I returned to my old high school to speak with a legendary basketball coach, who in 35 years at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Bayside, Queens has accumulated more wins than than any New York City public school sideline stalker in history.
Here's Diary of a Mad Coach, Part 2. Click Here for Part 1.
Rafer "Skip To My Lou" Alston was a homie and classmate of mine at Benjamin N. Cardozo HS in Bayside, Queens, as well as a basketball prodigy (He was getting D-1 letters in junior high), whose career and legacy was guided, shaped and immortalized by the winningest high school hoops coach in New York City Public School Athletic League history -- Ron Naclerio. Rafer never had it easy growing up as a child during the 80s and 90s; a guns and drugs golden era in Southern Jamaica Queens.
Naclerio could do little to fix the depressing conditions in Rafer's hood or the scars of a troubled youth, but he did offer friendship, tough love, father-figure discipline and his gift for coaching basketball, opening the doors of life to a closed mind and making players better. In addition to Naclerio's four homegrown NBA products, he's trained a trailer-load of NBA talent over the years.
None more culturally influential or definitively unique as a b-ball performer than Skip, who's the human connection between hip-hop, hood basketball, college ball, pro hoops and the grimy glitter of the streets.
Together, Rafer and Ron not only put Cardozo on the national basketball map, but they inadvertently birthed the re-birth of New York's street ball era and sparked a culturally-defining street ball revolution that began on the crack-vile, bullet-shell-flooded cement parks of I.S. 8 in Queens and exploded after AND 1 released a video mixtape of Alston's innovative, charismatic, freakish and god-given basketball funk.
What makes the story even more legendary is the fact that Rafer was a playground legend who could have easily fell victim to the temptations and pressures of the streets, but with the support and guidance of some clutch extended family, including Naclerio, he went on to play 13 successful corporately-restricted NBA seasons while maintaining his street ball credibility and his connection to the uninhibited creativity of his brand of balling.
Gambler: Does Rafer Alston get his proper due for how he influenced basketball culture around the world?
Naclerio: “I think some people know, but I don’t think the world knows that Rafer is “The Godfather” of mixtapes, streetball, hot diggity-dog moves, everything The Profesor and (may he rest in peace) Escalade and all of these other guys have gotten credit for now...If it wasn’t for Rafer and the fact that when Rafer signed with AND 1 this entire street ball revolution or renaissance wouldn't have happened.
The AND 1 people asked me if I had any footage of Rafer in high school. I said, “I have a couple of clips, but I have some other stuff from Rafer.” I mailed it to them and there were eight tapes of Rafer doing his thing in the parks at various street tournaments and the like. And those were the original AND 1 mixtapes. They made it and the rest is history.
Gambler: How did Rafer -- a baby-faced Queens kid -- start playing in Harlem?
Naclerio: I brought Rafer up to the Rucker...Well, this is what happened:
There was a game at Rucker Park. This is before it was caged and fenced and gated off. So there was a timeout in the game. I had a team in there and I was playing, and after the timeout the subs went to sit on the bench and there were two little kids on the bench: My friend told me that the kids had to go. I said, “Do you know who those little kids are? Those are the two best young guards in the city, Rafer Alston and Stephon Marbury.”
So the next time we played at The Rucker, Rafer is there. He was given a uniform. He’s 12 years old at this time and was actually put into the game in the first half and the crowd was laughing at him. I mean this little skinny kid and the uniform is so big on him. But he got the ball and they tried to take it from him. He put it between his legs, behind his back, put it between the defender’s legs, went through four more defenders and took it coast-to-coast and he ended up driving on a guy and got his shot blocked, but all of a sudden people started saying, “Now wait a second. Did we really just see that?”
And for two years we would give him, four, five, six minutes a game in the Rucker games. And his original nickname was “Shorty.” And I remember when he was 14 going on 15, he was starting to physically develop a little, and I get the ball in the backcourt and I pass it to him and he’s trapped by three guys. The referee is in front of me so my coaching instincts come in where I think, “let me come to the middle.” I know Rafer is going to be trapped and maybe he could hit me with the pass to get him out of trouble. As I said, the referee blocked me, so I don’t know what happened, but as I got past the ref, Rafer is coming out of the trap...and he’s looking back and he’s skipping down the court. Duke Tango, the announcer started singing, “Skip, skip, skip to my Lou...Skip, skip, skip to my Lou" and Rafer kept on doing it...and that’s how Rafer go this nickname “Skip To My Lou.”
His mother would call me and my assistant Billy Medley all the time. We would chase in the streets after him...boy we would chase in the streets after him. In fact I remember one time, we had to go to “The Towers” a notorious drug building off of Linden Blvd and Merrick Blvd in Jamaica, Queens, when we found out that Rafer was hanging with the dealers in that area. So I go in there late at night and I enter the lobby and all the homies are there. I grab Rafer and he got nervous. Not because I grabbed him...he was more shocked that I was there and scared that someone was going to pull out and shoot me (wild laughter)... And I didn’t think nothing of it. So I grabbed him out of there, put him in the car. Took him home and made sure he was doing his homework and all of that crap.
And there was another time; Sterling Place in Brooklyn...Rafer’s mother was calling so I come steaming up there, coming down the block quick. His mother’s texting me and texting me I’m going 100 miles an hour, I just jump out. My assistant Billy, who is black looked at me like I was crazy, because I go running into the thing and the guys at the door are scattering because they think I’m 5-0. That’s the naivety of me right there, ya know? But that's how seriously I took my job and responsibility to my players.
