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Skipping along in T.O.
by Dean Serravalle / February 17, 2003

Take away the fame, the playground lore, the And 1 bootleg tapes that just about every basketball enthusiast has seen more than once; and forget the hype or expectations from the likes of other NBA superstars like Stephon Marbury (a former playground adversary), and coaches like Jerry Tarkanian, and what you have is a lazy-eyed, hardworking, humble kid from Queens leaning against the wall with his own basketball in hand, hoping for someone to pick him and ask him to stay.

To date, the Toronto Raptors have done that, and in turn, Rafer Alston has delivered, averaging the best numbers of his career as a pro (7.2 ppg, 4.8 apg), while bringing flare to a team in dire need of an adrenaline lobotomy. Already a fan favorite in his short term as a Raptor, when asked about his widespread popularity Rafer shrugs it off embarrassed.

“I’m delighted the fans have taken a liking to me. For me, I just play off of it. It gives me an extra boost out there. I like Toronto. It’s a beautiful city. It’s more than what I expected it to be.”

And most basketball experts in Raptorland would agree that Rafer is more than what everyone expected him to be. Rafer made an immediate impression on Raptor fans with exceptional games against New Jersey and Minnesota, where he scored a team high 17 points and earned himself a year long extension on his 10-day contract. Since then, and with the return of starters from the injured reserve, he has assumed the role of backup point guard. However, Rafer doesn’t sit long on the bench and when in relief of perennial guard Alvin Williams, the gears definitely shift, while the buzz in the crowd is a contagious whisper, expecting the unexpected, hoping, if just once, that life imitates the art of those legendary street ball tapes.

His innate and instinctive ability to take guys off the dribble coupled with the deceptive skill to deliver a hairline pass in transition is a welcomed addition to a team lacking creativity at the point guard position. While his speed and up court vision has also revitalized an offense spinning its tires in halfcourt.

But despite the honeymoon optimism of this new marriage, Rafer has definitely paid his dues, both on and off the court. His past is littered with obstacles, including scholastic troubles, missed opportunities, and family problems, but none more damaging to his career as his tenure with the Milwaukee Bucks, tethered by a frayed relationship with George Karl.

“There are some coaches who get along better with their top five or six players than they do everyone else. I got along with him at times, but not often. It was definitely a learning experience, but I’ve moved on with this opportunity, and it seems to be working out for me."

Previous to his signing with the Toronto Raptors, Rafer had big hopes for a future with the Golden State Warriors, who were in need of a point guard, but found that Golden State wasn’t the right fit either,

“Again, it’s all about the opportunity presented to you.”

Ironically, coach Lenny Wilkens, who’s been known to improve the longevity of careers for guards he has taken under his wing, has embraced Rafer. “I feel real good knowing that when I take Alvin Williams out I’ve got Rafer to put in there who’s really going to push it,” Wilkens has stated.

So, the question remains whether Rafer and his bag of tricks will stay after this year, or skip to the next best opportunity. His contract is tentative at best, expiring at the end of the year, and it is evident that his fame will follow him wherever he goes. But is Toronto the right fit?

“Sure I want to stay. We’ve dug ourselves a big hole and if we keep on fighting, we can make something happen. And I’m not going anywhere. I’m sticking around.”

Whatever the decision, Rafer Alston has indeed been a pleasant surprise, and a joy to watch. Not only has he breathed life into what was becoming a rather conservative, vanilla team, but also he has managed to prove to Toronto Raptor fans and NBA fans alike, that basketball is much more than a sport, and nothing short of an art form.

Dean Serravalle is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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