John Starks played to win. Not just in basketball but in Life. After 12 years in the NBA, the Tulsa, OK roughneck left his mark by giving 100 percent every time down the floor. His early life off the court was equally as hard as the way he played on it. It’s what makes him who he is.
Undrafted out of Oklahoma State, Starks worked his way into the NBA in 1988 with the Golden State Warriors. After an injury forced him to return to the CBA, Starks signed with the New York Knicks and became one of the favorite and most compelling players in team history. A devastating three-point shooter, Starks hit 9 triples to set a club record in 1998. Starks played in an All-Star Game and was named Sixth Man of the Year before ending his career in 2002 as of the best three-point shooters in NBA history.
SLAM spoke with Starks about his life before and after the game.
SLAM: What have you been up to?
John Starks: I’ve been working with the Knicks in their front office in the Alumni Relations and Community Relations Department. I also started a clothing and sports brand company. We’re having new technology with breakaway pants; we’re using zippers instead of buttons, so you can make the transition in and out of them really quickly. This is probably going to replace what you see now as far as button breakaway pants. The technology was developed by a guy named Daron Nunn and it’s called “Zipway.” He came to another business partner of mine who then brought it to me and a light went off in my head.
SLAM: You’re still involved with the organization. Do you feel at all that you owe the Knicks anything?
JS: No, I don’t feel that way. I think that as a former player you just want to see the organization succeed. You want to see them on the level that it was back in the ’90s and the ’70s. There is always something in your heart for the particular organization where you had some success.
SLAM: You took a long route to the NBA. What was the lowest point that you remember before getting to the League?
JS: The lowest point probably was during my journey from high school to college. Just all the trials and tribulations I went through at that point—not knowing if there was a possibility of me moving forward with my education. But, with everything you do, there’s always a silver lining, and so I was able to take that part of my life and kind of flip it. I started doing things the right way and things started working out for me.
I think it comes down to setting goals for yourself. Obviously, a goal of mine was to make it to the NBA, but outside of basketball I didn’t have any more goals. I think a lot of people get sidetracked and people that had to struggle to become successful, they have a main goal and they strive for it everyday the way I strived to play basketball. But you can’t get caught up in all the foolishness. Outside of the court, I was getting caught up in some foolishness and I wasn’t being focused in the real world, so to speak. But people that are truly goal oriented and focused with what’s going on in the real world, they can’t get sidetracked. You got to focus on your education and getting an opportunity to move on in your life. I was totally the opposite. My goal was just to play basketball and I really wasn’t concerned about books. I didn’t know the two go hand-in-hand.
SLAM: When you were in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, playing in the CBA, who were the guys around you that really pushed you to move on?
JS: Well, I knew I could play in the NBA when I was in junior college. On my last stop, I went to three total, I had a coach by the name of Ken Trickey—he had coached a couple of guys that had played in the NBA—and he came up and told me, You’re just as good as those guys, if not better. I started working even harder. Coming from him, someone who knows what it takes to get to that level, to say that he sees that in you, then that’s inspiration in itself. Once I got to that level where I was able to perform when I was with Golden State and then went back down to the CBA because of an injury, a guy by the name of George Whitaker, who was also trying to make it to the next level, was a positive influence. We were kind of pulling each other along.
SLAM: You said that there was an injury there that led to you getting sent down.
JS: It was frustrating because I was supposed to sign with Indiana, actually. I tore my ankle up playing summer League ball down in Dallas, and it didn’t heal in time so I had to miss veteran camp because of it, so the only option was the CBA.
SLAM: So how, exactly, did you end up with the Knicks?
JS: My agent was friends with Dick Maguire, who was a scout at the time. He was telling Dick about me and so he came down and watched me play and liked what he saw in me. He was me play in a couple games when I was in the World Basketball League with the Memphis Rockers and he ended up convincing the Knicks to bring me into camp.
SLAM: What did you like about the teams you played on in New York?
JS: I really liked the whole atmosphere. Obviously, The Garden is a great place to play and we had some great teams. The guys were real cool when I first came to the Knicks. You think you’re going to come into some guys that have their heads up their butt, but everyone was real cool, down to earth, and welcoming. We had a good mix of guys with different backgrounds so it was a lot of fun. I lived in White Plains when I first got here.