The Name Game
Gambler: James Sutherland?
Naclerio: Sweet stroke. ...He played one year for Charlotte and the New Orleans Pelicans. He’s playing overseas right now and somebody in the NBA is making a mistake because he can play. He’s on that level.
Gambler: Daryll “Showtime” Hill ?
Naclerio: A BMF...A baaaad muth@#r...If he didn’t have that microfracture injury that ended up hurting a lot of NBA players, he would have been the fifth Cardozo NBA player. He was a showman like Rafer in that regard.
(In an interview I did with Hill a few years back covering the "old" Big East, he told me that Rafer was the one that brought him to Rucker Park for the first time so he could flex his street ball magic. Both Alston and Naclerio believed in teaching and sharing success with the new generation.)
Gambler: Royal Ivey?
Naclerio: Had a 10-year NBA career. There was something about him, when he tried out. The first day he made the cut. The second day I asked him what size sneaker he wore. He told me size 13 and he’s a ninth grader. So the next day, he caught my eye a little more. I go, “How old are you.?” He says. “I’m 13.” So, he ended up playing JV. He screwed up one semester academically. He finally came to me as a sophomore and had a great role as a sophomore. Great junior year. Great senior year and he got MVP in the city championship. He was a young kid and we had a couple of low Division I schools interested. I told his mother and father that he should go to prep school and let his age catch up and he could get to a high level D-I eventually. Or he could go to these low D-I’s and play a lot as a freshman, instead of sitting on the bench as a young 17-year-old.
So he ends up going to Blair Academy and he comes by Christmas and he’s disappointed because he’s still getting offers from the same schools. The same schools are recruiting him.
So we sat in that office and I called 68 Division-I schools and all of them were like, “I don’t need him. I don’t think he’s good enough. We got somebody better.” I mean, you’ve got to see the number of schools I called. With some of the schools I started nicely using four-letter words to them.
Eventually Clemson offers and Texas offers and after much prodding and pleading my friend Steve DeMeo at Providence finally bit. Now, Steve’s nervous, because there’s a saying, “If you visit Texas, you go to Texas.” Steve tried to get me to ask Royal not to visit Texas. I said, “How can I do that?“
What’s funny is, he went to Texas and still holds the record for most games started in a career. And when they played Providence at a game in Providence, he hit a three to send the game into overtime and ended up having 22 points and I remember Steve DeMeo calling me that night and pulling his hair out.
Gambler: Which player came to you most ready to be an all-around star on and off the court?
Naclerio: Duane “40” Woodward, who is now an assistant coach at Monmouth. He played here in the 90s and was all-city as a senior and then went on to play at Boston College where he won a Big East title in 1997 and Second Team All-Big East honors in 1998.
After College, and prior to entering the coaching profession Woodward carved out a 13-year professional career overseas, playing in over 10 different countries. During his tenure in the Cyprus League for AEL Limassol, Woodward helped lead AEL to back-to-back championship
Naclerio: In fact, in the history of the NYC Public School Athletic League (PSAL), until Duane and his brother Brian did it, no brother combination had ever won The Iron Horse/Wingate Award for basketball. Albert King got it, but Hall of Famer Bernard King did not. He was probably or easily the best student athlete of all of my star players I’ve had. He was a high 80s student and a borderline All-American, so when you take those two things into consideration I would say as far as student athletes go, he was probably the best we've had here.
Touting the praises of former player such a Woodward or Gary Rush, a former Dozo baller, who is now a principal, is what floats Naclerio’s boat. On the other hand, he has earned the right to bask in some personal success as well.
His greatest moment?
Naclerio: When the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) in 2001 gave me a “Guardian of the Game” Award, which was started in 2000. They give out four awards a year and I’m the only high school coach to get such an award. The year I got it, the other award winner were Dave Gavitt, who founded the original Big East Conference in 1979 and "The Wizard of Westwood" John Wooden. That was probably the most nervous speech I ever made because in the crowd you had so many of the great coaches of the game; Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, so many guys. They came over to me, one after the other saying, “Congratulations. Great speech.” There was no more special a feeling than getting acknowledged by the great college coaches.
Naclerio: My overall greatest accomplishment, however, is getting kids who were destined to be losers in life to have a life. Making kids that were mediocre become stars in the game of life. It makes you feel good. I’ve been to the city championship five times and I really want to win it, just like my players...BUT. If it means one of my players ten years from now being a loser in the game of life, I will trade losing as much as it would hurt, so that ten years from now that kid can walk around being a winner. And that’s more important.
So in these past 34 years I’ve liked to think that maybe we can win the game and in 10 years also be winners in the game of life.
I’ve put so much money into kids for everything from SAT courses to you name it and some of them didn’t appreciate it. That’s how it goes though because I’ve looked at basketball as a game of love in my game of life and realized that unfortunately you’ve got to make money and I’ve never looked to make money. You look at what some guys were able to do monetarily and it’s a little disappointing at times. There are D-I coaches who make more in one season than I’ve made in my entire coaching career combined.
Everybody plays a part in this billion dollar American basketball maze. Naclerio’s role is that of front-line, diamond-shiner. He leads as an example of a hands-on coach with a social conscience, who understands the obligations of coaches as teachers, supporters and molders of young men. Blast the Frank Sinatra because he did it his way and it seems to have worked.