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Streetballin' Man

There’s a couple of ways of looking at the Vince Carter trade.

A pessimist might say it was a simple salary dump of Carter for the expiring contracts of Rafer Alston and Tony Battie, with Courtney Lee for Ryan Anderson really a separate trade of near-equals.

Others might say, very optimistically, it was a trade for the starting backcourt of an NBA Finalists, and ask when did that ever happen? Probably never.

The real story, to be played out starting at the end of October, will depend largely on Lee’s production, but it will also be driven by Alston’s as well.

Going strictly by the numbers, Alston is 32 and in the final year of a contract that pays him $5.25 million. Beyond those numbers, pundits wrote that he would nicely fill the role of third point guard, behind Devin Harris and Keyon Dooling, who had a career year with the Nets, then underwent hip surgery immediately after the season ended.

Is that Alston’s ceiling? Really? Third point guard on a team that seems destined for the lottery? It has to make you wonder if those pundits aren’t underestimating the 6’2" streetball legend from Bayside, Queens. You can be sure he never will! You won’t many more optimistic than "Skip to My Lou" on any NBA roster.

Rod Thorn is optimistic too, saying "Skip is still a very good player".

After all, Alston did save the Magic’s season, playing an absolutely critical role in getting them to the Finals. After Jameer Nelson went down with what was thought to be a season-ending shoulder injury before the All-Star Game, Orlando experimented with Anthony Johnson, Tyronne Lue and Hedo Turkoglu. The Magic went 3-3 and the season that has started with a 36-11 run seemed in jeopardy. So Otis Smith, Orlando’s GM, put in an emergency call to the Rockets. He sent little used forward Brian Cook to Houston for Alston, who had played with Stan Van Gundy in Miami. Van Gundy quickly installed Alston in the starting lineup, without even a walkthrough, and the Magic preceded to go 16-4 in his first 20 games, then past the Sixers, Celtics and Cavaliers into the Finals. He averaged 12.2 and 4.1 assists in the playoffs, about the same as he did in the regular season after joining the Magic.

Don’t take our word on how important he was. Here’s what Dwight Howard wrote on his blog after the trade: "Skip to My Lou helped us so much last season. He’s a legend, man!!! We wouldn’t have gotten to the Finals without you Skip."

So much of Alston’s reputation is tied up with his streetball heroics, his "Skip to My Lou" persona, and his occasional run-ins with the law…and coaches, but he’s more than that, as shown by his rescue mission in Orlando. He can be trusted with a team. Hes finally comfortable in his own skin.

It wasn’t always that way. Alston’s history of off-court—and on-court—"issues" have been troublesome for other coaches and GM’s, but Alston has always bounced back, landed on those quick feet.

And two on-court incidents this season—one before and one after the trade—indicate that Alston may not quite be over his angry young man stage, even at 32.

In November, the NBA suspended Alston and the Suns’ Matt Barnes for two games each after their shoving match turned into a near-melee. The NBA suspended Steve Nash for a game for "escalating the incident" and fined Shaquille O'Neal $35,000 and Tracy McGrady $25,000. Nash claimed Alston hit him twice in the incident.

Then, in the playoffs, he famously whacked Eddie House upside the head after House appeared to get the better of him. The refs missed it but the television cameras didn’t and he missed a game.

And of course, there were the "communication" problems between Alston and Van Gundy over Nelson’s return to the Magic in the Finals. After the Lakers’ 100-75 victory in Game 1, Alston said he had indeed been affected by Van Gundy’s decision to replace him with Nelson who played the entire second quarter while Alston fumed. Van Gundy responded by saying Alston was making excuses for poor play. Alston, never at a loss for words, responded, "I'll give you a good excuse. I sat 12 minutes real game-time. I sat about 30 minutes real-life time. There's your excuse. It's different. I don't care who it is."

Whatever happened, some saw it as yet another example of Alston’s problems with coaches (although some suggested it was another example of Van Gundy’s panicky ways). No one suggested it was the reason why the Magic traded Alston. It was more about Alston's desire to win, his toughness born out of "who got next" and it was forgotten.

