Sunday, November 23, 2014

Raefer Alston's Legendary NYC Streetball & NBA Credentials



Ron Naclerio is a New York City basketball treasure. As the head coach at Benjamin Cardozo High School in Queens for 33 years, his teams have won two Public School Athletic League championships. But in addition to being considered one of the top high school basketball coaches in the country, Naclerio is also a hoops historian and junkie. He is consumed by the game.

During a vacation last summer in Florida, he isolated himself in his hotel room and studied hours of video on Michigan State’s offensive sets, plucking a play or two that his Cardozo team used en route to winning the city title this past spring. Naclerio is not only ubiquitous on the sidelines while coaching various teams during the school year, but he’s also a fixture on the summer playground scene as one of the many colorful characters stalking the sidelines. He’ll also still lace up his sneakers and give a talented player a run for his money when motivated.

If you passed him on the street, you’d probably assume that he was just another hyperkinetic, balding, middle-aged white guy from New York. But in actuality, Naclerio is a change-agent and cultural force of nature whose contributions to the style, sub-culture, and commerce of urban basketball is as equally legendary as his coaching resume.

He is largely responsible for the proliferation of a hip hop-inspired athletic and entertainment hoops counterculture that permeated the America’s sports consciousness from the moment that And1 decided to give a free copy of a ‘Streetball Mixtape’ to customers who purchased a pair of its sneakers in the late 1990s.

Naclerio not only provided the company with the tape, but he was also instrumental in honing the skill set of the young man whose blurry-fast crossover dribbles, mesmerizing ball-handling and exhilarating passes convinced some that their eyes had the capacity to lie.

Image via SLAM

That young man’s name was Rafer Alston. But at Rucker Park and other playgrounds throughout the city, he was a certified legend, known throughout the hoops underground as a one-man phenomenon called ‘Skip 2 My Lou’ before ever playing a single game in the NCAA or the NBA.

With a father battling a debilitating addiction, Alston would escape from his rugged neighborhood in Queens via subway, searching the city for competitive pickup basketball games at the age of eleven.

“The handles and the passing that I became known for, that developed from playing a lot,” Alston recently told Slam Magazine’s Ben Osborne. “And also watching a lot. Bouncing around the city, going to different playgrounds, different parks and noticing all the stuff that gets fans out of their seats. I watched local guys that made it big like Pearl Washington, Mark Jackson and Kenny Anderson. Plus local guys that didn’t make it out, like ‘Master Rob’ (Rob Hockett) and ‘Dancing Doogie’ (Gerald Thomas). Doogie was tough. There were so many kids who were so gifted that never made it to college or the NBA.”

Coach Naclerio met Alston when the young boy was ten years old and the two struck up an unlikely friendship. They started working out together when Alston was in the sixth grade. Naclerio began taking his young prodigy all over the city, where he acquired his first nickname, ‘Shorty.’

Naclerio sat down to talk about his famous hoops whiz kid and some of his favorite memories that took place within the chain link fences of Rucker Park:

“Rafer was about twelve years old and even though he was really tiny, he was very smart and knowledgeable about the game. When we would work out, I had to get creative with dribbling drills that I had him doing because he picked up on everything so fast. He would take what I taught him, master it, and then add layer upon layer of something new and different on top of it.

He loved working out and expanding his skills. He couldn’t get enough of it. Some people looked at what he was doing and thought it just came naturally. Rafer did possess a lot of natural talent and smarts about the game, but he also put in hundreds of hours practicing and perfecting his skills.

But by the time he was about 15 years old, he started to accumulate a cult following on the playgrounds. That’s when one of the announcers in Rucker Park gave him the nickname ‘Skip 2 My Lou,” because sometimes he’d be skipping down the court while doing this little dance.

I had Stephon Marbury and Rafer playing in the same backcourt together out at Rucker Park when they were 14 and 15 years old. Now that was a sight to behold. They were just two kids, but they were exceptional. I don’t know if there was ever a backcourt that was that young in the history of Rucker Park that performed at the level that they did.

Watching them play and have that type of success against some great players, guys who were in college or in the NBA or overseas, that’s when I knew that they had a chance to be just as special as they got older, that they had a legitimate chance to reach the level that all kids dream about, the NBA.

