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‘His Shot Looked Like a Medicine Ball’

The Knicks’ title drought is almost certain to reach 49 years this spring. But it could have been substantially shorter if not for John Starks’s nightmare Game 7 in 1994—and his coach’s curious decision to stick with him.

Copyright © 2022 by Chris Herring. From the forthcoming book Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks by Chris Herring, to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

Hours before the Knicks’ biggest game in a generation—a do-or-die matchup that would either make them the 1994 NBA champions or relegate them to being a colorful footnote in hoops history—Pat Riley made a comment that still rings in the ears of one of his closest friends all these years later.

Riley and Dick Butera were standing together inside the team’s Houston hotel, waiting for an elevator so they could head to the arena for Game 7 between the Knicks and Rockets in the NBA Finals. It was then that Riley heartily grabbed the real estate developer by the shoulder.

“Well, old buddy: I know at least three people are gonna show up tonight. You, me and John,” Riley said, referring to shooting guard John Starks.

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At the time, Riley’s confidence in Starks’s pulling through seemed well placed. Following a brutal Game 1, in which he shot 3-for-18 after flying in from his uncle’s funeral, the undersized wing had been dominant in five straight contests, averaging 21 points and seven assists in that span while drilling 49% of his shots and 45% of his triples. He’d come through when it mattered most—and made up for an ineffective Patrick Ewing, who was smothered by league MVP Hakeem Olajuwon—by notching double-digit scoring in three consecutive fourth quarters in Games 4, 5 and 6.

Yet when Riley proclaimed that Starks would show up, he had no idea the swingman hadn’t slept the night before. Or that he hadn’t slept the two nights before that. From Sunday night to Wednesday, Starks had been unable to stop tossing and turning. He usually could flush failed plays the moment they ended. But now, the final play of Game 6 wouldn’t stop cycling through his head.

Most of the Knicks felt worn down by the time Game 7 began. Not just physically, although that contest marked their 25th game of the postseason—at the time the most in NBA history. But also mentally. The Rockets slumbered in their own beds for the three nights before the biggest game of their lives. The Knicks were antsy, camped out at their hotel, left with nothing but regrets about how Game 6 ended.

“Having to stay there for three days between Game 6 and Game 7, all you’re hearing on TV is ‘Houston, Houston, Houston.’ I was turning channels like crazy,” backup center Herb Williams recalls. “We had to sit there for three days and think about everything. I think Riles was thinking about having us go back to New York after Game 6 for a while. I’m not sure why we didn’t do that.”

No one was deeper in thought than Starks, who had a chance to win the title for New York in Game 6. With 5.5 seconds to go, and Houston up 86–84, he took the inbounds pass above the arc and got a pick from Ewing. But Olajuwon, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, switched onto Starks, allowing Ewing to roll toward the free throw line.

There was a window for Starks to feed the ball to Ewing, but it was tight. And Starks wasn’t a pinpoint passer. He struggled so mightily at times with feeding the ball into Ewing during practices that Riley would often halt practice completely until he accomplished it. “We’re not going anyf---ingwhere til John gets the ball into Patrick!” Riley would shout.

So between Starks having committed a turnover on a pass to Ewing a couple of plays before and the fact that Starks had connected on six shots in a row in that fourth quarter, he decided against forcing the pass, instead opting to take matters into his own hands. As he left his feet and launched what could have been an iconic shot from the wing, he had full confidence it was going down.

As the ball hung in the air, so much else hung in the balance with it. A Starter brand executive stood in the arena tunnel with a bag full of Knicks world champions hats and shirts that would need to be distributed on the floor if the shot went in. Championship parade planners in New York were on the phone with Tiffany & Co., ready to commission a trophy ice sculpture if the Knicks won the game. New York trainer Mike Saunders—who’d had a stash of champagne “confiscated” by Rockets security staffers, who then sold the bottles back to him—would need to rush into the locker room to prepare a bubbly celebration.

But then the shot that couldn’t miss came up extremely short. Olajuwon had grazed the shot with his fingernail, doing just enough to change the arc of the jumper and NBA history. And no matter how hard Starks tried, nothing—not even prayer—would allow him to forget the play.

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Upon arriving at The Summit for Game 7, Starks, teammate Anthony Bonner and Pastor John Love sought out a space to hold pregame invocation. But arena staffers told them that every single one of the building’s meeting rooms was occupied. Except for one: Houston’s weight room.

