By KYLE HIGHTOWERSENTINEL STAFF WRITER
If nothing else, Orlando Magic point guard Rafer Alston's journey to this point in his NBA career is a study of evolution.
A New York-area street basketball legend, "Skip to my Lou" first dropped sneakers on the national basketball landscape via his starring role in the first And1 mixtape tour in the late 1990s.
How Alston has transformed those playful playground skills into becoming a solid NBA point guard during his decade in the league likely dictates how far the Magic go this season. The Magic obtained him from the Houston Rockets just before the trade deadline to plug the hole created by Jameer Nelson's season-ending shoulder surgery.
Alston's traveled from Queens to college out west and through four NBA cities and NBDL outposts to get here. He'll turn 33 this summer, but said that with each game in a Magic jersey — seven games now — that he's feeling like his latest stop is the one he's waited for.
Rafer Alston's career track back "The plan was to always make it to this point," Alston said with a nod. "A person takes different paths. This was mine. It started on the playgrounds and with me being able to hold my own as a young kid against grown ups.
" ... I had to really prove and show that I belonged in the Division I circuit, that I belonged in the NBA and could play with the best of them."
The Magic are 5-2 since Alston's arrival. He's still adjusting, but the early returns are positive.
"I think so," General Manager Otis Smith said when asked if Alston could carry his team to the NBA Finals, "because what he does is battle every night. He doesn't allow guys to take a step back. He's 32 years old and his goal is to win a title, too. And we feel like we just gave him a chance to do that."
Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy said the streetball background is one Alston has had to prove himself for so long.
"People immediately stereotype you a little," Van Gundy said.
Now a "pass first" point guard, Alston said he hasn't completely lost the flash that earned him his nickname when he used to skip down New York's legendary Rucker Park's court on fast breaks. In fact, several players still call him "Skip."
Alston says he's just embracing the styles of the classic New York point guards he grew up watching such as Mark Jackson, Pearl Washington, Rod Strickland and Kenny Anderson.
"Growing up in New York there were guards all over the place," Alston said. "A center was a guard ... I had great guards to watch everywhere and pick a piece from each one of them. ... Now this is my time."
Alston is also averaging 11.4 points and six assists in a Magic jersey. Van Gundy said his game has matured.
"If you watch him he's a solid basketball player — he's not out there trying to throw full court, behind-the-back passes," Van Gundy said. " ... Guys need time to develop and he's taken advantage of that opportunity ... He took it and ran with it."
Eddie Lau is Alston's best friend and business manager. Lau first met the "basketball addict" Alston when the pair was 10 years old and playing on the same Riverside (N.Y.) church basketball team.
Lau was from the Lower East Side but is quick to remind that "New York is big, but [the] basketball [community] is kind of small."
Though Alston was fast achieving legendary status on the court, without a strong father presence at home when he arrived at Benjamin Cardozo High School he turned into a consistent truant.
He played in just 10 games in his final two years at Cardozo because he was ineligible.
As a result he had to take his game out west after high school to get his grades up in junior college.
Lau said the move was actually what Alston might have needed most.
"The biggest thing about New York is that there are a lot of distractions," Lau said. "The best thing he ever did was to leave New York and take his game to the West Coast where it was also a different kind of game. It took it to a whole different level by maturing and getting away from all distractions. It focused him."
Alston won a state title as a Ventura College freshman and spent just one year at Fresno State before beginning his NBA odyssey. He was selected in the second round of the 1998 draft by Milwaukee.
His path has been anything but straight ever since then, moving briefly through the NBA's D-League before establishing himself on the Van Gundy-coached Miami team and for his brother Jeff Van Gundy in Houston for two seasons.
Rafer Alston's career track back In between, Alston also signed a six-year $30 million deal with Toronto in 2004. His final year of that deal is next season.
His Toronto tenure was marred, however, by a two-game suspension in 2005 for "conduct detrimental to the team" for what then-Raptors Coach Sam Mitchell called temper problems.
After being traded to Houston, Alston also had run-ins with the law — first an assault charge from an alleged stabbing incident in Manhattan and then public intoxication charge in Houston three weeks later. All charges have since been dismissed.
"It's all timing," Lau said. "Unfortunately he had some setbacks along the way, but it made him stronger. He's been to every level ... but he's stayed humble."
So humble that Alston has spent his recent summers not on vacation but back in New York coaching in the same AAU program that he and fellow NBA players Lamar Odom, Wally Szczerbiak and Charlie Villanueva went through.
It's that mature person and player that so far has made Alston a welcomed addition in Orlando.
"My job isn't as hard as it might seem here," he said. "There are a lot of guys that can score and I just have to get them the ball as quick and often as possible. I've only played one position my entire life and that's point guard. So it comes natural to me."