Starks’ Reality

From SLAM 4, this John Starks profile chronicles his post-Game 7 stress and the battle to overcome it. Tony Gervino takes us inside the mind of the Oklahoma native, who was working hard to fight off the demons following his poor performance. John is now associated with upstart shoe brand Ektio, and is helping the company take its kicks to the next level.—Ed.

John Starks, SLAM 4

by Tony Gervino

It’s the middle of the night at John Starks’ suburban Connecticut home. Enveloped in the peaceful serenity that city kids never know, his family’s all cribbed up, dreamin’ of some nice vacation somewhere warm. But not John. He’s tossing. He’s turning. He’s shooting. clank.

That’s just John Starks’ demon. His demon lives in Houston, in case you were wonderin’. It’s a fiery red, hangs 10 feet off the ground, and keeps him up nights longer than Vivarin ever could. And above all, Starks’ demon is wholly unforgiving, making heroes of goats, and vice versa. In Starks’ case, most definitely vice versa.

He tried to ignore the demon as long as he possibly could. His teammates never brought it up, his friends, the same. They let John deal with his demon on his own, figuring he’d do as he’d always done – take something bad and make it good, turn adversity into strength, take a piece of coal, as the saying goes, and make a diamond. If Game Seven of the NBA Finals and those demonic Summit rims could not kill John Starks, those who knew him figured, they could only make him stronger. They just had to.

Game Seven.

You know, every team has its own Game Seven with which to cope. Seattle’s was in 1978. Dennis Johnson was a popular guy then – playing palms-up “D”, scoring from anywhere on the court, scrapping, scraping, just winning, baby. In the Finals that year, the Sonics were locked in an epic struggle with the Washington Bullets, three games apiece, each one a grueling affair. DJ had been money the whole way, averaging 16.1 in the playoffs – against the Trailblazers, the Lakers, and the Nuggets – scoring 33 in Game 4 of the Finals. His game was pure butter that postseason. Then came Game Seven.

clank. clank. clank.

Dennis Johnson shot 0-for-14 that night in Seattle, missing some shots so awfully that the broad side of the barn woulda been safe for him. He looked far out of it, and for the Sonics fans who were used to watching him succeed, it was actually painful to see him fail. Here was their son, just two years out of Pepperdine University, looking to help Gus, Jack and the boys shoot the Bullets down. But the gun was empty, as they realized when it was already too late. He walked off the court that night, his burdened shoulders already hunched, his #24 growing smaller and smaller each step that he took into the darkness of the tunnel.

Game Seven.

Starks was “The Man” going into that final game in Houston, no doubt about it. People can say all they want about Pat Ewing and Derek Harper, but when the chips had been down for the Knickerbockers in the Finals, when they needed a big shot, they set a pick for Starks. They looked for Starks. They looked to Starks. And more often than not, he came through. In Game 6, Starks had been nothing short of a revelation: dropping in 27 points, drilling in four of five three pointers in the fourth quarter as his team clawed its way back. Perhaps tellingly, the last shot he took that night, over the outstretched arms of Hakeem Olajuwon, he missed. Clank.

Game Seven.

You know those bad dreams you have where you’re trying to get somewhere, but you just can’t seem to move? Like your feet are stuck in quicksand? And you get so frustrated that you can’t seem to breathe or think? Welcome to John Starks’ Game Seven.

Going into the fourth quarter of a seesaw game, he was 1-for-8, and his eyes were rolling back in his head. Yet he still shot. Coming off a pick, Maxwell in his jock, Cassell on his ass, whatever. As the fans grew louder and more mocking with each miss, Starks’ shots became crazier and more frantic. He’d fight his way out of this swinging with both hands. As he’d always done. His teammates, who’d seen the magic flow from his fingertips just two nights earlier, seemed willing to oblige.

clank. clank. clank.

At one point it got so ugly that NBC announce Marv Albert was prompted to observe: “I know the Knicks have stayed with the philosophy of going with John Starks, but I think you reach a point [where you say] ‘Hey, you gotta stop shooting.’”

John Starks stopped shooting when the buzzer sounded. Seriously. Like Butch Cassidy, he wanted to go out the way he came in. Shooting.

