For three decades we’ve covered many amazing basketball characters, but some stand above the rest—not only because of their on-court skills (though those are always relevant), but because of how they influenced and continue to influence basketball culture, and thus influenced SLAM. Meanwhile, SLAM has also changed those players’ lives in various ways, as we’ve documented their careers with classic covers, legendary photos, amazing stories, compelling videos and more. 

We compiled a group of individuals (programming note: 30 entries, not 30 people total) who mean something special to SLAM and to our audience. Read the full list here and order your copy of SLAM 248, where this list was originally published, here.

“Skip to My Lou” was not Rafer Alston’s first nickname. The pseudonym that would stick with the point guard throughout blacktop supremacy and an NBA career was born the summer after his Rucker Park debut. That prior summer, the frail 14-year-old from South Jamaica, Queens, was all the way uptown balling comfortably with collegiate starters. Despite a considerable difference in age and size between him and the other players, not one could remain in front of him. He handled the rock as if it were a yo-yo and treated defenders like turnstiles in subway exits. “Here comes The Energizer!” shouted Rucker Park MC Duke Tango.

“He just keeps going and going,” said Duke’s co-host, Al Cash. Rafer’s new notoriety climbed to a point where Harlemites would anticipate a lopsided score just to witness The Energizer bounce to his own drum.

The following summer, Rafer received the keys to that same Rucker team. During a particular game in which he felt the players and crowd lacked synergy, he premeditated a move in hopes of producing stimuli. The opposing guard found himself alone with a 3-on-1 fast break quickly approaching. Rafer bounced the ball in front of him and shuffled his feet with hope that his defender would take the bait. As expected, the opp reached for the ball. Raf then snatched it back, wrapped it around his own waist and dimed his slashing teammate. Spectators erupted onto the court and Al Cash immediately renamed The Energizer “Skip To My Lou.” 

For Rafer Alston, life has only been easy as Skip To My Lou. When he wasn’t performing on a playground, he was consistently weathering obstacles and downhill winds. As an 11-year-old prodigy, he was too young to understand the neighborhood fuss around his ability. All he knew was that he was better than the other kids, but their parents were present at games and his weren’t. Mama Alston worked two jobs and dad was so consumed by drugs he stole Raf’s Michael Jordan rookie card. Perhaps a healthy home life would’ve prevented one of the greatest high school guards ever from only playing a combined 10 games his junior and senior years.

He averaged over 30 points both seasons at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School, despite playing under 20 minutes per game. He kept his name ringing on the AAU circuit with Riverside Church by besting future legends like Chauncey Billups and Allen Iverson, but his dream was never to be a playground legend before age 18. It happened anyway––before he played a single minute for Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State, this very publication put him on the front of its December ’97 issue with the cover line: “The Best Point Guard In the World (you’ve never heard of).” The pressure meant little to Rafer. His only goal was to become an NBA point guard like his idols Mark Jackson and Kenny Anderson. 

Even when Alston’s name was called in the 1998 NBA Draft, it was the beginning of yet another scenic road ripe with rocky terrain and opposing nature. Being confined to George Karl’s Milwaukee Bucks bench quickly taught the rookie that the League had little regard for those amazing AND1 mixtapes. After two seasons, he nearly quit his dream job. Then close friend Troy “Escalade” Jackson (Mark’s little brother—RIP) convinced him to join the D-League. One 10-day contract begat another and in a couple years, Rafer was lobbing alleys to new Dunk Contest GOAT Vince Carter in Toronto, zipping by defenses with a rookie phenom named Dwyane Wade in Miami, then running an offense through Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming in Houston. His game was also worth nearly $30 million. 

Today, only one NYC playground legend has played in an NBA Finals. After being traded in the middle of his 10th season to the Orlando Magic, Rafer led prime Dwight Howard and Co. to the mountaintop of the 2009 NBA season for a championship bout with Kobe Bryant’s Lakers. Games 1 and 2 saw rough performances from Alston. Coach Stan Van Gundy pulled his floor general aside and instructed him to abandon the previous contests and return to whichever style of play was most fun. In Game 3, Alston dropped a dazzling 20 points on 8-12 shooting, ushering the Magic to their only win of the series. The highlight of the game was when he spun off of Derek Fisher and hit Lamar Odom with a stutter-step before jelly rolling Pau Gasol. As he ran back on defense, the Magic’s energizer smiled and pointed toward his idol, who just happened to be commentating the game for ABC. 

“I wanted Mark Jackson to know that even though I’m getting old,” said Alston after the game, “I still have a little Skip left in my game.” 

Hell of a journey. 

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