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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 résumé.
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."