There is an optimistic saying in the betting world that “the longshots pay off the biggest.”
This phrase can easily be applied to the NBA career of John Starks.
Starks overcame a circuitous path in college and his early professional career before finally becoming a star with the New York Knicks.
▫️4 different colleges in 4 years
▫️Undrafted in 1988
▫️The Dunk in 1993
▫️1997 6th man of the year
▫️Knicks all-time leader in made 3s
— KNICKS ON MSG (@KnicksMSGN) August 10, 2020
His time in New York coincided with some of the best talent the team has had in its history.
Along the way, Starks became a fan favorite and is still remembered for both his highs and lows.
This is the story of John Starks.
Early Life and Nomadic College Career
John Levell Starks was born on August 10, 1965, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Starks was always drawn to the sport of basketball, but it took him a while to find his way to the hardwood.
At Tulsa Central High School, he wouldn’t get the chance to showcase his skills until his final year in high school.
Starks’ one year of prep ball was not nearly enough to gain the attention of college coaches.
So, after graduation, he enrolled at Rogers State College in Claremore, Oklahoma.
Starks tried out for the Rogers basketball team and played well enough to be a member of the Hillcats “taxi” squad.
These were the team members that were called on when starters were injured or unable to play.
However, being a taxi squad member meant that Starks could not don a uniform on game days and had to watch from the stands.
Yet, before he had a chance to play for Rogers, Starks was expelled from the school for stealing a fellow student’s stereo equipment.
Starks justified the theft by explaining he was retaliating for the student breaking into his dorm room.
Furthermore, after the break-in, the college curiously charged Starks and his roommate for the damage.
In 1985, Starks transferred to Northern Oklahoma College and made the basketball team.
He was playing well for the Mavericks when trouble came calling again.
Starks was caught smoking marijuana in his dorm room and Northern Oklahoma sent him packing.
Bonus Hollander POTD John Starks. Played at 4 colleges, ending w/OK St. Fought thru minors before finally sticking w/NY. It's forgotten but John MacLeod (not Riley) who found him for NY. Starks was a bit manic but the energy was great. Had good+bad moments but def a Knick lifer. pic.twitter.com/3XjKH3I5S8
— HoopsAnalyst (@HoopsAnalyst) April 19, 2021
As the window was closing on Starks’ basketball dreams, he next enrolled at Tulsa Junior College to study business.
While going to school, Starks worked at a Safeway supermarket and played intramural basketball.
Fate would find him on the court in the form of former Oral Rogers University basketball coach Ken Trickey.
Trickey was in the process of starting a basketball team at Oklahoma Junior College and spied Sparks playing one day.
Trickey approached Starks and asked him to join his new team at OJC.
Starks took advantage of the opportunity and played for Trickey that year.
Starks did well enough that Oklahoma State University gave him a scholarship for the 1987-88 season.
In his lone season for the Cowboys, Starks played in 30 games and averaged 15.4 points per game.
Starks Wanders the Basketball Wilderness
Starks’ one year of Division I basketball did not give NBA scouts enough faith in his professional abilities.
He was not selected during the 1988 NBA Draft, but was signed by the Golden State Warriors as an undrafted free agent.
Starks barely saw the court that year as Warriors rookie Mitch Richmond played the guard position well enough to win Rookie of the Year.
After the 1988-89 season, Golden State cut Starks.
He then spent the next season playing for both the Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets of the Continental Basketball Association and the Memphis Rockers of the World Basketball League.
Ewing Inadvertently Helps Starks become a Knick
In 1990, the New York Knicks offered Starks an opportunity to try out for the team.
Starks knew he had to make a good impression in order to stick.
During one practice, he attempted to make a statement by dunking over Knicks All-Star center Patrick Ewing.
With full authority, the 7’0” Ewing swatted away the 6’3” Starks and sent the guard sprawling.
As Starks got to his feet, he felt his knee catch and winced in pain.
He hobbled to the sideline and later found out that Ewing’s rejection had led to a twisted knee.
In the meantime, Starks didn’t know that the Knicks were strongly considering cutting him.
However, NBA rules forbid injured players from getting cut and Starks went on the team’s injury list.