Most kids that are really good in high school, as they get older and play in college, their deficiencies become more pronounced. The competition gets tougher, they’re not as strong as they looked in high school, their range isn’t as good against guys who are bigger and stronger and faster and they can’t get to the rim as easily.
Image via AND1

But Rafer and Stephon, they were taking it to grown men that had legit reputations. And what made what they were doing even more amazing was that nobody up there (the street legends, college guys, overseas pros or NBA guys) wanted Rafer and Steph to steal their thunder. To them, it was like losing to little kids. But no matter how hard they tried to intimidate them, shut them down and beat them, they realized that these kids were incredible.

One of the greatest teams I coached at Rucker Park was ‘The Entourage’ in the early 1990s. All of our guys were in high school, except for Conrad McCrae, who was playing at Syracuse at the time. We might have had one or two more guys who were young players in college, but the majority of the team was high school kids and Rafer and Steph was our starting backcourt. We made it to the playoffs that summer. We lost in our next game, a triple-overtime thriller against the team that eventually won the championship, but we were the crowd favorites whenever we played.

The crowds would go crazy for us and they wanted us to win every game, because every win meant another phenomenal performance from ‘Skip 2 My Lou.’

It got to the point where Rafer became the Pied Piper of New York City playground basketball. People have to understand that Rafer played for me at Cardozo, but there were academic issues so he only really played about ten games in total of high school basketball. But he became a certified legend, and I mean A LEGEND, by the performances he put on in those playground tournaments.

It was a phenomenon. I hadn’t seen anything like that before on the playgrounds. The only thing I could compare it to was The Beatles. Wherever he performed, it was a major event. I would drive him to our games, and it was amazing to walk in and out of Rucker Park with him. Everybody wanted to touch him and talk to him and get his autograph. Girls would mob him, running up on him and handing him pieces of paper saying, ‘Here’s my number, call me.’ He barely played much high school ball and hadn’t even gone to college yet, but he was the biggest star in New York City.

Image via AND1
One of my favorite memories was one game when a lot of the players got confused about what time the game was supposed to start. We only had five guys – Mark Jackson, his brother Troy ‘Escalade’ Jackson, Ryan ‘Special FX’ Williams, Darryl ‘Showtime’ Hill and Rafer. So Mark throws me a jersey and Escalade was like, ‘He’s gonna play with us?’

I looked at him and said, ‘Troy, your nickname might be ‘Escalade’, but to me it’s ‘Three Trips and Gatorade.’ Because after three trips up and down the court, you had to sub him out of the game. And sure enough, after three possessions, I had to sub into the game for him.

I’ve seen some amazing performances in Rucker Park. I once saw Conrad McRae, who they called ‘McNasty’, block 19 shots in a game. I saw Kevin Durant pulling up from damn near half-court and hitting some amazing shots on the night he scored 66 points. I saw Lance Stephenson, when his nickname was ‘The 8th Grader’, put on some great performances. I saw Kareem Reid, who was as good as any New York City guard that didn’t have an NBA career, put on some amazing performances against guys like Nate Robinson.

Having to choose my favorite moment at Rucker Park is like judging the Miss America pageant. There are 50 beautiful women there. How do you choose the prettiest? I’m not gonna say that Rafer was Kobe, LeBron or Michael, but his impact, and the way he played out there, I’d never seen anything like it. And people outside of the parks hadn’t even seen him play yet. He was amazing.”

Image via SLAM

The lore of Rucker Park and New York City basketball is littered with sad tales of transcendent talents who never became more than playground legends, phenomenal players who were just as good, if not better than their contemporaries in the NBA. But they succumbed to the lure of selling narcotics and the criminal lifestyle or the grip of a debilitating drug addiction. The Goat, Pee Wee, The Destroyer, The Fly—they never got to realize, due to their own self-destructive choices, their true hoops potential.

But Skip 2 My Lou did more than etch his name into the pantheon of Rucker Park greats. He made the quantum leap, causing a seismic collision of playground culture with an NBA paycheck.

While his counterpart, Stephon Marbury, left New York with a scholarship to play in the prestigious ACC with Georgia Tech, Rafer went about earning his G.E.D.

He then attended two junior colleges in California over a three-year period, where he eventually acquired his Associate’s Degree at Fresno City College. During his one season playing at Fresno City, he averaged 17.3 points and 8.6 assists per game.

Then legendary college coach Jerry Tarkanian awarded him a Division I scholarship to Fresno State University. Before playing one minute of major college basketball, he appeared on the famous cover of Slam Magazinewith a sub-heading that read, “Fresno State’s Rafer Alston. The Best Point Guard in the World (You’ve Never Heard Of).”

He went on to play eleven years in the NBA for the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic and New Jersey Nets. — ALEJANDRO DANOIS | EBC

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