When people ask who my favorite basketball player of all time is, they’re often surprised by my answer. The default answer for a 30-something that picked up basketball in the early 1990s is, of course, Michael Jordan. If you’re a particularly fervent fan of a non-Chicago Bulls franchise, then maybe it’s one of the other perennial All-Stars of the era. Not for me.
When I tell people that John Starks from the 1990s New York Knicks is the guy that I grew up wanting to emulate, I can understand why it might be hard for people to understand. To anyone keeping up with The Last Dance documentary, this sentiment resurfaces. There were far more talented players in the league, of course, I don’t dispute that – but it wasn’t his talent that caught my attention.
I remember when I was first starting to watch the NBA, the Bulls were in the process of becoming the juggernaut we now know them to have been, en route to winning their first Three-peat. NBA coverage in the UK was a world away (in a bad way) from what we have now, and a lot of what I was able to watch was highlight-based, and heavily focused on Chicago. It was actually this (what I perceived as) Chicago bias that led me away from rooting for that team before I had any specific allegiance. There were so many incredible stories in the league at this time, but it felt like they were drowned out.
It’s a strange thing to explain unless you experienced it at the time, but to me it felt like the narrative of the entire league was being told from the perspective of Jordan and the Bulls. Watching The Last Dance, this perspective makes complete sense given the subject matter, but even at the time, I remember there was such skewed coverage internationally.
Even during live games, the commentary seemed (to me, at least) to focus exclusively on how great Jordan was. Either embellishing on a spectacular performance or going into great detail to explain what Jordan was personally having to overcome in a bad performance. This was the Michael Jordan-shaped prism through which I first saw John Starks play.
It struck a chord with me that even as MJ was scoring as imperiously and unstoppably as he did at this point in time, there was one guy that always seemed to be playing incredible defense on him. No matter what kind of otherworldly zone Jordan went into, this guy was just as fearless the next time down. He flat out didn’t care. He was going to compete even harder on the next possession, he was going to get in his face, and he was going to tell him about it. Even if he lost the game, he never seemed to get beaten down psychologically by Jordan, and that was rare. Starks was much more likely to get over aggressive and compete harder rather than back down.
Jordan’s career seemed to play out in a perfect cinematic arc, but it was the guy trying to flip the script that fascinated me. I started to consume every piece of media or story I could find about the Knicks and their tempestuous combo guard – with a big shout out to Pontel, who were legendary providers of NBA VHS at this time. This was when I read a lot of information about Starks’ unlikely path into the NBA.
The John Starks story
Prior to the NBA, Starks played only a single year of high school basketball, spent various amounts of time at Rogers State College, Northern Oklahoma College, Tulsa Junior College, Oklahoma Junior College and Oklahoma State University.
It wasn’t a huge surprise that a raw, unheralded prospect from Oklahoma who seemed to find it impossible to stay out of trouble went undrafted in 1988. What was surprising, however, was that Starks still actually managed to join the Golden State Warriors as a free agent. His opportunities were limited as the team had just picked Mitch Richmond with the fifth pick in the draft, who went on to have a Rookie of the Year campaign. Starks was eventually cut from the team at the end of the season.
With a brief glimpse of the NBA, it looked like Starks was already out of the league. He played in two minor professional basketball leagues, before securing a tryout with the Knicks in 1990. By his own admission, Starks did not do enough to stand out during the tryout, and actually only made the team by a contractual technicality.
In one of his final practices before potentially getting cut from the team, Starks knew he had to make an impression and attempted to dunk straight over the franchise player Patrick Ewing. Starks was injured on the play, and the NBA dictated at this time that injured players could not be cut from the roster.
Starks would not let go of another opportunity, however, and through sheer force of will and determination eventually worked himself into becoming the New York Knicks starting shooting guard. He went on to make the All Defensive Second Team in 1993, the All-Star Game in 1994 and later embraced a bench role and was named Sixth Man of the Year in 1997. He also competed in the 1992 All-Star Dunk Contest.
A 33-year-old Starks was eventually traded from New York, along with Chris Mills and Terry Cummings in a move that brought Latrell Sprewell to New York. He spent his last years in the league as something of a journeyman, playing for Golden State, (ironically) Chicago and the Utah Jazz before eventually announcing his retirement following the 2001-02 season.
