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By age 12, Rafer was playing in tournament games at Rucker Park in Harlem with some of the city's best adult players -- and showing them up. But when he played for Naclerio at Cardozo, he was known as much for his fury on the court as his uncanny talent. "Rafer wanted everything so badly that he had temper tantrums," Naclerio explains. "All great players like him have an inner insanity, an inner madness, that they use to get them where they want to go."
Alston's inner madness initially kept him from a place he needed to go, namely school. He preferred dice to books, and even Naclerio, who was something of a father figure and chauffeur to the boy, couldn't keep him in class. Alston was academically ineligible most of his high school career and eventually dropped out.
He was still a street-ball legend, though.
When Alston was 18, he went as far away from the New York playgrounds as he could, to Ventura College in California, where he led his team to a state championship. He managed to get by in class, but the anger was still in him. In a very rude awakening, coaches kicked him off the team after he hit a sleeping teammate in the groin with a metal weight after an argument.
Still, he was a street-ball legend.
The next year, Alston landed at Fresno City College, where he was convicted of assault in 1996 after beating up a neighbor who complained about loud music. The next year, it was on to Fresno State, where he again tried to be a college player, this time under the great coach Jerry Tarkanian, best-known for chewing on towels and taking in troubled players. Alston proved to be one of the latter; he was suspended after punching his girlfriend, which led to another misdemeanor battery conviction and 30 days' incarceration.
But he was still a street-ball legend.
Despite the controversy, Tarkanian stuck with him, and the Milwaukee Bucks picked Skip to My Lou in the second round of the 1998 draft.
During his rookie year, And 1, looking for credibility in urban areas, signed Alston to a contract. Naclerio sent the company several grainy videos of Skip tearing up Rucker Park five years before. Sensing they'd found marketing gold in Alston's playground magic, And 1 added a hip-hop soundtrack and released the tape, which became an underground sensation that ultimately led to the ESPN series. And 1 also made a Skip to My Lou shoe that retailed for $80.
"The first tape brought a natural heritage and authenticity to the brand, because a well-known street-ball player [Alston] was wearing the brand," And 1 CEO Jay Coen Gilbert told Footwear News in 2002. "From that moment on, the And 1 Mix Tape became a huge consumer pull."
Naclerio estimates that the Skip tapes sparked some $200 million in business for And 1 -- and, considering the ubiquity of the marketing campaign, that figure seems reasonable. The coach says he was paid only $1,500 for his role. It's not known how much Alston has made from And 1, but Naclerio, when pressed, says it's certainly less than $500,000.
Let's see, a big corporation cashes in big on urban black culture for a steal? Who ever heard of that before?
"Rafer should have made at least $1 million, and I should have gotten more of a finder's fee," the coach says. "I gave them the tapes out of the kindness of my heart, and I think they were looking at me as a sucker... I should have been a lot greedier, but I didn't want to hurt Rafer. They burned me."
Alston made decent dough in the NBA even while warming the bench in Milwaukee, which sent him packing after three uneventful years. He did time in the National Basketball Development League before Toronto called him up during last season. In his first game back, Alston scored 13 points and had 11 assists while running Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards off the court. Sports reporters the next day wrote how Alston "stunned" and "silenced" the greatest player of all time.
The fans in Toronto took to him. The inner madness turned into "Rafer Madness," a term heard more than once in Canada last year. Despite his popularity, the Raptors released Alston, giving the Heat a chance. So far, he's averaging about 8.5 points a game, leads the team in steals, and has been starting while rookie sensation Dwyane Wade recovers from a wrist injury.
Alston is solid, but he's no Allen Iverson. When he could be letting Skip out of the phone booth, he's still trying to prove he's a good corporate citizen. "There are some things he could do that could create excitement, but some of the players might feel disrespected by it," Naclerio says. "And for the coaches, every turnover is like one hair being pulled from their head."
He's right, but even a little Skip would go a long way. It might not make the Heat any better, but it would surely make watching them more fun.