The date was June 22, 1994.
A day which continues to live in infamy for Knick fans. After more than two decades of occasionally tantalizing highs, often eclipsed by heartbreaking lows, the franchise was finally on the precipice of reacension to the championship heights not seen since the days of Frazier and Monroe.
But something happened on that night in Houston, and Gotham’s destiny – and the legacy of one of the league’s all-time greats – ended up unfulfilled.
John Starks still knows the numbers from that fateful Game 7 of the 1994 NBA FInals: 2-for-18 from the field, 0-for-11 from 3-point range, and 0-for-10 in the deciding 4th quarter. So do I; that day just happened to be my 18th birthday – a fact I reluctantly shared with the former-Knick shooting guard when we recently sat down to talk about his career, the league (then-and-now), and the new-look New York squad.
“That was the most difficult game I ever played in,” said Starks, “and it carried over through the summer, and into that next season.” Surprisingly, he credits eventually watching Game 7 on tape that fall for helping him to stop running from the experience and get it out of his system, once and for all.
Starks – now 46, and looking capable of lacing ‘em up if the Knicks need help this season – is predictably tired of being asked about his performance against the Rockets, but if he hasn’t made peace with the low-point of his career, you’d be hard-pressed to know it by talking with the man.
Shooters shoot, a hoops-edict Starks was quick to remind me of when pivoting to the penultimate Game 6 of that series, where he lead the team with 27 points (5-of-9 from long range).
And as for that contest’s ill-fated last-second shot attempt – which was deflected by an outstretched Hakeem Olajuwon fingertip – Starks has no regrets. “I was going for the win, I had been really hot that entire game, and I don’t think any other player other than Hakeem could have gotten to that ball,” Starks told me defiantly. This, despite the widely-held, and false contention that Patrick Ewing, who had set a high screen to free Starks off the inbounds pass, was wide open. Watching replays, Starks did, in fact, have daylight, but the Rocket Hall of Famer simply made a Hall of Fame-type play.
Undoubtedly, the highs most definitely outweighed the lows during Number 3’s playing career. Starks is still the Knicks’ all-time leader in three point field goals made (982). The former All-Star (1994) and Sixth Man of the Year (1997) also forever owns one of the top-5 signature moments in franchise history – “The Dunk” – which capped a playoff victory against the hated Chicago Bulls in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals.
“What made that play so big was because of who it was against, Michael Jordan and Horace Grant. It was definitely my coming out moment as far as the NBA goes,” said Starks. Coincidentally, Starks thinks Jordan was the best player he’s ever faced, by far, and if it wasn’t already obvious to Knick fans, Reggie Miller really got under his skin.
Oddly enough, Starks doesn’t consider “The Dunk” as his most significant jam. For that honor, you’d have to go back to back in 1990. Freshly signed by the Knicks as depth at the guard position, he rose up in practice in an attempt to throw one down on Ewing – an ill-advised play that ironically altered the course of events in Knick history. “I kinda forgot [Ewing] was a 7-footer, he knocked me to the floor, and I ended up twisting my knee up pretty good. But because I was injured, the Knicks couldn’t cut me. The rest is history.”
As far as the current Knick roster goes, Starks likes what he sees, especially on the defensive side of the ledger, with the additions of Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert. “Our teams back then had the Big Fella. You need that defensive anchor in the middle, especially when you’re playing tight man-to-man on the perimeter. With Chandler, his teammates know he’s there to back them up if things break down.”
Nowadays, Starks splits most of his time between his community development role with the Knicks’ front office and as President of the John Starks Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide worthy tri-state area high school seniors with college scholarships.
Starks beams when talking about the past scholarship recipients, ”[T]hese are some of the most incredible kids you will ever meet; kids that want to do something great with their lives. For me, to be able to give them that opportunity is so rewarding. I think that when you’re put in a position in life to help others, you should do so.”
And what of Starks’ aspirations to follow in the footsteps of his one-time protege, Knick Assistant GM Allan Houston?
He’s not interested.
“Those are 24/7 jobs, and I’m not that type of person. I like what I’m doing now, dealing with the community.”
One does get the distinct impression, however, that Starks would drop everything for a chance to get back on the court. “I would love to play in today’s league, especially in D’Antoni’s system. And with the rule-changes, the game is definitely set up for the offenses.”
Take note, Glen Grunwald, help is but a phone call away.