This is the sixth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
John Starks was one of the most popular Knicks of the 1990s and he perhaps was also the Knick with the most interesting mythology surrounding his life and career. For instance, we all know by heart the story of how Starks, playing on a non-guaranteed contract and feeling (most likely correctly) that he was about to be cut, tried to wow everyone by dunking on Patrick Ewing during the last game of the Knicks’ 1990 training camp. Ewing, of course, easily swatted him to the ground, injuring Starks’ knee. The injured Starks was not allowed to be cut until healthy, and by the time his knee was healthy, Trent Tucker had gotten hurt so the Knicks now did need a back-up guard, and the rest was history. That is just one small piece of the Starks mythology, which also includes the story of how he was working as a bagger at a grocery store at one point before going back to college. This story, however, is about Starks’ trademark fiery nature, which he never was quite able to control. Sometimes it would hurt the Knicks (like when he got ejected for head-butting Reggie Miller in the 1993 playoffs), but today we look at a incident Starks was involved in that, in a roundabout way, ended up helping the Knicks.
John Starks graduated Oklahoma State (the third, and highest profile, college that he played for – he attended two other schools but he did not play ball for them) in 1988. However, he went undrafted in the 1988 NBA Draft. He played for the San Antonio Spurs in the Summer League where he caught the eye of the coach of the Golden State Warriors, Don Nelson. Nelson signed Starks for the entire 1988-89 season, but Starks only played in 36 games for the Warriors, averaging under nine minutes per game. At the end of the season, Starks was let go (Nelson found him to be a bit “too wild”). However, he had somewhat proven himself to at least be someone who could play a little bit in the NBA, and in fact, amusingly enough, in the summer of 1989, Starks was given an invitation to play for the Summer League team of the…(wait for it)…Indiana Pacers!!! The Pacers were not exactly stacked at guard in the 1989-90 season, with Vern Fleming, George McCloud, Reggie Miller, Mike Sanders and Randy Wittman being their only “locks” at the two guard spots, so Starks had a very good chance of making the squad. However, soon before the offer was made, Starks suffered an ankle injury. He had to turn the Pacers down. The Pacers ended up signing veteran guard Rickey Green for their last guard spot – looking back, you have to figure Starks could have beaten out Green (Green was cut after just the one year on the Pacers). Talk about a change in history! Imagine Starks and Reggie Miller side-by-side!
In any event, with the injury, Starks could not catch on with any NBA team, so he had to turn his sights to the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). Starks played for the Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets and he excelled, averaging over 20 points a game in the 1989-90 season and becoming a CBA All-Star (I believe Starks is still the only player to ever make the CBA and the NBA All-Star Game). Well, as you might imagine, when you are an All-Star in the CBA (and you managed to play a year in the NBA), you’re going to draw some attention, and the Detroit Pistons were very interested. The 1989-90 Pistons would go on to win the NBA Title, but if you recall, they were terribly thin at the back-up guard spot. Yeah, they had Vinnie Johnson, but other than him they ended up going with the re-animated corpse of Gerald Henderson as their fourth guard (or playing Mark Aguirre at the 2, where he really did not belong). The Pistons tried out some pretty iffy guys at the guard spot that season, including such NBA luminaries as Stan Kimbrough and Ralph Lewis, so when news got to Starks that the Pistons were interested, the odds of him getting a shot with the Pistons with a 10-day contract were extremely likely, and with the Silver Bullets playing for a spot in the CBA playoffs, the games were a good place for the Pistons to see what Starks had going on. The problem was, with the games being so important, they also brought out Starks’ fiery side as well. Late in a game one night, Starks got called for a foul. He did not like the call, and he went after the referee about the call. He accidentally bumped chests with the referee (well, according to Starks it was accidental, and the ref later did claim it was an accident, but it was too late to save Starks) and, well, things went downhill from there. Starks was ejected from the game and suspended for the rest of the CBA season. The Pistons, naturally enough, were scared off of signing Starks, so his NBA career was put on hold.
Which, of course, was lucky for the Knicks, as later that year, after playing well in the 1990 Summer League (I don’t know which team he played for in Summer League – anyone know for sure?) Starks got a spot on the Knicks pre-season camp despite the negative the buzz around the league about Starks with his multiple colleges attended, his down marks from Nelson and the ref-bumping incident. It helped that the Knicks had recently signed Johnnie Newman from the CBA and that had worked out well. So Starks got his chance, and as we know, he made the most of it as he went on to have a great career for the Knicks, including an All-Star Berth and one Sixth Man of the Year Award! Oh, and “The Dunk.”
Thanks to our own blog head honcho Mike Kurylo for suggesting I do a story on Starks’ CBA career and thanks to John Starks’ nifty auto-biography, John Starks: My Life, for the information!
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!