'Skip to My Lou' Still Magic

Orlando point guard Rafer Alston has gone from Rucker Park and the AND1 Mixtape Tour to the NBA Finals.
Orlando point guard Rafer Alston has gone from Rucker Park and the AND1 Mixtape Tour to the NBA Finals. (By Amy Sancetta -- Associated Press)
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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.

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