NOTE: Somehow, a gchat with a my dear, PhD-having friend in Bloomington, IN turned into three semi-epic email messages from me regarding key subplots to the 2009 NBA Finals. Since I've not really been paying this thing any attention, I'm recycling those email messages. This is the first...
When basketball died in the mid-90s, it had a lot to do with the And1 phenomenon. Rafer Alston, then known to most as a HS PG/NYC Playground Legend called Skip to My Lou, was the face of And1. Eff that. He WAS And1.
He did some time in the NCAAs playing for Jerry Tarkanian's underachieving (yet thoroughly interesting) Fresno State teams circa 1997. He was drafted with some ceremony by...I don't remember who...then proceeded to bounce around the NBA carrying with him a reputation for being a servicable NBA PG who could make your team interesting, but it was long thought that he would never evolve into a championship calibre-player. In large part because he was still a fragile showboat.
Last year, with Houston, he showed signs that he might finally be ready for prime time. That the kid so many backpackers jizzed in their pants over way back in '95ish had finally grown into a real-ass NBA baller.
Fast forward to Jan '09. Orlando is on the verge of doing big things. Their starting PG, Jameer Nelson, goes down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Nelson is the classic up-by-your-bootstraps story who has made a career out of overachieving. He also served as the heart of the franchise. The season--it was thought--was over. Even a trade for a decent player to fill in would probably not offer the potential that Nelson's healthy presence would have.
Yet, here comes Rafer Alston via trade, or Skip as some still like to call him. He does more than a serviceable job. More importantly, he provides exactly what is needed exactly when it is needed during the Magic's journey through the play-offs.
It's a brilliant redemption story. And it brings to mind the speech from the closing scene of Rocky IV, "If they can change, and I can change, maybe we all can change..."
The idea here being that maybe all the so-called ills of the mid-90s streetball scene weren't so bad after all. Maybe they helped set the stage for the basketball we see being played today. By everyone from whatever NCAA team John Calipari is coaching to the 2009 Eastern Conference champions.
Without Skip...maybe there's no Steve Nash. And without Nash...well, there's certainly no NBA as we know it today.
So here's Skip's moment. And...wouldn't you know it...Jameer Nelson is talking about making a premature comeback. If he does, that's gonna eat into Skip's moment. How will he handle it? Has he really grown from the volatile schoolyards that birthed him into a mature leader? Or is he still that rascally showboat who burned up the heads of so many VCRs by his sheer virtuosity with a basketball?
We don't know yet. But we will.