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Retro recap, January 5, 1992: Knicks 108, Suns 104 (OT)

A star is born.

Here are two players’ numbers from the 1990-91 season. Both players were 25 that year. These are their numbers, but as is often true, the numbers are not the story.

As is also often true, the story is rarely the whole story. Children’s stories end with happily ever afters. We grow older and learn the truth: there is no happily ever after. Exhibit A: 1992. A lot of stories ended in 1992, but did they really?

The prologue: on Christmas Day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union. If you think Shaq and Kobe splitting up was seismic, this was that, only bigger. On January 8, U.S. president George Bush vomited in the lap of Japanese prime minister Kiichi Mizayawa. Whether food or a superpower, stories don’t just go away. Not the ones that matter. Those rise up, take a new form and live forever.

A month later, Jeffrey Dahmer received a life sentence for killing, dismembering and eating 17 men and boys, mostly Black and Asian. That same month Mike Tyson was convicted of rape. Soon after, John Gotti was given a life sentence for the murder of Paul Castellano and for racketeering. He and Dahmer both died in prison, the former from throat cancer, the latter beaten to death. And yet the weirdest story of the year, the one that spawned three different mini-series, one on each major network, took place on Long Island. Natch.

Around the same time Amy Fisher shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco, four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of using excessive force against Rodney King, a Black man. Without justice there can be no peace: after five days of rioting, the city was left with 63 deaths, nearly 2,400 injuries, 12,000 arrest and $1B in property damage. A month later, former Panamanian dictator and American ally Manuel Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison for drug trafficking and racketeering, proving there can be peace without justice if the world’s lone superpower forces its peace on its terms on people and places who cannot resist. The Mall of America was built, just as malls began to go extinct. Mortal Kombat dropped The Kentucky state supreme declared same-sex sodomy laws unconstitutional. Sinead O’Connor declared the Catholic Church the enemy for the rampant child sex abuse it permitted. Thank God for her using her voice to keep those children’s stories alive, to make sure they were heard.

On Sunday, January 5, 1992, the number one song in the land was Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” The top box-office draw was Hook, in a year where the Oscar winner for best picture went to Silence of the Lambs. Then as now, one could take a wide-angle view of American culture and not really know what they were seeing. The same was true of the New York Knicks.

***

After drafting Patrick Ewing in 1985 and four years later riding Rick Pitino’s Bomb Squad to their first division title since Earl Monroe was a Baltimore Bullet, the Knicks had fallen into a familiar backslide. Pitino left to resurrect Kentucky’s men’s college program. Stu Jackson had the team at 33-16 in 1990 before they stumbled to a 12-21 finish. Fifteen games into the ‘91 season, Stu was out and John MacLeod was in, but the captain doesn’t matter if the ship be sinking. New York finished below .500 and got splattered by the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Then things went from bad to worse.

Ewing went to court to try and exercise a clause in his contract that would allow him to become a restricted free agent or force a trade. He lost, but you couldn’t blame him for wanting out. After landing Ewing and Gerald Wilkins in the 1985 draft, a year later the Knicks took Kenny Walker with the fifth pick. They used their first-rounders the next two drafts on Mark Jackson and Rod Strickland, two players at the same position who wouldn’t be able to be played together. Good stuff.

Then in 1989 New York took Jerrod Mustaff with the 17th pick. Mustaff was a power forward. The Knicks already employed Charles Oakley, who was 26 years and old and ranked second on the team in minutes behind only Ewing. 36 players from the 1990 draft played at least 200 career games. None were Jerrod Mustaff. But he would end up having a positive impact on Knicks history, as would two other events that year.

After the 1990 season, Riley left the L.A. Lakers after nine years and four titles despite still having two years left on his contract. Word was the players had grown tired of Riley’s intense practices and public criticisms, and that he and Laker consigliere Jerry West had beef after LA’s second-round exit versus Phoenix. Riley became an analyst for NBC for a year, then agreed to succeed MacLeod as the Knicks’ new coach, bringing instant direction and credibility. Ewing was, if not entirely mollified, at least interested in what else the team had in store.