SLAM: How do you remember that dunk in ’93?
JS: B.J. Armstrong was reading the pick. He saw my eyes and knew Patrick was coming to set a pick, and I cut my eyes a little early. Bill Cartwright likes to cut people off and trap you on the baseline, but I went early so he didn’t have enough time to get down there. And I just took off. I saw Horace Grant and knew I had to go in strong. I went over the top and dunked the ball and ran down the court and didn’t even know Michael was there. It was so quick. Those plays happen so quickly. The next day is when I saw the picture in the newspaper.
SLAM: Looking back now after all these years, how does looking at that picture make you feel?
JS: I have a big painting of it in my house. I didn’t realize at the time. I dunked on a lot of people during my lifetime, so I thought it was just another play. When it happened, people came up to me on the street telling me that it was a great play. A lot of times in sports, one play can define who you are as a player and that particular play was kind of my play—it defined me as a gutty, gritty player who no matter what would go for it. That play sort of symbolized who I was.
SLAM: When you were going up, did you think it was going to be a dunk?
JS: Yeah, I knew it was going to be a dunk. It happened so quickly—Horace Grant was kind of late getting there—so I was already up in the air before he got there. When you get over a big man, you got to catch him by surprise, and that’s what I did with him, so all he could do was try to get out of the way.
SLAM: You came into your own after that. All-Defensive Team in ’93, All-Star Game in ’94. Do you remember that game at all?
JS: Yeah, it was a fun game. You’re playing with great guys and considered one of the best in the League. It’s a great honor. You never know when you’re going to get back to that, because there are so many great players in the conference, so I had to relish every moment. I didn’t know whether I would get back there or not. I remember going in the locker room and telling the guys, This may be my only All-Star game, so I want to win it. A lot of times you play around during the game, but I really wanted to win.
SLAM: Who was the toughest guy for you to guard in the NBA?
JS: People would say Michael Jordan, but Reggie was the toughest. He was always on the move. Those guys are always very hard to guard, because you got seven footers trying to knock your head off on picks, and as good as he was at catching and shooting, it was tough. Michael was easy to guard, but he was hard to stop. You don’t have to chase him around picks; he was gonna catch it and go one-on-one.
SLAM: Who was the toughest defender that you had to play against?
JS: Probably Alvin Robertson. When he grabbed you, you knew that you weren’t going anywhere. He was very physically strong. No matter what, if you got away from him, he was gonna catch up to you. And, once he caught up to you, he was gonna get his hands on you and control you.
SLAM: People talk a lot about New York and the critics. Did you feel the people were behind you?
JS: Oh, yeah, most definitely. One thing I learned in New York is don’t read the newspapers. Good or bad, don’t read them. If you played a great game, fine, if not, Ok. Just go out there and play. The only time I got word of what was being said was from a family member or if someone on the street said something. Criticism: You can take it or leave it. I’m the kind of person that, I’ll listen, but the majority of the times, I’m going to leave it.
SLAM: Game 7 of the ’94 Finals? How do you feel about it now? Do people ever bother you about it?
JS: Every now and then. One thing I say about New Yorkers is that they restrict you; they know you’re going to have an off day. People might say, Man, I wish you had a better game, but if we didn’t have you, we probably wouldn’t have been there. So, they like to get it out of their system, but they’re not going to harp on it.
SLAM: Was Trent Tucker somebody that was a mentor to you?
JS: He really helped to guide me. I could always turn to him for advice. We see each other every year still. It’s a lot of fun when you can come into this League and you have guys that really care about helping guys.
SLAM: In 1997, you won Sixth Man of the Year. Why do you think you were able to do that?
JS: I think being unselfish is the main thing. You really are just focused on winning. If you can do that, then you have no hidden agendas and it’s about the team. If you’re only concerned about yourself and not whether the team wins or loses, then that transition might be hard. But I was never like that.
SLAM: Who would you say was the teammate that worked the hardest in practice?
JS: Patrick. He was the hardest working guy in practice. He was the type of player who leads by example. So he was always working hard.
SLAM: In 1994-95, you led the league in made threes. Were you always a natural shooter?
