‘Skip to My Lou’ is just ‘Coach’ to Panthers players

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HENDERSON, Nev. — Some players from the Nebraska Bison Red-Wahoo AAU boys’ basketball team filed out of the players’ exit Friday night at Foothills High School in the shadows of the Las Vegas strip. The glitz and nightlife were a few miles away, but right there, in front of their eyes, was a celebrity.

The players stopped in their tracks and whispered among themselves. They pulled out their cell phone cameras. They called back other teammates.

All the hoopla was over a coach — but not Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams or Rick Pitino, although all figure to be in Vegas this weekend. The mentor in question was Rafer Alston, late of the Orlando Magic, new to the New Jersey Nets and the New York Panthers’ U17 AAU coach.

“Rafer Alston for 3!” one of the Nebraska players said, mimicking a television announcer as he clicked a photo.

Just two short months ago, Alston was helping the Magic to the NBA Finals, where they fell to the Los Angeles Lakers. He was traded last month to the Nets.

“This guy is in the NBA,” said Panthers forward Ryan Rhoomes, a rising senior at Cardozo HS. “This is his vacation. He doesn’t have to be here with us.”

Alston scoffs at that notion.

“I know I can be on vacation with my family, things like that,” said Alston, who is coaching the Panthers for a second straight summer. “But this is something I love doing.”

But there wasn’t much love Friday night.

The Panthers led at the half in the Reebok Create ‘n’ Finish Cup, eight-team, tournament-within-a-tournament, fifth-place game. But they ended up falling to MBA Elite out of Mississippi 74-52. Afterward, Alston and Panthers Director Gary Charles gave the players a tongue-lashing. Alston, who turned 33 Friday, said it was the first game he’s ever lost on his birthday.

“It’s hard sometimes getting the message across to the guys how hard you gotta play,” Alston said. “That’s the biggest problem. … That’s the issue every night. We get by some nights with the talent they have. But we gotta compete and right now they’re not competing as hard as they should be.”

The Panthers can learn a lot about hard work from their coach. Alston was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1998, but bounced around. He was in and out of the league and didn’t stick until 2005 with the Rockets. Since then, he has been an NBA regular and sometimes starter.

“If you can’t listen to an NBA guy, who can you listen to?” said Charles, who coached Alston in high school with the Panthers. “When you think about Rafer’s past and everything he’s been through, the fact that he’s putting so much into this, I couldn’t be more proud of a person than I am of Rafer.”

Alston can also impart off-the-court knowledge. He didn’t have the best high school career, failing off multiple times at Cardozo before going to Ventura College, a JUCO and then Fresno State. Alston, better known as “Skip to My Lou,” got famous on the streets — where he spent most of his time.

“Rafer can tell them the stories about how when I used to pick him up on the corner when he was shooting dice, I’d get him away,” Charles said. “We’d come back, we won the [basketball] game, and he’d go right back to shooting the dice. The stuff his parents went through, knowing how hard it is and how he had to get out of that. That’s what this is about. He’s been there. So he can talk the lingo.”

Alston doesn’t know if coaching is what he wants to do after his playing career. Actually, that’s why he’s doing it now, getting his feet wet on the AAU scene.

“I think about it,” Alston said of coaching. “I figured I’d do it now and see if it’s something I really, really want to do. A lot of guys just jump right into it.”

Rhoomes said the novelty of having an NBA player as a coach hasn’t rubbed off yet. He and some of his teammates, like J.J. Moore of Long Island, Sterling Gibbs of New Jersey, Wings Academy rising senior Dashaun Wiggins, Bronx native Winston Graham of Lee Academy and Cardozo rising senior Reynaldo “Junior” Walters, are not quite used to it yet. Especially when people stare, take pictures or cause scenes in public.

“I think about it like, ‘Wow, this dude is really coaching us,’” Rhoomes said.

Updated 6:32 pm, October 10, 2011
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