Several days before the New York Knicks began their postseason quest for the 1992-93 NBA title, John Starks sat at the dining room table of his rented home in Stamford, Conn., discussing a subject foreign to most pro athletes—the minimum wage. "The loading dock at the newspaper company paid about four bucks an hour," said Starks. "Now, Safeway, that was a minimum-wage job—$3.35."
And after that? "Well," said Starks, "I made good money in the [World Basketball League], about $5,000 a month. But it was $500 a month, the minimum, in the CBA. Then, my first year [1988-89] in the NBA with Golden State, I made the NBA minimum, $100,000. And my first season with the Knicks [1990-91], I made the minimum, which was then up to $130,000." He smiled and shook his head. "Lot of minimums in there."
These days Starks, who now starts at shooting guard for the Knicks, is anything but a minimalist. He expends maximum energy, makes maximum use of his jump-shooting opportunities, throws in a maximum number of elbows (plus a head butt or two) and talks trash at maximum volume. For his efforts the Knicks rewarded him last October with a four-year contract extension that will pay him an average of $1.2 million per season. No doubt about it—minimums are all but gone from Starks's unlikely saga, which comprises equal parts sweat and enchantment.
Starks played his usual intriguing role in New York's 111-95 victory over the Charlotte Hornets in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon. He scored 14 points and handed out 12 assists, helping the Knicks pull away with an unlikely four-guard rotation that also included Rolando Blackman and Greg Anthony. Best of all, Starks also maintained his composure, even when harassed by the NBA's No. 1 certifiable pest, Muggsy Bogues. See, Starks—rhymes with sparks—should have a separate notation in the Knick box score: Along with points, rebounds, assists and steals should be times out of control.
"John does go over the line sometimes," says Doc Rivers, his backcourt running mate. "But I've noticed that the more minutes he gets, the more important he has become for our team, the less he's likely to be out of control. The John Starks who began the season and the John Starks who is one of our key players right now are two entirely different people."
Most of the time. Although Starks is doing a better job of keeping his emotions in check, one senses a constant battle raging between Good John and Bad John. In Games 1 and 2 of the Knicks' first-round defeat of the Indiana Pacers—both New York victories—Good John ignored the repeated invitations of Pacer guard Reggie Miller to engage in verbal warfare. However, early in the third period of Game 3, at Market Square Arena, Bad John reached the end of his emotional rope. Away from the ball but in full view of referee Jim Clark, he head-butted Miller and got ejected. Before he could leave the floor, Knick co-captains Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley openly chastised him. New York lost 116-93. Thus did Starks validate Indiana's preseries assessment of him—"Goes into funk for stretches of the game," the Pacer scouting report stated.
Where does Bad John come from? And why does he show up at such inopportune times? Chicago Bull coach Phil Jackson may have come close to the answer last season. After Starks had clotheslined Scottie Pippen in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals (the act cost Starks a $5,000 fine), Jackson said, "That play showed the desperation John Starks brings to the game."
Interesting choice of words. Desperation speaks volumes about the roots of Starks's game, which is built on tough, confrontational defense and spectacular but streaky offense. Other NBA players overcame poverty, others were not high school stars, others failed to reveal their potential in college, others worked part-time (remember, Larry Bird was a garbageman), others went undrafted and proved themselves in the CBA, and others needed a lucky break to reach the NBA. But it's pretty safe to say that no other player carries the complete rags-to-riches package on his rèsumè.
Starks, 27, estimates that his family (mother, grandmother, six siblings) moved at least 10 times during his formative years in Tulsa, each time staying one step ahead of the wolf. At one point the Starks clan found itself with another family in a three-room house in which, says Starks, "bunk beds were stacked up to the ceiling." He had to help with expenses, so during his senior year at Central High, Starks took a job on the loading dock of a newspaper plant. When he wasn't working or in school, he haunted a playground in north Tulsa called Cheyenne Park.
"I could always measure myself against other players," says Starks, who quit the Central High team after having an uneventful season as a junior. "I saw the guys who were going to Division I schools, and I knew I could play with them."
The blue-collar life didn't seem all that attractive, and Starks, though indifferent to academics, decided to pursue a college degree. What the next three years prepared him for more than anything, though, was writing a guidebook to Oklahoma's most obscure junior colleges. In the fall of 1983, he enrolled at Rogers Slate, in Claremore, but left after one semester. In the spring of '84, he signed on at Northern Oklahoma, in Tonkawa, and played that fall before leaving after one semester because no scholarships were available. His next stop was Oklahoma Junior College, in Tulsa, where he played the 1986-87 season and where Leonard Hamilton, Oklahoma State's coach at the time, spotted him. Starks signed with the Cowboys and played the 1987-88 season, scoring 15.4 points per game and catching the eye of some, but not many, NBA scouts.