By the time his knee recovered, New York was short on bodies and decided to give Starks an opportunity.
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) October 1, 2020
He made the most of it and would finish the 1990-91 season by starting in ten games and averaging 7.6 points and 3.3 assists per game.
In 1991-92, Starks continued to gain valuable minutes and would see action in every game.
For the season, he averaged 13.9 points and 3.4 assists per game.
Starks Posterizes Jordan
The following season, Starks finally broke through and started 51 games for the Knicks.
He would increase his averages to 17.5 points (the second-highest of his career) and 5.1 assists per game.
As the season progressed, Starks’ fearlessness and confrontational nature quickly endeared him to Knicks fans.
During Game 3 of the First Round of the 1993 playoffs, Starks and Pacers star Reggie Miller went toe-to-toe.
Make no butts about it. There was no love lost b/w John Starks and Reggie Miller. 1993 NBA Playoffs – ECQF, Game 3.
— Adam Ryan | NBA history podcaster (@inallairness) June 15, 2020
At one point during the game, Starks was so angry with Miller that he headbutted the Pacers guard and was ejected.
“That needed to happen,” Starks said in a 2021 interview. “No matter what, it needed to happen. He hit me with a ‘bow, and I told the referee, and the referee said, ‘Starks, shut up and play.’ I was like, ‘OK, I can handle this.”
Weeks later, in a moment of audacity, Starks challenged the most popular player in the NBA and came away with an iconic moment for the ages.
The Knicks were playing the mighty Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Chicago had won the previous two championships and was gunning for a third.
During a tight Game 2 contest, New York had a three-point lead and less than a minute remained.
Starks had the ball and was looking for a shot. He spied a slightly open lane along the baseline and barrelled toward the basket.
In Starks’ way stood Bulls forward Horace Grant and All-World guard Michael Jordan.
Starks didn’t let His Airness intimidate him and rose in the air with his left hand and dunked over the duo with authority.
One of the greatest playoff dunks of all time happened 25 years ago
John Starks, ladies and gentlemen 💀 💀 💀pic.twitter.com/ojzGlmF4K3
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) May 25, 2018
The home crowd went nuts as Starks smiled and was embraced by his teammates.
Despite the show of bravado, Jordan and the Bulls would ultimately prevail in the series and defeat the Knicks in six games.
Starks and the Knicks come up Short in the Finals
After the ‘93 playoffs ended with Chicago’s third straight title, Jordan decided to retire and try his hand at professional baseball.
For the rest of the NBA, that meant a clearer path to contend for a title.
Starks and the Knicks decided it was their year to return a championship to the city of New York and attacked the 1993-94 season with gusto.
The roster that year was loaded with the likes of Starks, Ewing, Greg Anthony, Derek Harper, Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley, and Doc Rivers, just to name a few.
Playing with a chip on their shoulder, the team bullied their way to a 57-25 regular season record.
Knicks rookie Monty Williams listening to coach Pat Riley along with John Starks, 1994 pic.twitter.com/Qy4RCeypog
— New York Basketball (@NBA_NewYork) July 6, 2021
Starks had a career-high 19.0 points and 5.9 assists per game during the year. He would also be named as an NBA All-Star.
New York then dispatched the Nets, Bulls, and Pacers in the first three rounds of the postseason with the Chicago and Indiana series both going to seven games.
At long last, the Knicks found themselves in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1973.
New York would face the Houston Rockets, who were sporting their own potent lineup that included Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Vernon Maxwell, and Kenny “the Jet” Smith.
Before Game 1 of the Finals, Starks’ uncle passed away. He attended the funeral and then flew back to play in the game.
The wear from the previous few days showed as Starks made only three of 18 shot attempts in the Knicks loss.
With his bad shooting night behind him, Starks atoned by averaging 21 points and seven assists in the next five games.
His effort would tie the series at three games apiece.
With Starks making nearly half of his shooting attempts, including three-point shots, the Knicks were confident heading into Game 7 in Houston.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to his New York teammates, Starks had not slept the night before the game.
In fact, still stewing from a tough, two-point loss to Houston in Game 6, Starks hadn’t slept much the past three nights.