The Knicks selected Greg Anthony in the ‘91 draft; other than that move, the roster didn’t look all that different. All the starters remained: Ewing, Oakley, Jackson, Wilkins and Kiki Vandeweghe, who 11 years into his 13-year career could still shoot but not offer much else. Then on October 1st, the Knicks traded Mustaff along with Trent Tucker and a pair of second-round picks for Xavier McDaniel. Going from Kiki end of the line to X-Man in his prime isn’t simply apples to oranges; it’s going from apples to a genetically modified muscular orange that peels and eats you. The Riley Knicks were coming together. With X and another new forward, one Portland drafted in the 3rd round of the ‘88 draft who spent a year in Turkey before barely playing for the Nets and Nuggets — dude named Anthony Mason — a plan was coming together. Every good plan needs a little bit of luck.

Luck is the residue of design, but the heat of the forge is not the same for the metal as for the smith. The third bit of good fortune to strike the Knicks came at training camp in 1990. John Starks was there, a longshot to make the team. He was used to being a longshot: in the same draft Mason went 53rd, Starks was undrafted. 25 teams had three chances to take him; all 25 passed, each time. He played a little for Golden State in 1989 but a combo guard on a team with an All-Star off-guard in Mitch Richmond and a shiny new point guard in first-round pick Tim Hardaway was never gonna play much.

Starks, knowing the Knicks were probably going to cut him, goes pure Starks in an intrasquad scrimmage, driving to basket and looking to throw down over Ewing, nine inches taller and 60 pounds heavier. The undrafted rookie flies in against the franchise player, one of the richest men in the league, one of the most hyped players ever to enter the Association.

***

Since they have no ending, stories also don’t have beginnings. But they often create their own beginnings, for symmetry or framing, or as preamble. The Starks story can be said to begin at Central High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As a high-school senior, he didn’t play basketball, instead bagging groceries at the Piggly Wiggly. That’s not the story teams look for, but the seeds were planted; Starks called his time making $3.35 an hour as a bagger “the start of the right path.” He went to Rogers State College and made the team, but only as a replacement player. A year later at Northern Oklahoma College, he scored 11 points a game. He transferred to Tulsa Junior College. These aren’t the stories teams look for. Luckily for Starks, someone was looking.

Leonard Hamilton, who’d later coach at Miami and Florida State before one year as head man of the Washington Wizards, saw Starks play at Tulsa. One year later, Starks’ final year of eligibility, he played for Hamilton at Oklahoma State, played well enough to be invited to training camp with Golden State. After a short stint in the Bay, Starks played for the CBA’s Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets and the World Basketball League’s Memphis Rockers. A story was taking shape. But all good stories need tragedy and truimph.

Starks challenges Ewing, Icarus soaring too high, and he pays the price, crashing to the floor and twisting his knee. NBA rules dictate an injured player can’t be cut, so the Knicks had to keep him on the roster. And here’s where Act I becomes Act II, the protagonist entering a new world: after years of trying and failing to earn recognition for his game, it was Starks’ work ethic while out injured that impressed the Knicks enough to give him playing time once he’s healthy. They were lucky to be stuck with Starks, lucky he turned out the way he did. But everything it took to be in the position he put himself in to be seen — that wasn’t luck. That was Starks getting up every time he fell down.

”His fearlessness...helped us win many, many, many ballgames,” Ewing said of Starks after both retired. “There’s no other guy that I would want in my foxhole other than John.” For Ewing to say that about the man who put up the infamous 2-of-18 shooting in Game 7 of the ‘94 Finals shows the tao of Starks: even at his worst, he was not merely accepted but loved, because whether things were going his way or not, he was always grinding. Some athletes suffer for being so good that it looks like they’re not trying, so when they struggle outsiders assume they don’t care (Carlos Beltrán, Bernie Williams, lots of Black and Latino athletes). Starks was like those landlines with the machinery visible inside the phone. Beneath his skin you could see gears turning, tensions pulling, temperature rising. The best writers make you see and feel what they’re seeing and feeling. Starks was Dickens, Nin, and King with range and hops and suffocating defense, on- and off-ball.

I had this phone back in the day.

***

The night of January 5, the Knicks hosted the Phoenix Suns. New York was 19-9, quite the turnaround from 39-43 a year earlier, but questions persist. After opening 11-0 at home, the Knicks dropped two of their next three at MSG to San Antonio and Cleveland, teams who’d win 47 and 57 games that year. The Knicks needed a win against a quality opponent to stamp some legitimacy on their rep.