It was between his stints at Northern Oklahoma and Oklahoma Junior College that Starks tied on a Safeway apron. He sought the job because his money had run out. He took pride in his bagging, too, putting the heavy stuff on the bottom, laying the eggs and bread on top. When he's back in Tulsa, where he still lives in the off-season, Starks sometimes shops at the store, but he is not recognized as a former employee. "Too much turnover," he says.
The daily Safeway grind convinced Starks that he wanted to play basketball for a living. The trick was to persuade the NBA that he was good enough to do it. Golden State Warrior coach Don Nelson—perennial friend of the underdog—took a chance and signed Starks but couldn't find him many minutes (316 in 36 games). The next season, 1989-90, he played for the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Silver Bullets in the CBA, and in the summer he joined the WBL's Memphis Rockers.
His athleticism ("John could win the Superstars competition," says Rivers) and gung-ho attitude were obvious, but most NBA scouts saw too much Cheyenne Park in Starks's game: poor shot selection, inconsistency, too much flying off the handle. In Cedar Rapids he was suspended for five games for bumping a referee—hey, at least he didn't head-butt the guy—thereby scaring off the Detroit Pistons, who were contemplating offering him a 10-day contract near the end of the '89-90 season. "It comes and it goes," Starks said then of his ability to master his emotions. When you're an Okie and your life has been like a country and western tune, you might as well sound like one.
The Knicks called in the fall of 1990, but only because they needed a good practice player. New York had 12 guaranteed contracts, which is why, during a scrimmage near the end of training camp, Starks launched himself in the air to attempt a thunderous dunk over Ewing. "I wasn't going to make the team, anyway," says Starks now, "so I figured I'd go out with something spectacular."
Ewing deposited him spectacularly on the floor, and Starks strained his knee. That forced the Knicks to put Starks on the injured list instead of the sayonara list. Then, early in the season, Starks got a chance to play when guard Trent Tucker was injured. "My first game [Dec. 7, 1990] was against Michael Jordan in Chicago," says Starks. "He didn't know who I was."
He does now. In the Knicks' regular-season finale, against the Bulls at the Garden on April 25, there was Starks, out-scoring Jordan 22-21 despite taking 15 fewer shots in an 89-84 New York win. Starks, the Knicks' No. 2 scorer (17.5 per game) during the regular season, has come a long way from Cheyenne Park.
Trouble is, Bad John keeps trying to drag him back, as he did during a Nov. 19 game against the Los Angeles Clippers at the L.A. Sports Arena. That's when Starks and his comrades-in-harm, Knick forward Anthony Mason and point guard Greg Anthony, spent too much energy talking and not enough energy playing—Bad John even threw water on Clipper point guard Mark Jackson in the game—during a 101-91 defeat. Coach Pat Riley benched all three players for the next game; Starks sat for two games.
Bad John surfaced again for a spell in early January, which prompted Riley to inform him, after a 95-94 loss to the Magic in Orlando, that he was not "focused" (Riley's alltime favorite word, next to championship) and that he needed to get his act together or face another benching. In New York's next three games Good John scored 28, 33 and 27 points. When Riley coached the Los Angeles Lakers, he talked about guard Byron Scott's being an up-and-down player. Next to Starks, Scott is a rock of stability.
Off the court, though, Starks is basically a Good John in suburbia. He and his wife, Jacqueline, have two children, John Jr., 5, and Chelsea, 16 months, and the joke around the locker room is that John Jr. has already been to five nursery schools. (It's not true.)
Even when he's home, Starks can never sit still. "I'd hate to be his wife," says Rivers. "I can just hear her every night: 'John, time to come and stop playing. You too, John Junior.' " One of the things Starks is doing now is studying speech with a tutor so he can better deal with the press.
While Starks has clearly made it as an NBA player, he still spends a lot of time thinking about places like Cedar Rapids. Memphis and the Safeway on Pine Street. "The advantage of coming up the way I did is that you have to struggle, and that makes you appreciate what you have." says Starks. "Disadvantages? I don't really think there are any. Maybe just that some people will always think of you as a CBA player and not believe you're good enough to be here."
Starks has a good answer for that. "You're wrong," he tells his detractors.
And he's right—as long as Good John stays in charge.