June 19, 1994: Hakeem Olajuwon scored 30 pts, grabbed 10 rebs + partially blocked the final shot of the game by John Starks to lead Houston Rockets to an 86-84 victory over the New York Knicks in Game Six of the #NBAFinals at The Summit. #NBARewind90s #NBATwitter
📸 Getty Images pic.twitter.com/npBzOJ5ICW
— NBA Rewind 90's (@NBARewind90s) June 19, 2021
The lack of sleep caught up to him at the worst possible time. It wasn’t long into the game that Starks was 1 of 7 from the field and the crowd and media took notice.
“Starks has had many nights like this over the course of the year, where he’ll try to shoot himself back into the game after struggling. That’s been the case here tonight,” NBC announcer Marv Albert said.
Instead, it only got worse. As Starks continued to brick shots, Knicks fans and fellow New York players themselves were getting concerned.
“I wonder if maybe this would be the time for us to take a shot with [backup Rolando] Blackman,” ex–Knicks coach Red Holzman said as he watched the action from the crowd.
The Rockets, in turn, loved the fact that Knicks coach Pat Riley continued to play Starks.
“[Starks is] our best player right now,” Houston guard Scott Brooks recalls thinking. “After a while, his shot looked more like a medicine ball, with how much he was struggling to shoot it.”
Starks’ night never improved.
He would end up making only two of 18 attempts and, embarrassingly, his last shot of the contest fell well short of the basket.
On this date in 1994, the Knicks lost Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Starks shot 2-of-18 in the biggest Knicks game of the past 50 years and is still adored by the fan base. That tells you all you need to know about John Starks. #theknicksofthenineties pic.twitter.com/AX7ttBFLaL
— Paul Knepper (@paulieknep) June 22, 2021
New York would lose 90-84 and wonder what might have been.
For the next two years, Starks continued to help lead the Knicks in their pursuit of a title.
He started nearly every game and posted averages of 15.3 points and 5.1 assists in 1994-95 and 12.6 points and 3.9 assists in 1995-96.
New York struggled to advance in the postseason and lost to Indiana and Chicago in the Conference Semifinals both years.
When the Knicks mattered🏀
This man repped the NY on his chest every night🗽
Happy Born Day to John Starks👍 pic.twitter.com/G8QnARHvvl
— Goat Jerseys (@GoatJerseys) August 11, 2020
In 1996-97, Starks only started one game, but he would win the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award after averaging 13.8 points and 2.8 assists.
The 1997-98 season saw Starks start 10 games and average 12.9 points and 2.7 assists.
However, for the fourth year in a row, the Knicks would lose in the Conference Semifinals.
It was clear to New York management that the roster needed an overhaul.
Starks is Traded
Despite the fact that he was still a valuable player and fan favorite, the Knicks decided to trade Starks before the 1998-99 season to Golden State.
Returning to the team that gave him his first shot in the NBA, Starks played fairly well for a year and a half for the Warriors.
— Cory Johnson ⚡️ (@CoryTV) December 30, 2015
Near the end of the 1999-2000 season, he was traded again, this time to the Bulls.
Starks would last only four games in Chicago before being traded to the Utah Jazz.
In 2000-2001, Starks would start 64 games for the Jazz and average 9.3 points and 2.4 assists.
The following year, he would be limited to one start and average only 4.4 points and 1.1 assists.
After the season, Starks would retire.
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) May 24, 2020
In 13 seasons, Starks averaged 12.5 points (10,829 total points) and 3.6 assists (3,085 total) per game.
He is the Knicks’ all-time leader in three-point field goals with 982 and he was also the first player in NBA history to make 200 three-pointers in a season (1994-95).
Starks was an NBA All-Star and NBA Sixth Man for one season and made the NBA All-Defensive Second Team for the 1992-93 season.
Post Career Life
Since retiring, Starks has devoted most of his time to the sport that gave him fame and fortune.
In 2003, he served as the head coach of the Westchester Wildfire of the United States Basketball League.
The following year, he published his autobiography, John Starks: My Life.
Starks has also spent time as a coach for the Maulers, a Slamball team.
Starks currently works for the Knicks as an alumnus and fan development official.
In addition to his team duties, he is a pre-and-post-game analyst on MSG Network’s home Knicks game coverage.