MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic are back in action tonight. It's Game Four of the NBA Finals.
The Magic won Tuesday after dropping the first two games in the series to the Lakers. In Game Three, there was a good sign for Orlando fans. A key player, starting point guard Rafer Alston, was his old self again. He pushed the ball up court, delivered pinpoint passes, hit outside shots, and he seem to rediscover the balance between his two distinct basketball personalities.
NPR's Tom Goldman explains.
TOM GOLDMAN: He's basketball's version of Clark Kent and Superman. When he was just 11, Rafer Alston stepped onto a court at famed Rucker Park in New York City, and it seem like he was stepping out of a phone booth.
Mr. RON NACLERIO (Basketball Coach): Rafer gets in the game.
GOLDMAN: Ron Naclerio was Alston's high school coach.
Mr. NACLERIO: A guy tries to steal the ball from Rafer, does, you know, some move. Then he does another move. He goes through a third guy, spins another guy, close pass to fourth guy, puts the ball between his legs, and he ends up doing some crazy spin at the end of the play. His shot is blocked, and it goes out of bounds.
You know, the crowd realized, and I realized, that 94 feet that we just saw was not normal for a kid, at that point, he was 11 going on 12.
GOLDMAN: At 14, Alston got his playground nickname while skipping past some hapless defenders.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Skip to my Lou.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) It's like I'm fighting for freedom.
GOLDMAN: With his moves and ball-handling wizardry, he had the ball on a string, says Naclerio. Skip to My Lou became a playground legend by 17. The legend spread beyond New York City thanks to his starring role in the first AND1 Mixtape, a "Skip to My Lou" video set to hip-hop.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) (Unintelligible).
GOLDMAN: But even as he played the role of streetball Superman, Skip understood, with guidance from Naclerio and other adults who cared, that his ultimate goal in basketball would require a Clark Kent approach, and so, Rafer Alston did the work.
Mr. RAFER ALSTON (Point Guard, Orlando Magic): I was always breaking down film on players, going back in the gym and the park, working on things. And every time they said I couldn't do this, do that, I went and worked on those things.
GOLDMAN: And the work showed as he zigged and zagged his way through the world of conventional hoops, from Cardozo High in Queens, where when he wasn't, in Naclerio's words, screwing up in school, he was averaging over 30 points a game, to Ventura Junior College in California, where Alston was named most valuable player on the school's championship team.
In 1999, Alston signed with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, a significant moment considering how many playground legends before him had crashed and burned, failing to make the most of their talent. But once in the league, Alston says he felt like he had to put Skip to My Lou in cold storage.
Mr. ALSTON: They don't like someone going between your legs, throwing behind the back passes, but, you know, I was a kid who watched Pistol Pete Maravich, and they loved him doing it. So I don't understand how they can love him doing it and it was a-okay when Pistol Pete Maravich had a lot of playground stuff in his game, but when a kid like myself come from New York City, it's all bad.
GOLDMAN: But the negativity wasn't just about Alston's fancy moves. He had a number of run-ins with the law, including charges of assault and driving while intoxicated.
Mr. NACLERIO: If it wasn't for myself and one or two people, there'd be a good chance Rafer Alston would be either dead or in jail right now.
(Soundbite of basketball game)
Unidentified Man #3: And he has played extremely well. From Cardozo High School in Queens, New York.
GOLDMAN: But there he was Tuesday night on ABC, helping Orlando win its first game of the NBA Finals. Ron Naclerio says it was just as significant for Alston, after he played really well, to hear some of his Magic teammates call him Skip to My Lou.
Mr. NACLERIO: When he hears that Skip's a little bit of accepted in the league or by his teammates, I think that's what's going to fuel him, that he can be a little bit of Skip instead of, you know, in the NBA, totally Rafer Alston.
GOLDMAN: Which could be good news for NBA fans and trouble, maybe, for the L.A. Lakers.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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