. ``That's cool. But I don't think it is going to change anything.''
``These guys have killed our people,'' says a player. ``You expect basketball to change that?''
Organizers hope so. As the clock approaches 1 a.m. and the last game is winding down, director Williams leans back in a chair in his snug office off the court crammed with metal desks and filing cabinets. ``If we could take the idea citywide, and have 2,000 to 3,000 gang members playing each night that would really have an impact,'' he says.
One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.