He was a Queens kid trying to make it in Harlem, a trick-dribbling sensation trying to turn heads at Rucker. His high school and college careers were spotty. He wound up an And1 Mixtape icon who beat the odds going in and out and back in the NBA, five different teams and always hanging on by a thread.
It is one thing and then the next; one mistake and another comeback. It hasn't always been easy and it hasn't always been pretty, but at the end of the day, Rafer Alston returns in a new form and surprises everyone. He's one of the most unlikely starters in NBA Finals history.
"No. 1," Alston said of everything, "is don't take it personal."
So Skip To My Lou goes 3-of-17 from the floor in the first two games of the series and doesn't take it personal.
His coach, Stan Van Gundy, appears to have so little confidence in him that he jams Jameer Nelson(notes), fresh off four and a half months on the disabled list, into heavy minutes and Alston doesn't take it personal.
In Game 2, Van Gundy decides he'd rather go down the stretch with no point guard than Alston and he doesn't take it personal.
He just bides his time and takes Game 3 over – 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting, four assists and, most importantly, real point-guard play so Hedo Turkoglu(notes) didn't have to exhaust himself bringing it up the court.
"Well, I was aggressive from start to finish," Alston, 32, said after the game. "I was able to mix it up. That's what I do best."
What he does best is surprise everyone. He always has. Every time you think you have Alston pegged, he finds something else. He's always been able to dribble himself out of trouble. Rucker Park has produced a million guys who could've and should've made the pros.
The Goat, The Destroyer, Helicopter and so on.
Alston is the one who could and did, the one who made the NBA Finals, the all-time Patron Saint of Hoops Dreamers.
So when Alston credited Van Gundy with delivering a "pep talk," the coach just laughed. Alston never needs a pep talk, he'll figure out his failures on his own. Instinctively Van Gundy understood this, but he's a coach's coach, the son of a coach, and when your starting point guard is blowing the Finals, a coach has to say something. They just do.
So he pulled Alston aside and dished this pearl of wisdom: "Play your game."
"I'm a motivational genius," Van Gundy laughed. "It took me two days to come up with that."
It took Alston 36 minutes to offer the response, a game of slashing to the hole, living in the L.A. lane and knocking down floaters and jumpers. Nelson stayed on the bench, Alston stayed in the game and Orlando stayed in the series.
"Stan and I have a great relationship," Alston said. "I understand he's just trying to coach to win games. I'm trying to play and help him win games."
Alston isn't philosophical about anything. He may be the only one who always thought he'd be a star in the NBA Finals. He may be the only one who thought he'd come back from the lousy start to the series and be a factor.
He doesn't question the route he took to get to the present, he just focuses on finding one that will take him to the future. In a sports world filled with guys consumed with intensity, especially after losses, his attitude can drive people crazy.
Gortat is a bald 7-footer from an old textile town in central Poland. These two couldn't be less alike, an only-in-the-NBA pairing. Naturally, they are great friends. So Gortat complied, teaching him "how are you" in Polish.
The NBA public relations people were waiting to whisk Alston off for a waiting pack in the interview room, but this seemed important to him.
"See, I don't want to talk to you," Alston laughed to Gortat. "I want to talk to Polish women."
This is what runs through Rafer Alston's head minutes after the biggest game of his life.
Van Gundy searched for two games for a solution to the Lakers, trying everything – even J.J. Redick(notes) – and the answer was bouncing around Alston's psyche the entire time. If Alston could get right, then so too could the Magic.
They just needed one more reinvention.
- Rafer Alston