From 'Skip' to Rafer -- his ultimate crossover

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.

Naclerio talks about drugs and violence in Alston's old neighborhood and says, "The kids think the world is like that. They're insulated in insanity, so they think the insanity's normal."

Alston says simply, "As I got older, I started to understand."

But as he struggled in other parts of life, his game was coming into focus.

Go back to 1995 and his days at Ventura College. Coach Phil Mathews had heard about "Skip to My Lou" and suspected he was getting a hot dog.

"The players who come from the playground, you wonder: Do they have a high enough basketball IQ to make the transition?" asked Mathews, now a Nebraska assistant coach.

The coach got his answer when Alston scored only two points but passed for 13 assists in the first game. Ventura's new floor leader guided his team to a state championship.

"Rafer is an intelligent guy," Mathews said. "He knew what he had to do to get to the next level."

But he wasn't quite done with the playground.

A star is born

It seemed as if Alston was leading two lives. On the pro basketball side, he toiled in the minor leagues, looking for a chance. In "streetball," his legend only grew.

In 1998, a small Philadelphia sneaker company called And1 needed a way to compete with Nike and Adidas. Executives decided to focus on a hipper vibe, which meant signing a few young NBA players and scouring the playgrounds.

"If you were scanning the parks of New York, you didn't have to look far," said Rob Purvy, now the company's executive director. "Rafer's skip move was legendary."

The company signed Alston to an endorsement contract and got hold of grainy videotapes from his Rucker days. The footage sat around for a while, no one quite sure what to do with it.

Then, at a photo shoot for And1 endorsers, they played the tape. The NBA players gathered around the television, watching over and over.

That's when And1 decided to compile a greatest hits -- called a "mixtape," similar to hip-hop music tapes -- and give a copy to anyone who bought a pair of shoes.

The "Skip Mixtape" became a hit, with more than 200,000 copies distributed nationwide. In Southern California, players from Venice Beach to the Drew League in South L.A. to Victory Park in Pasadena came to know "Skip to My Lou" as the father of a new generation.

"He's the guy," said Jude Hollywood Thomas, a Southern California player who also goes by the name "Hollywizzle" and now promotes games. "That first tape was the whole reason for 'streetball.' "

And1 eventually made sequels and sponsored nationwide tours, streetballers barnstorming from city to city. ESPN cameras started following the "And1 Mixtape Tour" for a television series.

"It was the time of my life," Alston said. "We'd go to different places and they treated us like rock stars."

That wasn't the case in the NBA. Basketball purists considered "streetball" an abomination, and Alston started to wonder if pro coaches agreed. He spent three years with the Milwaukee Bucks but said, "I never really got the opportunity to play." Then came a return to the minor leagues and a mediocre season with the Toronto Raptors in 2002.

"I had to prove that I had another dynamic to my game, other than the fancy ball-handling, the fancy passing," Alston said.

Spreading the dream

No one on the Orlando team looked good in Game 1 on Thursday night. The Magic shot poorly and could not stop Kobe Bryant, losing by an embarrassing 25 points.

Even so, something about Alston set him apart. He darted from one spot to another, zipping passes, quicker than everyone else on the floor but still in control.

"He can make one-handed touch passes with either hand," Odom said. "He's incredible with the basketball."

No one questions that Alston belongs in the NBA. Not when he's considered a steal at a reported salary of $5.2 million next season.

His big break arrived in 2003 when he earned a starting spot in Miami. Next came stints in Toronto and Houston, then a February trade to Orlando, which needed help after point guard Jameer Nelson suffered a shoulder injury.

Alston responded by averaging 12 points and 5.1 assists down the stretch, including 26 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

"He wasn't Rafer Alston, he was the playground legend 'Skip to My Lou,' " Orlando center Dwight Howard said that night. "When he plays like the playground legend, he's tough to guard."

Now, with Nelson returning to action, playing about half of Game 1, Alston's role remains unclear for the remainder of the series. This much is certain: The "streetball" populace will be watching.

The upstart sport is probably on its sixth generation of "Skip disciples," according to Purvy of And1. These young fans like seeing one of their own on the big stage.

"This is huge for us," said streetball player Thomas. "It's huge for all the kids in the middle schools and high schools because they're his biggest crowd, watching the mixtapes."

Alston talks about being an inspiration for these kids, "growing up the way I grew up in New York City, playing in playgrounds every day, just having that dream."

He realizes they're watching. And they know his real name.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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