Rafer Alston's Transition from Asphalt to Hardwood

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Rafer Alston's Transition from Asphalt to Hardwood
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Did many people envision the Los Angeles Lakers duking it out with the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals back in October?

Okay, how about this: Did many people think Rafer Alston was going to lead the Magic to the NBA Finals at the time of his acquisition in February?

Rafer Alston? You mean the AND1 posterboy? How's a flashy, behind-the-back passin' point guard going to lead a clear contender in the East to the NBA Finals?

Judging by his play in this year's postseason, Alston has definitely put the pundits in their place.

When the Philadelphia 76ers dared Alston to shoot the ball in the first round, he knocked down eight of 16 shots to score 21 points in the series-deciding game.

When the Boston Celtics dared him to shoot the ball in the second round, he knocked down three three-pointers to score 15 points in the series-deciding game.

Finally, Alston did a number on the glorified LeBron James and contributed to the eradication of the Cleveland Cavaliers by knocking down six three-pointers en route to score a playoff career-high 26 points in the clincher.

He has filled in quite admirably for the injured Jameer Nelson for nearly four months, and partly because to his play, a golden opportunity now looms for the Magic. Just when the Orlando faithful had determined this season as a waste, Alston stepped in and saved the season from disappointment.

But how Alston ended up on the national stage of basketball is even more inspiring.

Ever since he was 11 years old, "Skip to My Lou" received this recognizable nickname because he had always been leaving local crowds in disbelief by his wizardly ballhandling skills.

The impromptu basketball star embarrassed other rival schools during his playing career at Benjamin Cardozo High School in Queens, N.Y.

"What people didn't understand was there were two of them, the basketball player and the streetballer—and they had separate identities," says Ron Naclerio, Alston's high school coach. "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 likely for a Rucker Park personality to become a national playground icon. In 1998, he sent eight, low-quality 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 later signed the company's first endorsement deal, and soon popularized the game of streetball, essentially basketball but fused with the game's materializing hip-hop culture.

Eventually, the AND1 Mixtape Tour was launched, where streetball dignitaries such as Hot Sauce and the Professor humiliated their lesser-skilled opponents in city to city.

It was only a matter time before the old-school, white formalists criticized the new, trendy brand of basketball, accusing the AND1 players (including Alston), of influencing their kids to deliver behind-the-back passes rather than basic chest passes. Streetball was considered a mockery of the game that we all love compared to them.

Alston's response?

"If that's the case, go back 25, 30 years and tell all the Globetrotters they were bad for the game," he 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."

His streetball gig was a launching pad that started out as a rocky road, bouncing around in the NBDL (National Basketball Developmental League), before finally signing an NBA contract with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Alston stayed with Milwaukee for three years, and after getting little playing time, he headed to Toronto.

With the Raptors, Alston began to demonstrate some of that basketball ability, enough to a point where Miami Heat head coach Stan Van Gundy became intrigued with his skills and named Alston the starter of his team. His 2002-2003 stint with the Heat is when people started taking notice of Rafer Alston, the basketball player, not "Skip to My Lou."

It's the confidence that Van Gundy has in Alston now as his point guard that solidifies such a great relationship between the two.

From the ups and downs, Alston can certainly tell you that he has paid his dues. The idiom "hard work pays off" certainly applies in his case. He has successfully confronted pessimists all his life, but he just needs to do it one more time, for one more crucial playoff series.

"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."

Icing for days, Rafer...icing for days.

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