Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Happy Birthday John Starks

The Knicks' birthday blitz continues with longtime New York shooting guard and forever fan favorite John Starks celebrating his 45th birthday. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Aug. 10, 1965, Starks grew up in a city losing it's status as one America's booming oil towns. Being born and raised in Tulsa didn't mean what it used to by the time that Starks was out of grade school.

Starks attended Tulsa Central, the oldest high school in town, and starred on the basketball court. But standing around 6 foot 3 with only a streaky jumpshot and lacking the demeanor to run the point there weren't a lot of Division 1 colleges knocking down his door. Instead of heading to a blue-blood program like so many of his eventual peers, Starks bagged groceries and got some run at a string of community colleges.

It's hard to say whether Starks, at that time, believed deep in his heart that there was a future for him playing ball or whether he was just had no other idea about what to do with his life. Regardless, he worked at his game with the same ferocity that would make him a star on the game's brightest stage. He worked. He hustled. And, probably, pissed off a lot of Okies playing weeknight games at the local YMCA. All of this earned him a spot on the Oklahoma State hoops squad in his senior year. Playing under coach Leonard Hamilton just before the dawning of the Eddie Sutton era, Starks showed up on campus for the '87-'88 season and led the team in minutes per game at 32.8 per contest. Second on the team in minutes per was Richard Dumas, who shined so briefly and brightly for the Phoenix Suns in the early 1990s before succumbing to addiction and drugging himself out of the Association. Starks averaged 15.4 points and 4.7 boards per game while shooting better than 80% from the line in his lone season at OSU. He led the club in assists, steals and made three pointers. And, then, within a few months he was gone. To the NBA. Sort of.

After being predictably overlooked in the NBA draft, Starks tried to latch on with Golden State Warriors and got some intermittent run in the CBA over the next few seasons before landing a tryout with the New York Knicks before the 1990 season. As the legend goes, Starks' chances of sticking with the team seemed slim. Then the indomitable Starks went up to dunk on the team's incumbent superstar in the pivot, Patrick Ewing, in practice. The 6 foot 3 inch Starks didn't manage to scale the 7 footer but he did manage to secure a spot on the roster. By injuring himself. By twisting his knee in the dunk attempt, Starks found himself protected from release. This wouldn't be the first time that a complete disregard for his own well-being and for the established pecking order on an NBA court would be his saving graces.

Befitting a kid born in "Tornado Alley," Starks tore a haphazard, full-force path through the NBA. He played 82 games for the first time in 1991-92 and started more the 50 contests the following year. Starks didn't back down from anyone. Especially the game's biggest stars. He defended Michael Jordan as well as anyone this side of Joe Dumars and did so with a lot less size and physical strength to rely on. Although nobody was stopping Jordan in the early to mid 1990s there may not have been anyone making it harder to get his customary 28 to 35 per game in the postseason.

And while Indiana Pacers shooting guard Reggie Miller may have built a cult following on a few big moments against the Knicks, there was no doubt that ferocity with which Starks attacked the long distance marksman made it all possible. Starks went at Miller, sometimes too literally, in each playoff matchup between the two Eastern Conference aspirants. And, to his credit, Miller responded in kind. But for all Miller's heroics, there was no relationship between a player and a fanbase like the one between Starks and the Knicks faithful. It was different than the way that teams felt about their preternaturally gifted stars. It wasn't the same way that we felt about Patrick. Or that Pacers fans felt about Miller.

Part of the reason that so many casual fans around the country may have rallied around Miller, despite his being a spotlight-loving prima dona from UCLA, is that those from outside the New York metropolitan area tend to harbor some nebulous resentment against those of us who were raised and/or make our homes in the orbit of the Apple. Perhaps it's an inferiority complex. Perhaps it's that they assumed that our lives and apartments and jobs are as pampered and frivolous as those belonging to the characters from Friends. Which really was based out of LA. Like Reggie Miller. But, I digress. There were a lot of fans around the country rooting for the Pacers in their battles with the Knicks simply because they wanted New York to lose. And they wanted this because they imagined New Yorkers to be rich, corporate, greedy, violent, godless and without loyalty. But enough about Pat Riley. Ba dum cha! Rubes from the provinces project all their false and founded fears and prejudices about city folk on anyone wearing the "NY." They see white-collar crime. They see dark-skinned minorities. They see opulence that makes them envious. They see poverty that disgusts them. They see hustlers with cardboard laid over stacked milk crates for three-card monty and hustlers with Brooks Brothers suits working down on Wall Street. This is, in part, why they loved Reggie and loathed Starks.

Now when the home fans in the Garden saw No. 3, we also saw an exemplar of New York City. But we saw an underdog getting by on heart while others may be coasting on skill. We saw grit and passion and anger and righteous rage. We saw someone with goals not circumscribed by humble beginnings. We saw someone who was never going to stop working, even if the face of ultimate failure. We saw someone who wouldn't give up and who, like Han Solo flying into an asteroid field, didn't want to know the odds were against him. We saw everything that makes New York and New Yorkers resilient and tough. And sometimes great.

So, we also saw New York in John Starks. But we saw the flip side. The side that makes this the most dynamic city in the world. We saw the guy whose effort and talent raised him from bagging groceries to playing in the NBA Finals. It was the American Dream. And it looked like it was coming true. The fact that someone like Starks existed was enough to get a thousands of kids out of bed to practice each morning. Because he wasn't handed anything. He wasn't born to be 6 foot 7 like Miller and to have such a natural shooting stroke. He wasn't ready for advertising and broadcasting from day one, having to battle a prominent stutter early in his career. When Starks slammed home "The Dunk" in the waning moments Game 2 of the 1993 Eastern Conference against the Bulls that was the closest that most of us Knicks fans ever came to feeling like we had dunked. Starks rose up along the baseline and, with this left hand, rattled it home over Horace Grant and an incoming Jordan. It was like watching Tiny Tim throw down over Mr. Scrooge while Jacob Marley was trying to take a charge in the restricted area. It was a metaphor wrapped in an Ahmad Rashad-narrated NBA Inside Stuff highlight. I've still got the souvenir shirt that I bought shortly thereafter. It means so much to me that I rarely wear it.


jay said...


Tom said...

Amen. Every professional athlete should be measured on the Starks meter for total commitment.