Besides being consistently bested by Jordan, Starks is sometimes remembered (if at all) among the NBA mainstream for having his last second (potentially game-winning) shot blocked by Hakeem Olajuwon in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals, and then going 2-18 in the Knicks’ Game 7 loss. What’s forgotten, however, is that prior to his attempted game winner, Starks had scored 27 points in Game 6 on 9-18 shooting, while Ewing, the cornerstone of the franchise, had been decisively outplayed by Olajuwon across the whole series.
Because of the modest success Starks had in the league individually, it’s rarely remembered just how unlikely his story was – he essentially had a more sustained Linsanity run than Jeremy Lin. It was against all possible odds that Starks was even in the league, let alone becoming the third leading scorer in an NBA Finals.
While most of his peers in the NBA were either starring for top tier college programs or already drafted into the NBA, Starks found himself 20 years old and earning minimum wage bagging groceries at Safeway. This was just a few years removed from going toe-to-toe with Jordan in the playoffs. This 1991 article from the New York Times perfectly captures the extent to which he came from nowhere.
But it’s not just his story that resonated with me. Starks was one of the streakiest shooters I’ve seen since I started watching the game. He would go cold for a couple of games, but he also went into zones where he looked like he couldn’t miss. Starks was the first player in NBA history to score over 200 threes in a season, and remains the Knicks’ all time leader in made threes. He was also a real slasher in his prime and had some great highlights attacking the rim.
One such foray into the paint from Starks (along with Larry Johnson’s four point play and Allan Houston’s 1999 game winner against Miami) has become one of the most iconic plays in Knicks franchise history. Now known as ‘The Dunk’, the play featured in The Last Dance as part of a montage, but given no context.
It was Game 2 of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, and New York had upset the Bulls in Game 1. In the final minute of Game 2, it was a one possession game and Starks brought the ball down the floor with the Knicks up 3. He backs down BJ Armstrong, and Ewing sets a pick, to which Armstrong deliberately overplays to force him into help. (Side note: this Bulls pick-and-roll defense was way ahead of its time).
Seeing this, Starks drives straight to the basket, leaving Armstrong behind, which prompts All Defensive Second-Teamer Horace Grant to step up late and Starks goes straight over him with the left hand. Jordan also tries to help defensively, but gets there too late and also ends up in what literally became a poster. It’s hard to truly articulate now as we know the eventual outcomes, but in the moment it felt like witnessing the impossible. The guy that was working in Safeway just a few years earlier was now dunking on the Bulls and the Knicks were (seemingly) going to win.
If you’re in any doubt how meaningful this dunk was to a young me, I also described it in great (painful) detail as part of our Triple Double video series.
To add some intrigue and controversy to this play… For a lot of people, LeBron James was not the first to veto being on the receiving end of a highlight (when videos of him being dunked on at his camp by a yet-to-be-drafted Jordan Crawford). You need only look at how MJ was removed from the play on the basketball trading cards at the time to see why people thought this. (This was actually to do with an exclusive endorsement MJ had with a specific brand of trading cards – but it’s still funny.)
There was never a dull moment watching Starks. He was an incredibly physical defender despite being somewhat undersized when going up against Jordan or other big guards. His incredible desire to compete won him a lot of fans, especially during an era that allowed defensive hand checking, as well as far more physical play during the playoffs. He balanced this with a distinct, high arching jump shot that made him a difficult defensive assignment when he got hot.
From Safeway employee, to making the NBA, to becoming an All-Star, to losing in the NBA Finals and ending his career as a journeyman. His unlikely story and modest height somehow made him feel as relatable as an NBA star can be. It’s a testament to how great Jordan was that it actually factored into my rooting against him at this time. While the media I had access to talked from a Bulls perspective, I wanted to root for the guy trying to achieve the seemingly impossible (beating Jordan).
Starks’ career was one of mountainous highs and cavernous lows. His performance ebbed and flowed with his emotions, and more often than not, he carried the Knicks’ prospects along with him. Being a Knicks fan in that era meant that you were obliged to take that emotional roller coaster right there with him. Starks’ impact and eulogization among Knicks fans is also not lost among the current Knicks roster. In an interview with GQ, RJ Barrett (born in 2000) recently listed Starks among his favourite players.
As I look back from 2020 and with feelings and memories resurfaced from watching The Last Dance and (again) watching my Knicks through a Jordan-shaped prism… While Ewing was the clear cornerstone of the franchise, the team’s undisputed best player and most recognizable face, he somehow wasn’t the most meaningful for me personally. It’s the same incredible highs, unlikely stories and desperate lows that I saw play out for Starks that emulate my own experience as a New York Knicks fan up to today.