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This week in Knicks history: John Starks earns Sixth Man of the Year, helps sweep the Hornets

Starks wasn’t a superstar, but he was no slouch.

1997 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 2: Charlotte Hornets vs. New York Knicks
Starks drives to the basket against the Hornets in the first round of the playoffs.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

An undersized, big-hearted shooting guard who never backed down from a challenge, John Starks was the quintessential New York basketballer, and 23 years ago this week he secured the Sixth Man of the Year Award before helping New York sweep Charlotte in the first round.

In 1995-96, Starks had been unhappy when Don Nelson stuck him on the bench in order to start Hubert Davis, but by March of that season, Nelson was out and Jeff Van Gundy was in. Thus, when Van Gundy approached Starks ahead of the 1996-97 season about once again coming off the bench so that the newly signed Allan Houston could start, Starks easily could have been distraught. Instead, he became determined to thrive in the role, and began the year with 22 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 1 block in an eight-point victory over the Toronto Raptors, which were in their second year as a franchise. Houston added 28 points in that game, and it looked like the Houston-Starks shooting guard combination just might work.

Starks played the rest of the season with the same fervor, and by the end of April he had been named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year for the 1996-97 season, becoming the second Knick to earn the honor in three years (Anthony Mason won it in 1994-95). To date, three Knicks have won the award, with J.R. Smith taking home the honor in 2012-13.

Starks received 84 of a possible 115 votes from the panel of writers and broadcasters who voted, finishing ahead of the 1995-96 winner Toni Kukoc, as well as Chris Gatling of the New Jersey Nets. In fourth place was Detroit Pistons power forward Terry Mills, and in fifth place was Dell Curry, who you might know as the father of Dallas Mavericks combo guard Seth Curry (oh, and Dell also fathered two-time MVP and three-time NBA champion Steph Curry).

Anyhow, Starks earned the honor thanks to a season in which he posted 13.8 points (on 43% from the field and 37% from three), 2.8 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.17 steals per game off the bench. He put up 20 or more points 14 times, including a 31-point effort that came in an April loss against the Indiana Pacers. He had at least 15 points and 5 assists nine times, and at least 15 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists 13 times.

He had individual games of 17 points and 7 assists (a 27-point blowout of Chicago), 27 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists (a three-point victory over Toronto), and 21 points, 6 assists and 3 steals (an 11-point win over Philadelphia).

On Feb. 18, Starks sank a game-winning three at the buzzer to beat the Phoenix Suns, giving him 15 points for the night, to go along with 3 boards and 3 dimes.

The following video does a solid job showing Starks’ contributions during the season. Pay particular attention to the play that begins around the 1:22 mark, which is certain to elicit shouts of joy even though it’s something that happened more than two decades ago.

Lest you thought the fun might have ceased once the regular season was finished, this all took place back when the Knicks were a perennial playoff participant. Over the course of the last week of April, the Knicks treated the Charlotte Hornets like some dust on the kitchen floor, sweeping them handily and earning an Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup with the hated Miami Heat.

Brief aside: That series against the Heat included the infamous brawl that started with P.J. Brown tossing Charlie Ward like a rag doll, and resulted in everyone important on the Knicks, including Starks, being suspended for major playoff games. Would the Knicks have gone on to win the championship if the Heat hadn’t been such huge piles of poo? Some may say no, since Michael Jordan was in the middle of his second three-peat. But we’ll never know for sure, so all we can do is assume that yes, the Knicks would have beat the Bulls in the next round and then gone on to win the title.

Before New York and Miami faced off, the Knicks had to dispatch the Hornets, which featured a starting lineup of Muggsy Bougues, Ricky Pierce, Glen Rice, Anthony Mason and Vlade Divac. The first round series was best of five back then, and Starks performed slightly better than he had during his award-winning regular season, averaging 16.3 points, 3.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals in a three game sweep that concluded with a nine-point Game 3 victory on April 28.

Since it’s still the era of quarantine and you probably have ample time to watch old, poor-quality video of basketball from the past, here’s footage from the third and final game of that first round series against the Hornets. Starks checks in at about the 7:25 mark.

Although the season would ultimately end in heartbreak, the heart displayed by Starks throughout the campaign will never be forgotten. It’s always tough to be benched, and many players fail to accept their new role, or perform considerably worse than they had as starters. Not Starks, though. He turned the demotion into an opportunity, and is now forever etched into NBA history as the recipient of the Sixth Man of the Year Award for 1996-97.