CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Rafer Alston thought he was safe.
The veteran point guard knew his name was out there in trade talks, but he didn't hear anything when the Houston Rockets finished practice right around the trade deadline Thursday. He showered, got in his car and was driving home when his phone rang.
Alston was part of a last-minute deal after all. And after the initial shock, Alston was thrilled to be joining the Orlando Magic, a team desperate for an experienced playmaker after All-Star Jameer Nelson's season-ending shoulder injury.
"To go to a contender, I had a smile from cheek to cheek, from ear to ear when they told me I was coming to Orlando," Alston said before making a hurried debut against Charlotte on Friday night.
"Trust me, I understand having to fill the gap for an All-Star caliber point guard. He was having a phenomenal year."
Alston spoke about 90 minutes before tip-off against the Bobcats with a nameless No. 36 jersey hanging in the locker behind him — the emergency uniform the Magic always bring with them on the road.
Alston arrived in Charlotte just after noon, underwent a physical and the trade was made official about two hours before the game. Alston had undergone a quick crash course on the offense and was already studying up on where Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis like the ball.
Meanwhile, coach Stan Van Gundy was thrilled general manager Otis Smith was able to get reliable point guard while only sending reserve power forward Brian Cook to the Rockets and a first-round draft pick to Memphis in the three-team deal.
"It's hard enough to come up with a guy like him, a starting-level point guard that also fits our style of play," Van Gundy said. "To do it without giving up anybody in your top 10, that is a phenomenal accomplishment. No matter what happens, it's on us now. Otis has gone out and done his job and done it extremely well. He's really helped us with this move."
The 32-year-old Alston, a career 38 percent shooter, has been playing well. He scored 22 points against Minnesota earlier this month and had racked up 24 assists in his last two games for Houston.
But Alston, averaging 11.5 points and 5.4 assists, knew the Rockets were grooming the younger Aaron Brooks to eventually take over at point guard.
"I thought maybe they would do it in the summer," Alston said when asked if he expected to be traded. "But Brooks is good. I love the way he plays and attacks the game. You can't get mad at an organization that wants to improve or look forward to the future. At some point it was going to happen."
Alston said his kids are excited to "hang out with Mickey" in Orlando while he's eager to try to fill in for Nelson, who had been having his best season and was picked for his first All-Star game before a torn labrum led to surgery Thursday.
The Magic had been struggling with Anthony Johnson and newly acquired Tyronn Lue at the point in the past six games. They hope Alston will help them close the gap with Eastern Conference heavyweights Boston and Cleveland.
"I watch them all the time," Alston said of his new team. "I've played against them and I know what they like. Rashard can post on the block and step out and shoot the 3. You know Dwight is a good lob catcher and you want to give him the ball deep in the lane. And the rest of the guys are great shooters. It's exciting."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.