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Alston leaves the playground behind him

Images of a lanky, lightning-fast point guard streak across the screen as a group of men whoop and holler at his exploits. One yells, “I have seen the light, I have seen the light” when the point guard dribbles through a defender’s legs.

The commercial is called simply, “Point God.” It’s a tough moniker to live up to, but Rafer Alston doesn’t seem to mind.

It’s a lazy August afternoon and the South Jamaica native is “just relaxing” on a day when there is no more running around to do, no more games to play, no more tapes to sell. Seldom is there time for Alston to just kick back, but by the sound of his relaxed drone, he is taking advantage of the break.

As the poster boy for And-1, an upstart sneaker company, Alston has become a celebrity, courtesy of a marketing plan that features two television ads showing him at his playground best, ball-handling, dancing, skipping and making some truly breathtaking passes. It is an act he has taken on the road this summer as part of the company’s Mix Tape Tour, a publicity jaunt to hawk sneakers and video tape compilations of Alston and other playground legends.

But that’s all for show, Alston pointed out in an interview this week. Come crunch time, his playground identity, “Skip 2 My Lou,” takes a back seat. The playground flash that has made him the underground star of the NBA will not see the light of day on the pro court. At least not for a while.

“They are two different worlds,” Alston said of the world-renowned Rucker Tournament, where he cut his basketball teeth, and the NBA, where he plays as a back-up point guard for the Milwaukee Bucks. “We just do it to please the crowd. The pro level is the business. The Rucker is about having a great time.”

Legions of young ballplayers throughout the nation know Alston by his “other name” and track him down in whatever city he happens to be visiting just to watch him run. But that is not the kind of basketball Alston will be displaying when the Bucks take the floor this fall.

“It helps you in a way,” Alston said of his playground legend status. “[The kids] like you. But the pro game is a totally different way of playing. I really want them to see that I can play the other way, too.

“The NBA is not the place to be flashy,” he added. “I’m just trying to get the job done. I’ll have an opportunity to do all that stuff when time presents itself.”

Time is what it is all about. Alston signed a one-year contract with the Bucks for close to $700,000. It may not seem like a great deal, but Alston and his agent, Keith Kreiter of Edge Sports International, are betting that Alston, after two years of pining away on the end of the bench, will finally have his breakthrough season.

And with unrestricted free agency looming after the 2001-2002 season, there could be no better time.

The Bucks traded back-up point guard Lindsay Hunter, leaving the door open for Alston to step up and grab some of the minutes left vacant by Hunter’s departure. Last year Hunter averaged 24.4 minutes per game, precious time for an up-and-coming player like Alston.

Bucks General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, a Queens native out of Forest Hills High School, seems more than ready to have Alston gobble up those minutes, playing behind starter Sam Cassell. But those minutes are guaranteed to no one, the general manager said, something Alston knows only too well.

“The only person who really knows is coach [George] Karl,” Alston said. “They know what they want to do and who they want to play.”

According to Grunfeld, the Bucks are content with Alston as their main backup and confident the father of two small children can fill the void left by Hunter and even step in to start if the need arises.

“He’s made steady progress,” Grunfeld said. “He’s a hard worker and he understands how to run a team. He has speed and quickness and he knows how to push the ball. There are minutes available for Rafer to earn.

“He will have the opportunity to earn those minutes,” Grunfeld added. “Last year when he got significant minutes, he produced. Rafer’s the kind of player that can get the ball to the open shooters. Nobody is guaranteed anything in this league, but I have the most confidence that Rafer will earn his minutes. I expect him to play more and contribute.”

That Alston is even in this position at all is a testament to how far he has come as a basketball player and as a person.

Continued academic problems sidelined the star while he was at Cardozo High School, leaving him ineligible for much of his junior and senior years. A highly publicized legal battle between Alston and the Board of Education resulted in a temporary restraining order that only allowed the 6-foot-2 guard to become eligible for four games during his final year at the Bayside school.

After leaving Cardozo, Alston spent time at two junior colleges, Ventura and Fresno City — both in California — before finally making it to the Division I ranks in 1997 with Fresno State, coached by Jerry Tarkanian.

In his lone year of Division I basketball, Alston led the Western Athletic Conference in assists out of the point guard position, helping Fresno advance to the quarterfinals of the National Invitational Tournament last March.

But in that season, Alston came perilously close to ruining his promising basketball beyond repair.

Alston was suspended by Fresno State prior to the start of the season in connection with a domestic assault charge lodged against him by a former girlfriend. Alston was forced to miss several games at the start of 1997-1998 season after pleading no contest to the charge.

He was subsequently sentenced to 200 hours of community service, a year-long counseling program and a $200 fine.

Alston was again suspended by Fresno State in May 1997 after admitting in court that he violated probation stemming from the battery charge. He conceded that he had paid only half of the fine and not attended the counseling sessions.

Even with these legal problems, Alston was the 39th overall player selected in 1998 draft by the Bucks in the second round. But the subsequent player lockout prevented Alston from signing a contract with Milwaukee.

In January 1999, while waiting for the lockout to end, Alston was sentenced to 90 days in jail for failing to complete one year of anger management classes and a work program sentence stemming from the domestic assault charge.

Alston served his time, a little more than a month at the Fresno City Jail, and just days after his release with the NBA season in full swing, he signed a pro contract with the Continental Basketball Association’s Idaho Stampede.

His stay in the minors was a brief one. Alston eventually signed a two-year deal with the Bucks the following summer after starring at the Rocky Mountain Revue in Salt Lake City and the FILA Summer Pro League in Long Beach, Calif.

Grunfeld said Alston’s past, whatever it may be, has no bearing on his status with the team and that since the general manager came to the Bucks from the Knicks two years ago, Alston has been nothing but professional.

“Rafer has made great strides,” Grunfeld said. “He’s a model citizen. He’s been a pleasure to work with. I treat players the way they treat our organization and he’s been a pleasure to be around.”

In his two years with the Bucks, Alston’s playing time has been sparse at best. The most minutes he has ever played in a game were 31, in April against Miami. His career high in points is 12, which came in November 2000 against Portland, while he has dished out eight assists on three separate occasions and has a high of six total rebounds.

Grunfeld has watched Alston progress over the past two seasons and while he said Alston could stand to improve his ability to stop-and-pop, the general manager sees a lot to be hopeful about for Bucks fans.

“He has a very good feel for the game, he pushes the ball up the floor and he can penetrate and dish,” Grunfeld said. “He’s known as ‘Skip 2 My Lou,’ the playground legend, but he’s taken the street, the playground, out of his game to fit the NBA situation.

“He’s a good on-the-ball defender,” he added. “He keeps the man in front of him. He has the ability to be a top-notch defender.”

Alston agrees.

“They know I can run the team and they also know the playground thing is just for showmanship,” he said. “And I showed I can run a pro team.”

Alston said he was thrilled to be able to resign with the Bucks, a team that went to the conference finals last year before falling to Philadelphia, despite the fact that he seldom got into a game during meaningful minutes unless either or both Cassell and Hunter were unavailable to go.

“I feel great,” he said. “I love the opportunity to go back to play for a great team. It was a little frustrating at times [not being able to play], but the team did great.”

With Hunter gone and the minutes available, Alston said he feels the time to make his mark in the NBA is now.

“Hopefully, time will tell and I’ll get the minutes,” he said.

Until the Bucks training camp opens in October, Alston will be making the rounds to a playground near you. But that may be the last chance you get to see “Skip 2 My Lou.” At least for a while.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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