Rafer Madness

Why not let the Heat's "legend" give us a show?

Basketball started changing about a year ago. The kids who play on my driveway court began rolling the ball around their bodies under their shirts. They seemed to forget the rule against traveling and carrying the ball. They didn't so much practice dribbling behind their backs as behind those of the guys who guarded them. Then they'd try to bounce it off the suckers' heads. Things like that.

It's no secret that they're getting these moves -- which range from outstanding to merely obnoxious -- from the ESPN show Street Ball, which follows playground greats around the country. The show is based on the apparel company And 1's videotape series, which was inspired by Rafer Alston, the 27-year-old former playground legend from New York City and new Miami point guard. It's true: Alston may be the most influential basketball player ever to suit up in a Heat uniform.

I recently asked Jared, a 14-year-old who often plays on my driveway, if he knew anything about Alston.

"'Skip to My Lou'?" he answered, referring to Alston's whimsical street nickname. "He plays on the Heat. I saw him play in New York last year at Rucker Park, and I have an Entertainers Basketball Classic tape at home with him on it."

"Do you watch Street Ball?"

"Are you joking? Of course. That's where the name 'And 1' comes from."

"Do you like it?"

"Yeah, it makes basketball, um, better."

He thinks for a second before clarifying, "Well, maybe not better. It's just more fun."

In the case of Alston, unlike some of his imitators, that last part is certainly true. Watching Alston tear up the blacktop is a good bit more entertaining than seeing him run the point for Miami. Not to say he's bad in the NBA. On the contrary, he's competent. Downright efficient, really. He runs the court in a most professional manner and has become a pretty darn good three-point shooter too. His defense is solid, and he plays hard every time down the court. I've even witnessed him throw what looked like a chest pass.

But when he plays on the street, Alston is electric, with exuberant moves so beautiful and stylistic that they almost look legal (and many are). He jumps and skips down the court with the ball (hence the nickname), "soul claps" rhythmically before zipping perfect no-look passes down low, and dribbles between other players' legs almost as much as he does his own. His outrageous sleight of hand has humiliated countless defenders, NBA great Stephon Marbury among them. And when Skip does something really good, he dances on the court, shaking his backside like Beyoncé.

It's a revelation: Rafer Alston is one of the best ball handlers of all time.

Seriously.

"He's Clark Kent and he's Superman," comments Ron Naclerio, his old high school coach in Queens. "There is Rafer Alston, the NBA player, and there is Skip to My Lou, the playground legend. They are two completely different players."

The street stuff isn't something the Heat front office promotes. When Alston signed a one-year, $668,679 contract in September, the Sun-Sentinelran a superficial article headlined: "Alston Says He'll Tone It Down." The message was, "Don't worry -- we'll knock the street out of him."

"I think he's pliable," Heat President Pat Riley said of Alston.

I believe the team is making a mistake. What good is having a legend if you don't exploit it a little? The Heat is fairly competitive this year, but it's not like they're going to win any championships. Why not let Skip to My Lou come out to play every now and then? Nothing too outrageous, no booty-shaking, just a jolt or two each game for the fans.

The Heat apparently wants to Alston to suppress his inner Skip. Players usually get tagged with the "legend" moniker when they have the skills to play in the NBA but, because of demons or discipline, don't.

Alston's short pre-NBA bio, however, looks fairly normal, if a bit circuitous: Cardozo High in Queens and Fresno State University. What's so damn street about that?

Unfortunately, the Heat wouldn't let me get near the point guard to ask him. The team has banned New Times,apparently for eternity,after our sister paper in Miami did an exposé on the team owner in 1996 headlined "Micky Arison is a greedy corporate pig." Who would have thought such a greedy corporate pig could be so sensitive?

I was able to piece together Skip's story without the Heat's help. He was born in 1976 in South Jamaica, Queens, to a turbulent family that included an absentee, drug-using father, a brother who would land in prison, and a twin sister, Racine, who became pregnant as a teenager. But even when he was just 9 years old, Alston, a waifish kid who idolized NBA great Isiah Thomas, displayed a devotion to basketball and flashes of mind-boggling talent.

Naclerio began working with Rafer when the kid was still in elementary school. "I showed him some moves, and he would add about five or six moves on top of them," recalls the high school coach. "Nobody could ad-lib like him."

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