JS: I think I was more of a scorer than a shooter. You got to get the ball in the basket, that’s always been my theory. I didn’t always shoot the ball particularly well, so I had to work a little harder than most guys.
SLAM: I’m going to say someone’s name to you, and I just want you to tell me the first thing that comes to mind when you hear these names.
SLAM: Pat Riley.
SLAM: Patrick Ewing.
SLAM: Reggie Miller.
SLAM: You had a few years in Golden State, Chicago, and Utah at the end. Where did you like playing most?
JS: Probably Golden State, even though we didn’t win, just because of the area.
SLAM: You coached in the USBL for a few years. What was that experience like and are you looking to get into coaching down the line?
JS: It was something I tried my hand at to see if I wanted to do it or not. I really liked it. Having been down there, I understand a lot of the guys’ thinking and their ultimate goals and where they want to be; I think my experience helped them a lot. They respected it because I had to go through the same things that they were doing.
SLAM: What do you think of what Coach D’Antoni is doing with the Knicks right now?
JS: I like what he’s doing. He has a system that’s perfect for that particular team, especially with all the athletes he has. It promotes ball movement and they’re unselfish with one another; when a guy is open, they get the ball to him. That offense is predicated on knocking down shots, and if you’re not knocking down shots, you’re going to struggle a little bit. Especially at the end of the game, because if you go cold, the other team can catch up. They’re going to have to get a little more defensive minded during those last five minutes of the game, and they should be alright. I really like what I see out there; there’s excitement, the guys play hard, and they enjoy playing for him which is most important. The fans appreciate that. They see guys out there giving 110 percent, nobody slacking, and that’s what you want to see if you’re a fan.
SLAM: Who’s your favorite Knick right now to watch?
JS: I love Jamal. I think he’s really playing some great basketball right now. Nate Robinson, as well, and also Wilson Chandler. They’re all playing very well. Chandler probably should have played a little more last year, but it is what it is and he’s showing that he can play at this level. Those three are really doing well right now.
SLAM: Do you remember being on the cover of issue no. 4 of SLAM?
JS: Most definitely. I still have that. As you grow up, you see all your favorite players on the covers of things, and then being on the front cover of a magazine yourself, it’s a really good feeling. Plus, the article was great. I love SLAM. You always do a great job at showcasing the players.
SLAM: Tell me how you’re involved with that organization, e4ea.org?
JS: “I will graduate” is definitely a message that we want to continue to get out to the youth in the Tri-State areas as well as around the country. A lot of the youths are getting disassociated with education and not putting an emphasis on it, but we know as adults that this will give them an opportunity for life to be successful. So we try to go out and use all the tools we have available through sports and entertainment and we just want to get that message out. You should first have the goal to graduate from high school and then move on to college and graduate from college. We just want to continue to inspire the youth, fight the dropout rate, and show them that we do care and we do understand the struggles they go through. Still, though, you have to be focused on getting your educations, because that will get you out of whatever situation you’re in and carry you further than anything in this world.
SLAM: You ended your career Top 20 in three pointers. Looking back, with all the things you went through and what you had to overcome, did you ever think you could have gone that far?
JS: It definitely humbles me, because I was on the street doing my thing, playing street basketball and all that—then, two years later, I was in the NBA. I was getting down on my knees and praying for God to help me get out of the situation I was in. My energy level picked up, my focus picked up, I put the right people around me, and I finally started doing some positive things in my life. Growing up not having a father figure in your life that you can turn to, but instead having to learn things on your own, you’re going to mess up. There’s no question about it. For the most part, when you’re growing up how I did and relying on your own judgment, you’re going to make mistakes. There are a lot of kids out there doing that now and hopefully those mistakes don’t cost them the rest of their lives. I had a lot of friends that it cost them their lives—in the penitentiary or grave. When I talk to kids, I tell them that they’re truly in control of their own lives. If they have a negative mindset, that’s what’s going to come out of it, and you’re going to set yourself up for failure. On the other hand, if you have a positive mindset and put positive things around you, then positive things are going to happen for you. It’s like stepping up to the free throw line. If I step up with negative thoughts in my mind, more likely than not: I’m going to miss that shot. If I step up there with positive thoughts in my mind, there’s a 90 percent chance I’m making that shot. It’s that simple. You going to stay positive and surround yourself with good people.