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.
"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-Sentinel ran 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."
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."
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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.