And as he walked into the tunnel that night, he stopped – his breathing labored more from grief than exhaustion – and for a brief moment he shadowboxed his way through another three pointer, his hands mimicking the follow-through.

Nothing but net.

He said all the right things after the game; about how he’d learn from the game; about how it’d only make him work harder in the offseason; about how losing is sometimes a part of winning.

“I never felt as empty after a game as I did after Game Seven,” Starks says. “I stayed up late for awhile, sleeping wasn’t very easy. I had to deal with it.”

He dealt by working out even harder in the offseason – his body now a tightly wound coli of muscles, his surgically-repaired knee, which had grounded his ups during the Finals, as good as new. And he shot enough jump shots and gave himself enough pep talks to know that this season was going to be different. The man who traveled from a supermarket to the CBA to the Knicks to the NBA All-Defensive team to the All-Star team was as determined as he’d ever been in his life. Which is pretty damn determined.

“I know I’m a much better player on the court than I showed that night,” he said one day, without much prompting, eyes fixed solidly on the rim. “I’m ready to show it.”

This season started off well – Starks dropped in 35 against the Jazz in on game and had a few other twenty-point games. The team signed him to a $13.114 million contract extension, which would keep his act at the Garden for five more seasons, and he spoke publically about retiring a Knick. Still, his game seemed a little off. For a guy whose chest puffed noticeably when he played, John Starks had lost some of his swagger. He had an off game. Then two. Then three. Then…

…the wheels came off this season. He couldn’t shoot straight so he stopped shooting. His defense lagged so the local papers – who’d been championing his game since the day he rode into town – called for his benching. In a game against Atlanta, with the Knicks down a couple and thirty-plus ticks on the clock, Charles Oakley ignored a wide-open, arms-waving Starks for what would have been a game-tying trey. The Knicks eventually lost. Oak said he didn’t see Starks, but the message he delivered was clear. You are not “The Man” until further notice.

After that game, Starks publically questioned his desire to start, saying it might be better if he came off the bench, just like he had earlier in his career. “It might be the best situation until I get my game back,” an obviously frustrated Starks said.

Several days later, Starks recorded a DNP (did not play) in a win against the Sixers. “Coach’s decision,” Pat Riley commented after the game, which is Rileyspeak for “attitude adjustment.” Starks responded: “He made a decision he wasn’t going to play me…and that is that. The most important thing is we won and we needed this win.”

Regardless of his “team-first” attitude, the New York press started circling. “Riley’s Son is a Net in Knicks Clothing,” blared one headline. Others soon followed, questioning Starks’ shot selection, his knee, his temperment. It got ugly. And you could see the look on his face as he sat on the bench: “How did I fall this far?”

Game Seven.

Starks finally took the tape home with him. For the first time since that night, John Starks was going to watch his performance in Game Seven. Up until that point, he’d said: “It’s over. It’s behind me. Let’s move on.” Now he was saying, in a nutshell, he’d tried everything else and nothing worked. “I want to put it all to rest,” he said.

He wouldn’t comment afterward about how he felt watching that dismal performance, that mocking crowd, those demonic rims. Nor would he admit that Game Seven and the sixteen clanks had anything to do with his prolonged slump.

All we have are the facts: in his very next start against the Sacramento Kings, Starks played as if his shorts were on fire. He played tough “D”, he passed to teammates and he knocked down his open shots. When it was all over, Starks had 19 points, and he, his teammates and Knicks fans worldwide let out a collective sigh of relief. Not a huge one though. One game does not a season make.

Questions linger: Is it really over? Is Game Seven really behind him? Can a player ever recover from such a dramatic collapse at crunch time?

Consider this: In 1979, the Seattle Supersonics rebounded from Game Seven the previous year, and thrashed the Washington Bullets four-games-to-one for the NBA Championship. No one was happier than Dennis Johnson, the team’s second-leading scorer in the playoffs, with a 22.6 ppg average in the Finals. In Game 4, with the game slipping away from the Sonics, Dennis Johnson riddled the Bullets for 32 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists. After changing his uniform to #3, he also went on to win two rings with the Boston Celtics.

Enough said.