Alston is now back in the New York area, happy that for the first time in his NBA career family and friends will be able to see him play 43 times—41 home games and two at the Garden. A lot of them saw him through some difficult times, a lot more difficult than anything in the NBA, and he hopes to reward them.

A New York Times reporter wrote of just how tough in 1994, when Alston was playing ball in a California junior college.

[His mother] was studying day and night to be a nurse and was not always a fixture in the household. As for his father, he was dabbling again in the streets and needed money to support his addiction. He stole Rafer's Michael Jordan rookie card, among other belongings, and sold them. "Some of what you heard is true, mostly the substance abuse," Richard Alston said. "I had a falling out with Rafer."

According to Rafer's confidants, the boy's complaint was that his mother did not kick his father out, and Rafer's revenge turned out to be self-destructive. Rather than reading and writing, he rolled dice, and he became a master at a game called C-lo. He pocketed as much as $1,500 one night, according to Bell, and kept the hours of an insomniac.

"I just had the knack for dice," Rafer said. "To us, we're just having a good time. No harm in it. It's like a hobby."

While he carried dice, his older brother, Ramar, began packing a loaded gun and was arrested on weapon charges. It was a harrowing era, and Rafer, in reaction, became more argumentative.

His mother had wanted to send him to Maine Central Institute after his sophomore year and later regretted not doing so.

"Because of basketball, Rafer had his own unofficial fan club," she said. "But when he'd come home, he'd expect his celebrity status to continue. If we asked him to take out the garbage, it was like we'd asked Isiah Thomas or Michael Jordan. I love him, but he was a spoiled brat."

Dice and streetball were his life back then. So was trouble. Alston was arrested in 1998 for violation of parole. He had pled no contest in 1997 to assaulting his former girlfriend and was required to complete a one-year anger-management course as part of his probation. He failed to complete the course and an arrest warrant was issued. Alston was released and completed his sentence.

Of course, his "Skip to My Lou" nickname is the biggest part of his legend from back then...and the most positive part (along with the And1 mix tape that popularized it.) "I used to do funny moves with my feet coming up the court with the ball. They thought I was skipping, so everyone started calling me 'Skip to My Lou..."

Alston tells it as a happy story. That's more him than the other stuff. A day after Lee did his "woe is me" number at a Nets press conference earlier this month, Alston wowed the home team fans with his enthusiasm.

"I’m excited not only to be with the Nets but to be able to play in front of family and friends, and also the opportunity to help a franchise turn things around," said Alston. "I know we have a lot of young athletic guys. That’s one thing I stressed to Kiki (Vandeweghe) and Rod (Thorn) is that I’m very excited to be on the court with a lot of young athletic guys, although I’m getting old.

"Most people get down about a trade. I had the opportunity to get traded from a contending team to another contender. Now I have a chance to help a team turn things around."

No matter what you think of him, Rafer "Skip to My Lou" Alston is an optimist. And why shouldn’t he be? He is the last of the city’s great streetball legends and one of the few to make it all the way. "The Goat" didn’t. Nor did "Booger" or "Pablo". Alston has played next to some of the game’s greatest—Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Dwyane Wade, Tracy McGrady, and sometime this season, he is likely to hit his 1,000th three-pointer, something only 52 NBA players have ever done. He's survived the street, survived the trouble, survived the NBA, gone back home. He’s understands where he comes from, how it made him.

"I think what made me good was that any place, any borough, I didn't mind going in there and doing what I had to do to win a game and also put on a show," he told a reporter just before the Finals. "Then I developed a following. I guess everyone who was a Rafer Alston fan, I never let them down out there. When you play in the New York City playgrounds, you hear so much (about) this guy or that guy being so good. At a young age, I was that guy."

As Al Cash, the legendary Rucker Park announcer, said the night he gave Alston his nickname, "Look at him, he’s skipping" and why not?