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From 'Skip' to Rafer -- his ultimate crossover

Magic guard Rafer Alston made a name for himself as streetballer 'Skip to My Lou.' Now an NBA veteran, Alston has helped put the Orlando in the Finals and stands at the intersection of two hoops worlds.

June 07, 2009|David Wharton

It seems like another lifetime, back when the skinny little kid everyone called "Skip to My Lou" ruled supreme over Rucker Park in Harlem.

Crowds gathered to watch him prance and spin across the asphalt basketball court with a blurry-fast crossover dribble, an arsenal of moves that required a whole new vocabulary.

Tornado. Pepper shake. Off da' heezie.

Those people were witnessing the birth of a hoops counterculture, style over score, a Globetrotters version 2.0 that blended athleticism, entertainment and hip-hop flair.

The rise of "streetball" has spawned DVDs and video games, an ESPN series and endorsement contracts. It has made "Skip to My Lou" famous enough that, after two decades, people still recognize him.

"I'm walking down in New York City, all they know is Skip," he says.

They don't know Rafer Alston's real name, and some don't know about his greatest trick yet. All these years later, the wild kid from Rucker is 32 and a polished NBA player, a veteran point guard who has helped put the Orlando Magic into the championship series against the Lakers.

Only a few so-called playground legends have made the quantum leap from blacktop to the professional ranks. A sneaker company executive explains: "With Rafer and his alternate persona . . . we're seeing things all colliding and merging together."

As the NBA Finals continue at Staples Center tonight -- the Lakers hold a 1-0 edge -- Alston brings together disparate faces of the game, not to mention two very different groups of fans.

Making a name

Born to a tough neighborhood in Queens, with a father battling addiction, the 11-year-old boy took to riding the subway, searching the city for pickup games.

"I would do anything to stay in the playground, stay on the court," Alston said. "You know, when you're growing up below the poverty line, you can be so caught up and frustrated about where your life is."

His travels led him to hallowed ground.

Rucker Park doesn't look like much, a court painted red and green with bleachers and a chain-link fence. But it is a mecca for playground ball that has attracted NBA greats the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Archibald and Julius Erving.

The Harlem court is just as well-known for cult figures such as Earl "The Goat" Manigault and Joe "The Destroyer" Hammond, whose style and verve never quite translated to the pros.

In the late 1980s, a local high school coach named Ron Naclerio was playing there and noticed a kid hanging around, watching the older guys. There came a day when Naclerio's park team needed another body, so he stuck Alston in the game.

The boy dribbled the length of the court, spinning and ducking through larger defenders. He got his shot blocked but, Naclerio said, "in those 94 feet, people realized they had seen something incredible."

A hint of youthful rebellion -- if not desperation -- marked Alston's game, fueling his preternatural quickness and knack for improvisation. Each day, it seemed, he showed a new move.

There were staccato one-handed crossover dribbles. He went between his legs and around his back, flipping a no-look pass, all in one motion. He bounced the ball off the defender's head -- off da' heezie -- grabbed the rebound and darted past.

One day, Alston started a fast break by skipping down court as he dribbled, kicking his feet up in a strange kind of dance.

"The defender thought I wasn't paying attention to the ball, so he runs for the ball," he recalled. "I wrap it behind my back and throw it to my teammate for the dunk."

As is often the case with Rucker league games, there was an emcee, and he began singing "Skip to My Lou."

"Word filtered out, and the next game there were a couple thousand people there," Naclerio said. "By the time Rafer was 15 or 16 years old, he was a cult legend."

Transition game

Sitting courtside at Staples Center, resting before practice with his Orlando teammates, Alston thinks back on those days and smiles.

"It was a city game . . . our game," he said. "Especially in the summer, tons of people came out to the park to watch us play."

But the good times would not last.

As a teenager playing for Naclerio at a public high school in Bayside, Alston skipped too many classes and was ineligible for all but 10 games in his junior and senior seasons.

While his New York contemporaries -- including Stephon Marbury and future Lakers forward Lamar Odom -- went off to major universities, he came west and bounced from Ventura College to Fresno City College before landing at Fresno State for a season.

Then came the first of several brushes with the law. In college, he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor assault charges stemming from altercations with a neighbor and an ex-girlfriend.

As recently as two years ago, he was found guilty of yet another misdemeanor assault charge after arguing with a parking lot attendant who had his car towed.

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