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So the trio held hands and formed a circle in the midst of the strength equipment. Love, the longtime team chaplain, closed his eyes and thanked God for bringing the group together. He expressed gratitude for getting the Knicks to Houston safely and allowing them to advance as far as they had. He asked God to keep the players safe and to help each of them play to the best of his abilities.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s fair to say the last part of the prayer didn’t work,” Love says now.

Impacted by his lack of sleep, Starks played a brutal first half. He lost track of his defensive responsibilities multiple times and had three early fouls, forcing him to the bench before the break. Still, despite him shooting just 1-for-5 in the half, New York was close, down just 45–43 at halftime.

If the Knicks hoped that time in the locker room would calm Starks down, it didn’t. If anything, it made him think even more about what wasn’t going right. So when he came back out to start the second half, the brickfest only intensified. His first try of the third quarter, a long triple, was way too strong, drilling the backboard before coming off the rim. The next try missed, too, making him 1-for-7.

“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.

Since his childhood, Starks had always held optimism that he could dig himself out of a bad situation.

Riley later said called not playing Blackman “the biggest mistake I ever made.“

Riley later said called not playing Blackman “the biggest mistake I ever made.“

As an 11-year-old, during his first day of sixth grade in 1976, Starks was walking down his school hallway in Tulsa when one of his white classmates purposely knocked one of Starks’s books out of his hands. When Starks demanded he pick up the book, the child said no and called Starks the n-word.

“I exploded and beat the kid up,” said Starks.

Starks’s classmate received no punishment. But Starks got suspended for three days, the principal telling him he’d been the one to escalate the incident. When Starks asked whether he could stay at school until classes ended that day, since he relied on the school bus to get home, the man said no.

Afraid to call his mother—who’d surely give him a whooping for the suspension—Starks tried to make sense of the city’s bus system. But he had no clue where he was going, and, being a painfully shy kid, couldn’t muster the courage to ask anyone for help. So despite living south of the school, he took the northbound bus until he realized he was in no-man’s-land. And even when he used the majority of the change he had left in his pocket to head back south, he still wasn’t totally sure where he was. He finally recognized a dry-cleaning shop he was familiar with and found his way home.

Similarly, earlier in that 1993–94 season, on a trip where Riley took the Knicks on a gambling trip to Reno and handed each player $500 in chips in the midst of a four-game losing streak, Starks burned through his money. But he wasn’t capable of folding. So he dug into his own pockets and eventually got so hot that Saunders literally had to drag Starks away from a craps table and onto the team bus, where the rest of the Knicks had been waiting for nearly half an hour.

These instances crystallized who Starks was. When things didn’t go his way, he doubled down instead of taking a breather—perhaps a byproduct of his unrefined basketball education. (Starks played less than one year of high school varsity basketball, had a nomadic college run at four schools, then played in two pro leagues before making it in the NBA.)

In Game 7, though, there simply was no improvement coming. He abandoned his wayward jumper and went to the rim on one play, but Olajuwon swatted the offering out of the air, dragging the guard to 1-for-8.

By the time he was 1-for-10, Starks’s boyish face looked longer than usual. His eyes began darting as he looked over to the bench. The question on his face was the same one going through everyone else’s head: With the game in the fourth period and a title on the line, was Riley going to let him work through this funk?

Even those who’d never doubted Riley were second-guessing his choice to keep Starks on the floor. “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. (“It’s the closest I ever heard Red come to even mildly construing a disagreement with Pat,” says Ed Tapscott, then a member of New York’s front office, who was sitting next to Holzman during Game 7.)

Meanwhile, the Rockets were counting their blessings. “[Starks is] our best player right now,” Houston guard Scott Brooks recalls thinking from the bench that day. “After a while, his shot looked more like a medicine ball, with how much he was struggling to shoot it. All of us on the bench—players, coaches—kept waiting, thinking Pat was going to use Blackman. Because for years [with the Mavericks], he’d just killed us, and we couldn’t stop him, no matter how hard we tried.”

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You have to go back two and a half weeks earlier, to what took place right after the Knicks’ Game 7 victory over Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals, to understand how the Rolando Blackman dilemma might have come into play against the Rockets.