The Suns were in year four of a seven-year stretch winning 50+ games, led by three All-Stars all on the right side of 30: Kevin Johnson (KJ), Dan Majerle and Jeff Hornacek, who was booed fairly lustily by the Garden faithful when introduced. Whenever time travel began you know a bunch of the nerds who invented it were Knicks fans who went back in time to boo Hornacek and Isiah Thomas and Frank Layden for giving the world Scott. Another future Knick legend, the apparently defensible Kurt Rambis, was on the roster but not with the Suns that night. Phoenix started 25-year-old Andrew Lang at center; six years later, a Lang foul of Ewing on an alley-oop would mark the end of #33 as a dominant force.

Wanna follow along? Click here. The game began with jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie playing the national anthem. He’d die a year and a day later.

Marv Albert called the game; the opening minutes of the broadcast highlighted KJ for the Suns and Bill Cosby. Not every single person in 1992 committed a sexual crime, but sometimes it seems that way. The game started was close throughout, in part a function of an era when 3-pointers were more the topping than the pizza: even in a game that went to overtime, the Knicks and Suns combined to attempt only a dozen 3s. Today teams take more than in a quarter. From the jump the Knicks, as always, relied on Ewing.

One perk of watching old games is seeing the athleticism of the greats against their peers. It’s one thing to read about Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; it’s another plane of existence to see them doing things no one else could. Desmond Mason was like that as a dunker — he stood out in his time as not of it. KJ was like that.

KJ is 6’1”. Mark Eaton was 7’4”.

Starks didn’t check in till the second quarter. He was quiet offensively, missing his first four shots, but the 3-point shooting and fearless drives Starks became known for weren’t his initial calling cards. It was his defense, Riley used to say, that made John’s place in the league. A year later he’d earn All-Defense honors, but he played at that level from the start. Watch him off the ball denying Hornacek, the NBA’s reigning Player of the Month.

Ewing led the Knicks with 14 and seven rebounds in the first half; he also put both of Phoenix’s centers, Lang and Mark West, in foul trouble. The second quarter was not what Clyde Frazier calls “NBA action” — the teams combined for just 33 points, with the Suns shooting 28% from the floor. The third featured hot shooting from both sides, the highlight of which involved Mark Jackson at his Broadway best.

Hornacek missed seven of his first eight shots but began to heat up, drilling his final five. Remember the two players whose stats were listed at the start of this piece? One of them was Starks. The other was Phoenix forward Tim Perry, whose dunk over Ewing late in the third after a Wilkins 3 prompted an “Ooooh!” from the MSG crowd; even some of the Knick bench couldn’t help reacting with tasteful restraint.

As the fourth neared, the officials suddenly felt the need to call every single tight or ticky-tack thing they could. Speaking of “tight,” the Knick offense went into its usual shell, meaning everyone with their thumbs up their asses until Ewing did or didn’t make a difficult jumper. There’s a reason this highly regarded NBA writer ranked Ewing as the fifth-best player on the original Dream Team. There’s a reason why the next time you see or hear him underrated, it’s your civic duty to punch that person in the throat. How good would you have to be not only to face Michael Jordan or Hakeem Olajuwon deep in the playoffs, but to beat them when more often than not this was the offense? “When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

With nine minutes left in the fourth, Starks had only one basket. But in classic Starks fashion, when the lights shone brighter he did, too. He hit a runner, then after the Knicks got a stop on the Suns’ next possession got out on the break and found Ewing for the breakaway slam. Majerle put Phoenix up eight, the Knicks came back downcourt, and Starks made a move that left Marv comparing him to Michael Jordan and Julius Erving.

Starks’ story had come full circle — the failed dunk attempt over Ewing in training camp led to him securing a steady shot with the Knicks, leading to his prominent role in their renaissance, culminating with the Phoenix dunk, as impressive as any of his throwdowns, including “The Dunk” against the Bulls in the ‘93 playoffs and this lesser-known but just as spectacular offhand slam over Olajuwon.

Some terrific transition defense by Starks forced Majerle into a turnover when the Suns looked about to go up double-digits. On the next possession, Starks curled around an Oakley screen and was fouled while hitting a catch-and-shoot; he’d complete the three-point play. Then he went to work on KJ, who Jackson and Anthony had been powerless to stop. Starks’ defense on Phoenix’s top threat put the clamps on the Suns’ offense. This 24-second violation begins with Starks’ ball denial of KJ.

Starks would force Johnson into another turnover, then deny him the ball yet again. With a minute left, he hit from downtown to tie the game for New York. Both teams had possession in the last 30 seconds, but neither could get a shot off. Time for overtime, which if you lived in the NYC area in the early ‘90s meant more Nobody Beats the Wiz commercials featuring this guy who looked like a cross between Clark Gable and Schneider from One Day At A Time.

