On February 7, 1993, the New York Knicks knocked off the Charlotte Hornets. The box score:
Patrick Ewing and John Starks have advanced to the final round of our Most-Loved Knick Ever* tournament. At first glance, what’s most striking about this pairing are their polarities. Ewing was a highly-touted prospect out of high school and college, a generational big man who earned straight-faced comparisons to Bill Russell. He was big and strong, a seven-time All-NBA selection, an 11-time All-Star, winner of two Olympics golds, a member of the NBA’s 50 Greatest and Top 75 lists. His number hangs in the rafters; it honestly could have hung there while he was playing.
Starks didn’t just take the road less traveled; he pretty much emerged from basketball wilderness. A nobody as a high school baller, Starks bounced around junior colleges in Oklahoma before playing one year at Oklahoma State. He went undrafted, breaking in as a 23-year-old rookie with Golden State. He was not big — though listed back then as 6’5”, Starks himself says he was 6’2” — which meant he could be giving up four to five inches against Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller, or 45 pounds to Mitch Richmond. His jersey does not hang from the rafters, and pro’ly never will. Still, he was tough as they come in squeezing out every drop of talent he could. If that meant pissing off half the league, then half the league was gonna be pissed.
Not only were Ewing and Starks bonded by time and toughness, but also unfair burdens. Ewing, to the point of infamy, if not canon, was one of the only great players of his era never to play with someone else on his level. Other than Dominique Wilkins, how many Hall of Famers peers who broke in within a few years of Ewing were asked to do more with less?
Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen and later Dennis Rodman. Isiah Thomas had Joe Dumars. Three of Clyde Drexler’s teammates in Portland’s starting 5 combined for seven All-Star appearances. Charles Barkley played with Kevin Johnson in Phoenix. Richmond, Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway were all together in Golden State. Hakeem Olajuwon broke in alongside a Hall of Famer in Ralph Sampson, then won his second championship with Drexler. John Stockton and Karl Malone had each other. The Celtics had more greats die during Ewing’s career — Len Bias and Reggie Lewis — than Ewing ever paired with.
Starks, in his own way, also carried an unjust weight. He caught Pat Riley’s eye because of his defense and his dynamic, fearless guard play. Throughout the ‘90s, Starks was easily the best entry passer to Ewing; if that doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, you are blessed to not have watched non-good entry passers. The Knicks had few guards who could shoot and fewer who could create for themselves and for others. Starks did all that, plus he was the team’s best perimeter defender, eventually earning All-Defense honors.
The Knicks asked the 6’2” Starks to be their de facto creator, their secondary scorer and their primary stopper. Starks was not the type to say no. I get that attitude. I almost never turn down a writing opportunity that pays because I don’t have to look back far to wishing I was making any money to do what I love. Starks never stopped living with that fear, that motivation. And like all geniuses, he was both ahead of his time and scoffed at for that fact. In 1994-95, Starks averaged over eight 3-point attempts per 36 minutes. That volume would put him right among the Knicks leaders this season, 27 years later.
Like I said at the start of this tournament, there are no right or wrong answers. Who do you love? isn’t asking you who was the most successful or the best or the most meaningful. These were two easy players on the heart. Who takes up more space in yours? The vote is open till Friday the 10th at 11:59 p.m. Final result will post next week.
This poll is closed