The Knicks players, who collectively had zero rings, were in a great mood, having just won the biggest game of their careers. Riley had just congratulated them in the locker room. The next step was to head down to Houston.

But before dispersing, Blackman asked Riley a question: Could the players bring their wives along for the trip? Riley’s answer, in front of the entire team, was a swift no.

The four-time All-Star failed to understand the logic and pushed back—something that rarely happened with Riley, the league’s highest-paid coach and one with four rings to his credit. Blackman asked for an explanation.

But Riley simply repeated his answer from before: Wives wouldn’t be making the trip to Houston.

The tone of the exchange stunned the players, not only because they hadn’t seen Riley challenged that way in front of the group before, but also because of Riley’s terse response to such a respected veteran.

To an almost comical degree, Riley was a staunch believer in being either in or out as far as his teams were concerned. During his first training camp with New York, he overheard a phone conversation between team president Dave Checketts and Checketts’s wife, Deborah, who was purchasing an SUV. When she floated the idea of getting a green Chevy Suburban, Checketts said that was fine. But it wasn’t fine with Riley.

“She can’t buy a green car, Dave. Green is the Celtics,” Riley said.

Checketts began laughing, thinking Riley was making a joke. But Riley was completely serious.

When Checketts relayed that green wouldn’t work, his wife suggested red as an alternative. Again, Checketts was fine with that. And again, Riley wasn’t. “What? Red is the Bulls,” Riley said.

Checketts finally relented, telling his wife not to bring home anything other than a blue Suburban. But that was how Riley was wired. You were either in or you were out, down to the color of your car.

So when Blackman never got subbed into Game 7—despite the fact that he enjoyed a career-best scoring average against the Rockets, and despite Starks’s arctic spell—his teammates wondered whether the exchange with Riley had something to do with it. Blackman wondered, too.

“I don’t know if that caused some interior backlash or played a role in [Riley’s] choice,” says Blackman, who hadn’t played in the series prior to Game 7.

As the fourth quarter wore on, and Starks continued to miss, the drumbeat only grew louder. A jumper he front-rimmed so badly that it bounced out of bounds into the arms of a cameraman sitting along the baseline. A pull-up three in transition that hit the back iron and resulted in a Houston fast break and dunk. A great look from the left corner that bounced out.

Starks would score on a putback to trim Houston’s lead to 78–73. But the make would be his last. With just under two minutes left, and the Rockets up, 80–75, Vernon Maxwell hit a three over a hard-closing Starks that forced a timeout and had Houston all but tasting champagne.

There’d be no merciful ending for Starks. Seemingly just as lost as he’d been trying to get home that day from school initially, Starks would miss his last four shots of Game 7—the last of which fell about 4 feet short of the basket. He’d finish 2-for-18 from the field and 0-for-11 from three, still among the worst performances in a game that would decide an NBA championship.

Houston won, 90–84, and the team’s celebratory screams pierced the visiting locker room walls.

All of which made it even harder to hear Riley’s postgame speech, one that no one remembers. The entire group, sensing the opportunity it’d missed, was too crestfallen to absorb anything. “You’re seeing him talk, but you just aren’t hearing him at all,” assistant coach Jeff Nix recalls.

Starks finished 2-for-18.

Starks finished 2-for-18.

Guard Derek Harper—who’d played so well that he’d prepared an outline for a speech in case he earned Finals MVP—then walked into the shower in his full uniform, wailing. Herb Williams kept his shower short, not wanting to stay at the arena any longer than necessary. He left before the team bus, opting to walk back to the hotel alone.

Blackman showered slowly, letting the suds wash away the disappointment of not getting a chance to sub in for Starks. Before the shower ended, he knew he’d played in his last NBA game. (Over the years, Riley—who’d later call not subbing in Blackman “the biggest mistake I ever made”—has sent a number of handwritten letters to Blackman. But Blackman says he’s never written Riley back.)

Understandably, Game 7 cut Starks deep. He showered for an hour, so long that most newspaper reporters gave up on waiting for him, realizing they’d miss their print deadlines. “We literally had to pull him out of [the shower], he was in there so long,” assistant Jeff Van Gundy recalls.

Starks’s anguish and insomnia persisted for days once he made it back to New York—a city that never sleeps, and a basketball town that, with a nearly 50-year NBA title drought, figures to be restless until it can experience that championship feeling again someday.

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