In the extra session Starks stayed in god mode, forcing yet another KJ turnover, hitting the go-ahead jumper in the last two minutes, drawing a charge on Perry with 30 seconds left and draining the two clinching free throws after Ewing blocked KJ at the rim.

Stories — the ones worth telling, the ones worth hearing — keep on keeping on. John Starks never let up on himself or his story. The guy who didn’t play his fourth year in high school averaged 17 points and five assists per game in his fourth NBA season. The unknown collegian replacement player would replace Jordan on the ‘94 Eastern conference All-Star team.

Stories don’t end, not really. Certainly Starks’ tale didn’t. In the ‘93 conference finals he couldn’t deal with MJ’s floor game or head games, getting torched and ejected as the Bulls came back from down 0-2 to win the series. Earlier in that postseason, Starks was ejected after headbutting Reggie Miller in a game the Knicks lost. And lest we ever forget, there was 2-for-18.

He never won it all with the Knicks, falling maybe one fingertip short in ‘94. A few years later he’d lose his starting spot to Allan Houston, then be traded for Latrell Sprewell. If it’s all about rings, John Starks never got a happily ever after. But on so many nights, he reminded us all we ever have is now.

Notes

  • 37, 13 and 4 blocks for Ewing, who was hearing criticism for taking so many jumpers instead of working down low. His knees were already giving him so much trouble he’d begun resorting to the outside game more. I don’t know if going outside more made him the best jump-shooting center in the league or if being the best-shooting center made him comfortable going outside. Either way, the Big Fella is still on my sports Mt. Rushmore. I can’t imagine he ever won’t be.
  • In 1990-91, Starks scored 16+ points four times in 61 games. In 1992, after the win over the Suns, he’d done so 16 times in 28.
  • X-Man’s first game against his former team = 16 points and 12 rebounds. This was his 29th game for the Knicks. In 191 career games for New York, Vandeweghe never had more than seven. Two of his three seasons as Knick, Kiki’s high in rebounds was four.
  • The beauty of Anthony Mason, part I:
  • Part II:
  • For a dude who wasn’t tall and didn’t jump outta the gym, Mase was incredibly reliable finishing in traffic underneath. I’d forgotten until watching this game how he was like a running back who never fumbles and always converts 4th and 1s.
  • Any Tom Chambers sighting is an excuse to remind you of the greatest in-game dunk in NBA history, courtesy of Mark Jackson’s face.
  • No cheating. Do you know if Tom Chambers is or isn’t a Hall of Famer? Think about it. Trust your feelings. Then look it up.
  • Marv told a story about the Phoenix coaches admitting they only put up with Perry’s disappointing play his first three years because he was so incredibly nice. He looked to be headed out of the league after his third season. Instead he parlayed a good 1992 with the Suns into a four-year, $6M deal with the 76ers, 75% of his total career earnings. Manners cost nothing and sometimes pay off. Big time.
  • How I miss the understated John Andariese. Mason and Chambers got into a tangle jostling for a rebound and Mase basically wrangled Chambers to the ground. Quoth Andariese as Mason remained standing and Chambers ended up on his ass: “You see Mason having an effect on Chambers, certainly.”
  • I nearly choked on my lemon bar watching Wilkins hit a 3 and Albert announce he was around 40% from deep at that point in the season. For those too young to know, Wilkins shooting 40% from 3 three months into a season is only slightly less preposterous than Elfrid Payton winning the Three-Point Contest..
  • How I miss these little three-second interstitial clips on MSG broadcasts. I still remember the series of beeps in these spots. This would be fun to resurrect.
  • In the postgame interview, Riley with words of praise for assistant Jeff Van Gundy’s scouting report on KJ.
  • On this night Riley was fifth all-time in coaching wins and Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons third; today Riley remains fifth, Fitzsimmons is 16th. The all-time wins leader at the time, Bill Fitch, was rumored to be in danger of being replaced in New Jersey by Jim Valvano, until Jimmy V announced the Nets told him they were sticking with Fitch.
  • During the broadcast t was revealed that Mark Jackson’s middle initial, “A,” stands for “Action.” That’s not a joke.
  • Guess who was MSG’s postgame reporter before making it big elsewhere?
  • Per Marv: The night before this game, the Knicks beat Bullets 113-99, the first time the Knicks won a game by that score since...