Saturday , May , 08 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

Skip to my who?

This is a tale of love. It’s not love for the kid who fooled men twice his age or pulled off moves we couldn’t even imagine. It’s not love for the kid who put a brand on his shoulders and carried streetball to another level, or the kid known as Skip to my Lou in the streets. This is love for Rafer Alston, the man.

Skip to my who?Skip to my who? Ray-fur All-stun is how it’s pronounced. Say it with me. Skip is gone now, leaving behind his legend, legacy and a million and one tales. The player you now see before you is every ounce the N.B.A. point guard, combining an instinctive knowledge of the game with hard-nosed determination and the innate will to succeed. The once skinny seventy four-inch frame has filled out and the sleepy eyes are now focused. The cocky gait and the inner fire remain, along with the twenty seven year old mind which has absorbed a lifetime’s knowledge. What doesn’t kill you can only make you tougher and this one of the toughest. He’d step over his Grandma to get a loose ball and sell his soul for a victory. It’s the fire inside him which keeps the Heat’s wheels turning.

This is a tale of tragedy. Why did it take so long? For over twenty years the league shunned him. Dozens of teams drafted dozens of mediocre point guards, each playing with the bland consistency expected of them. General Managers took dozens of risks on uncertainties, project players and “promising” Europeans and, one by one, they all proved not to be as good as advertised. How is it then that the New Yorker in Fresno somehow waited until his junior year, only to be picked thirty-ninth by the unremarkable Milwaukee? All but six hours and one minute of his rookie campaign were spent on the bench or, worse still, in the front row. A meagre sixty points and seventy assists were all he had to show for a year in which he deserved the limelight somewhere else. Unfortunately, he festered as a third-string point guard on a team firmly anchored by the oh-so-solid Cassell, a player who legitimately deserved his role as lead guard. Rafer deserved one, too. It’s a damn tragedy it took so long for the chance to come.

This is a tale of action. Then it happened. Finally. Somebody in Miami got their head right and recognised it, got to know what Rucker Park had known for years, what Fresno knew, what the C.B.A. knew. Even Toronto had started to pick up on it. Rafer was for real. This season he played the full eighty two and let everybody in on basketball’s worst-kept secret. In the words of hometown rapper Biggie Smalls, “If you don’t know, now you know”. The name on the back of the jersey read “Alston” and Rafer was yet to show anything special. His once-legendary street name was now relegated to little but a past moniker. The tapes, the moves and the stories meant nothing. In other words, he had something to prove. Fortunately, but predictably, he got it done to the tune of roughly ten and five per in a solid thirty one minutes each game. The numbers don’t say it all though. If you watched the Heat this year, you’ll know that he was as good a reserve point guard as you’re likely to see and showed that he was one of the rare breed that can change the tempo of a game the instant they leave the bench. He even played well enough that Coach Stan flirted with the idea of allowing Dwyane his natural position of off-guard with Rafer as the floor general. At times it looked like the guard combo of the future, with the nimble and wily point finding the athletic two-guard perfectly on his trademark slashing moves to the hole. Dwyane often drew an extra defender and dished to a wide-open Rafer, who finished eighth in the league in made three-pointers this year, shooting at a respectable .37 clip.

This is a tale of revenge. He might not say it, but Rafer Alston is angry, and he has every right to be. This was the player who had garnered a following of almost religious proportions. His church was the blacktop and to speak ill of him was blasphemy to a real hoops fan. SLAM magazine had anointed him “The Best Point Guard in the World”, albeit it with the footnote “that nobody’s ever heard of” and every player to know the sound of a basketball passing through a chain net had prayed for his handle and court vision. Somehow he was overlooked and he got angry. The mean mug he exhibits isn’t there to cohere with his image; it’s the manifestation of years of frustration. Take his game-winner against Dallas, the shot he claimed was the biggest of his life. After a last-second, fading three to take the win against one of the league’s elite squads, most players would be all smiles. For Rafer, however, it was more vengeance than joy. It was if that shot was in the face of every G.M. who had doubted him, every team that chose not to draft him, every coach who had handed him a D.N.P. They made him angry. Unfortunately for them, he smells blood and now is his time, a time for revenge.

This is a tale which hasn’t yet been written. Rafer has a clean page and the pen is in his hands. The hero is a modern-day St. Christopher, carrying the weight of a whole world on his shoulders, a world populated by legends who never made it out of the streets. Every Peewee Kirkland and Earl Manigault that were never given his opportunities lives in him. He bleeds broken dreams. He sweats decades of frustration. He cries with every old man who knows he would have been something, been somebody. He lives and dies with the team and the streets live and die with him. Skip to my Lou is a former playground king. Rafer Alston is a point guard for the Miami Heat, and he’s on his way to making a new name for himself.

This is a tale of triumph.