In conjunction with the Boost Mobile Elite 24 on Aug. 27 (4pm PT, ESPNU), ESPNHS is taking a deep look into the roots of California streetball. This two-part series concludes with a profile of Rucker Park streetball legend and former NBA guard Rafer Alston, who attended three California colleges and nearly played for a SoCal prep power.
Part one: L.A. streetball 101
Streetball is now worldwide and practically bigger abroad than the place of its origins -- the blacktop courts of America's inner-cities.
No blacktop is more revered than Harlem's Rucker Park, the original home of the Boost Mobile Elite 24 and the place where a rail-thin kid from Queens, N.Y., nearly reinvented streetball in the early 1990s.
Rafer Alston's handle and moves were unlike anything anyone had seen at the famed court. So much so that his long-time mentor and part time high school coach, Ron Naclerio, decided to film his Rucker games.
"It was a couple of years earlier before Rafer got back from California that I started taping his games," said Naclerio, the coach at Cardozo (Queens, N.Y.) and an honorary coach at past Elite 24 games in New York. "As his fame started growing, people didn't believe. You know how people get into hobbies, well my friend recorded stuff. We we're like, 'You want to see it, here it is."
The recurring theme with the much-traveled Alston is nobody knew about his prodigious skill outside of New York City. They had to see the skills at the different stops he made to believe.
Naclerio, who grew close to Alston when he was 10 years old and matriculating from PS40 Elementary School to IS-8 Middle School, never doubted Alston's skills to make the big-time. His reservations stemmed from Alston's difficult upbringing.
"He was skilled as a kid and had point guard smarts, but my hope was that he would be 5-foot-10," Naclerio said. "Actually, the original nickname Duke Tango gave him was 'Shorty.' He finally shot up at the end of his freshman year. His problem was he never ate right because he had a tough home situation. He ended up being 6-foot-2."
But what about Naclerio's reference to California? Or as he mockingly coined it, "Rafer's six-week summer vacation."
According to Naclerio, the move was fostered by the late Rodney Parker, a New York talent scout and ticket-scalper made semi-famous in Rick Telander's "Heaven is a Playground."
Alston's view of that period is not unsettling. J.W. North (Riverside, Calif.) coach Mike Bartee and his program were the first formal group Alston made believers of outside the five boroughs.
"I went out there and he [Bartee] didn't have a clue how good I was," Alston said at the Las Vegas FAB 48 in July. "I played a different brand of basketball.
"I would've had to go to court to gain my eligibility. I was upset I couldn't play at North. We obviously were going to win [CIF]. They had a good team anyway with Demond Jackson, a young Corey Benjamin and they already had a point guard (Chilavo Anderson). I wish I could have stayed. I miss those guys."
The Huskies went 29-2 without him during the 1993-94 season.
"That was coming into my sophomore year and he was, from the time he stepped on the floor, the best point guard out there," said former North forward Chris Claiborne, who played eight years in the NFL. "We didn't win a CIF and state championship because he went back."
Alston returned to New York in August '93, but never did get to play much for Cardozo.
"The whole time I was there, you know, I knew I had to focus to get on with my life," Alston said.
The only person at Ventura College who knew of Alston's ability was Hakeem Ward. The New Jersey native knew all about "Skip To My Lou," Alston's new moniker for his penchant to skip while simultaneously dribbling the ball and making legitimate basketball moves. It was something the Pirates' faithful got a glimpse of when then Ventura College coach Phil Matthews allowed it.
"Sometimes when the game was ours, I let him showcase his skills," said Matthews, a current UCLA assistant. "He knew how to incorporate his streetball skills into our system."
With a talented team consisting of two full units, Ventura finished 37-1 and won the state title. Alston was named state tournament most valuable player, defeating a few teams with talented players who would one day make a streetball name of their own.
"JC ball was really tough, because a lot of us weren't taking care of business," Alston said. "Long Beach, West Valley, Santa Monica, they were good teams. Especially Santa Monica before Davey Forston died, man that was a team. He was a pro, he could do it."
"I had never seen him play, but he wanted to come out to play junior college ball and led us to a state championship," said Matthews. "Rafer is a team, win first guy."
After that season, then Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian began to recruit him heavily. That made it easier for Alston to leave Matthews' demanding program and head to Fresno City College. Matthews feels the season Alston sat out helped him mature. "Skip" knew he was headed for Fresno State and thought he could transfer to Fresno City without sitting out a season.
Either way, the 1996-97 season was successful for Alston. Fresno City advanced to the state semifinals and then "Skip" was off to play for Tarkanian.
After one season with the Bulldogs, he was the No. 39 pick of the 1998 NBA Draft.
Alston no longer had to make believers out of coaches, players, and fans. Naclerio, meanwhile, continued to look out for his best interests.
In the fall of 1998, Naclerio opened doors for some of Alston's JUCO contemporaries when he submitted what would quickly become known as "The Skip Tape" to And1 when the basketball footwear and apparel company signed Alston to an endorsement deal.
The And1 mix-tapes and subsequent tour gave birth to a wave of players able to make a career as streetballers. It also inspired countless young players, including participants at the Elite 24.
That's Alston's gift to the game that money cannot measure.
"I'm glad to see people doing something [in ball] to earn a living," Alston said. "It may not be the pros, but another brand of basketball… to entertain."
"Skip was a player that inspired me to expand with my handles and I want to put on a show when I took the court," said Ball Up streetballer Grayson " The Professor" Boucher. "His dedication and work ethic toward the game is definitely something to admire."