By Mike Wise
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Ron Naclerio still talks about the time a short, skinny kid levitated in midair at a summer tournament, trying to sneak a right-handed layup underneath the long arm of a 7-footer. And how, in one motion, that kid let the ball roll down his right arm, stopping at his shoulder. How, before his feet came down, the ball dropped straight down his back and, "he just flicked it with the back of his left hand to the guy for the dunk," said Naclerio, the basketball coach at Benjamin Cardozo High School in Queens, N.Y.
The Rucker league bleachers shook, people falling all over each other in Harlem that day, a continuous "Ohhhhhhhh!" encircling the court. "No one believes it, but I was there, I saw it -- in my mind it's still unreal," Naclerio said.
"I was so confident," Rafer Alston said, almost 20 years after he pulled off that sequence. He recalled every detail of the play, including the player who tried to block the shot (the late Conrad McRae) and who threw down the dunk (Zendon Hamilton).
"Everybody came to see me then. I was trying new things every day."
The NBA Finals start tomorrow in Los Angeles, all eyes trained on Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. The unfinished business of the tradition-rich Lakers against the underdog, who-knew Magic. It's a great story.
But Rafer Alston is a better one.
It's about a streetball legend, nicknamed "Skip to My Lou" soon after his dazzling ballhandling began attracting crowds as an 11-year-old on the New York asphalt, ending up on the game's grandest stage at 32.
It's about an improvisational schoolboy star, whose tricks and swagger were once blamed for killing America's game, growing up to save an NBA franchise's season.
When Magic starting point guard Jameer Nelson went down to injury, Orlando's visions of playing into June vanished. But then Alston was acquired at the trade deadline, his stop-and-pop game and experience the perfect antidote to help Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and Howard keep rolling.
Two months later, he's knocking down shots and doling out pretty assists against the 76ers and the Celtics, bringing a new crowd to its feet with a mixture of disbelief and wild applause.
Skip to My Lou, running the offense for a bona fide playoff team? Nuh-uh. Can't be.
When the Magic needed him to shoot against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals, Alston shot, going on an 8-0 binge from the perimeter by himself in Game 4, finishing with 26 points, the most he had ever scored in a playoff game. In the clinching Game 6, he knocked down three three-pointers and finished with 13 points.
The streetball king was now a role player for an NBA finalist.
Where he had played as a youth -- his native Jamaica, Queens; Harlem; Fresno -- and all those teams he plied his trade for as an adult -- Milwaukee, the Idaho Stampede, the Mobile Revelers, Toronto, Miami, Houston, Memphis (for a game) and, finally, Orlando. It was worth it, no?
"The hardest thing was people trying to look past, 'Hey, he has a streetball name,' " Alston said Saturday night as he sat in the Magic locker room. "People stereotype you. They have a perception of you before you even get to play. People had a feeling about me that didn't even know me. They wanted to turn the AND1 thing into a bad thing. The hardest thing was hearing that I couldn't help a team win, like because I used to be a guy who did tricks on the playground I was going to ruin everybody's game."
His high school coach, who began his tutelage when he was running a breakfast program in Queens and Alston was a 4-foot-11, 11-year-old, said the transition was natural for Alston.
"What people didn't understand was there were two of them, the basketball player and the streetballer -- and they had separate identities," Naclerio said. "There was Rafer Alston and there was Skip to My Lou. He could change into either one anytime to suit the game he was playing."
Naclerio is the guy who made it possible for a Rucker novelty act to become a national playground icon. In October 1998, he sent eight, grainy VCR tapes of raw Skip to My Lou footage to the offices of AND1, for which he was compensated a grand sum of $1,500.
Alston had just decided to enter the NBA draft and leave Fresno State -- Jerry Tarkanian had lured him there after actually going to the Rucker league to see him. The videotape would soon be known as the "Skip tape," and Alston later signed the company's first endorsement deal.
Hundreds of thousands of the videos were given away to kids who purchased AND1 shoes, forever linking Alston with the game's emerging hip-hop culture and essentially launching the AND1 Mixtape Tour, where players such as Hot Sauce, Headache and The Professor yo-yoed downcourt, embarrassing their lesser-skilled opponents.
Soon, the purists (read: old and mostly white Catholic Youth Organization coaches) came down on Skip to My Lou and Naclerio, nicknamed The Teacher, believing they were partly at fault for all these impressionable kids who, instead of popping chest passes, wanted to go behind their backs, around their heads and between their legs.
"If that's the case, go back 25-30 years and tell all the Globetrotters they were bad for the game," Alston said. "When I was a little kid, I couldn't wait to go watch the Globetrotters handle the ball. The AND1 thing, all it does is it gives kids something other than to do than just put the ball down. Even in today's game, a lot of people can't dribble the ball. Every team I've been on there's guys who can't dribble. It's unreal."
Alston related this after Patrick Ewing, a Magic assistant coach, had rebounded for him as he took practice jump shots before Saturday's game. Yes, the kid who used to wear Ewing's Adidas signature shoes, live and breathe Ewing's New York Knicks, was now having his jumpers shagged by his boyhood hero.
"I didn't win any city championships with him and he gave me a lot of headaches, but I'm so happy for him," Naclerio said. "He shows what can happen if you stay with the game and don't give up."
Said Alston: "People that know me already tell me my whole journey is a great book. A championship, man, that would just be icing on the cake."
His ears protruded below the brim of his Eastern Conference champions baseball cap as he spoke. He smiled broadly, tilted his cap up and looked down at his white-and-light blue trim AND1 shoes.
Rafer Alston's sneakers were, of course, untied.