Three dunk attempts summarize the arc of John Starks’ career.
Knicks fans know the first as “The Dunk.” The sequence remains a beautiful thing to behold.
It was the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, and New York held a 91-88 lead over the Chicago Bulls with less than a minute left. A victory would put the Knicks up 2-0 against Jordan’s Bulls, and two wins away from reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since the seventies.
Thanks to a Patrick Ewing pick that sent BJ Armstrong stumbling, John Starks drove to his right with the ball, took one dribble, then another, and launched into a sprint. The fearless 6’3” guard seized the opportunity to steamroll Horace Grant (6’10”) at the rim, and while Michael Jordan offered a wave of ineffectual defensive support, Starks threw down the left-handed jam.
The fans at Madison Square Garden erupted, having just witnessed one of the most exciting dunks in NBA playoff history. Walt Frazier called it “The loudest moment I’ve ever heard at the Garden.”
The Bulls went on to win four straight games against the Knicks and then beat Phoenix in the NBA Finals. But the dunk overshadows the outcome.
Why did Starks go left-handed to the iron? “I jump better going that way,” he said in an interview. “Most right-handers like coming right, but I like coming left, you know. For whatever reason, I just jump better that way.”
The dunk capped an excellent season for the young Oklahoman. In the 1992-93 campaign, Starks averaged 17.5 points and 5.5 assists, started 51 of the 80 games he appeared in, and was named to the All-Defensive team.
Chris Herring wrote about The Dunk in his book, Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks.
Herring’s book also describes another, earlier and lesser-known dunk attempt. This particular try failed, but it saved John Starks from being cut by the team. Herring writes:
Back in 1990, when [John Starks] was a mere camp invitee and a long shot to make New York’s roster, he told himself he needed to make a huge play during the team’s final workout to leave a lasting impression. So when the time came—with Starks pushing the ball on a fast break, and Ewing back to defend the basket—Starks elevated with everything he had, seeking to put down a dunk for the ages.
Instead, Ewing did what those Knicks would become known for: knocking the overly ambitious offensive player—nine inches shorter and sixty pounds lighter—to the floor. So Starks never finished the dunk. And making matters worse, he badly twisted his knee. But the injury was a blessing in disguise for Starks. Because an injured player couldn’t be cut at that point in camp, Starks had to be kept on the roster through at least the end of December that year. And by then, with the Knicks being thin at the guard position, they decided it made sense to keep him on the team and develop his game. So in that way, the dunk attempt paid off.
There is irony in Ewing being a key factor in both dunk attempts, first crushing Starks in training camp and later opening space for his postseason sledgehammer.
Starks tried to repeat his glorious moment, unsuccessfully. The next season, New York was back in the playoffs, this time facing the Indiana Pacers. Playing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals and having returned from knee surgery, Starks eagerly spied an opportunity to recreate the infamous dunk off a Ewing pick and roll.
He told Metro, “The game was on the line […]. In my mind I’m trying to recreate ‘The Dunk’ again, I was seeing the same thing happening. I went up and the hops weren’t there! […] I missed the shot. This was the waning seconds! Here comes Patrick, out of nowhere, to save me and dunk it back in.”
Ewing and Starks yet again. A classic combo.
Starks had a fruitful career with New York and remains the Knicks’ all-time leader in three-pointers (982). After eight seasons in New York, he spent time with Golden State, Chicago, and Utah before hanging up his jersey in 2002. Since then, John has remained with the New York Knicks family and has served as their Alumni Relations and Fan Development Advisor since 2005. (He is also on Cameo—this writer’s wife once gifted him a personalized message—but temporarily unavailable.)
For all his accomplishments, The Dunk resides in the pantheon of all-time basketball moments, and it’s what jumps to mind at the mention of his name.
And in a way, don’t those three dunk attempts tell his story? The first was that failed flush by a grocery bagger whose bad luck knee injury turned out to be a well-disguised blessing. The second was a legendary slam by an unlikely hero who would earn All-Star and Sixth Man of the Year honors. The third, a second reach for his zenith, which his fingers could never quite touch again.
John Starks—still my favorite Knick.