He Slips Up, But That's John Starks' Philosophy of Life On, Off the Court

 

New York Knicks star John Starks reminisces on his days as a youth playing basketball at Cheyenne Park in north Tulsa.

World staff photo by Emmanuel Lozano

The day that changed John Starks' life came when he was 10 years old. He was running a bit late for school -- as usual, he said -- at Burroughs Elementary. He could have made it on time, but instead he chose to stop at a store across the street to get some candy.

He left the store hurriedly in an attempt to beat the school bell. His platform shoes slipped on the rain-slickened asphalt of Cincinnati Ave. He fell.

"All I could see was this car hitting its brakes and it slid -- it had to be about 20 or 30 feet -- and it got this close to me," said Starks, holding his hands a few feet apart. "It seemed like my whole life passed before me because I thought I was a goner."

Heart pounding, he sprang to his feet and sprinted across the street. He remembers sweating that whole day just thinking about how he nearly lost his life.

"It changed my perception of doing the right thing at times," he said. "I wasn't doing the right things. I was supposed to go on to school and wait for the crossing guard and all that. I could have ended my life right there."

Do the right thing.

Ironically, that is the name of a motion picture by filmmaker Spike Lee, a loyal Knicks fan who sometimes wears a Starks replica jersey at games.

And do the right thing is a philosophy Starks has tried to live by ever since that near-tragic day as an elementary school student.

Does he always do the right thing? No. Just like that day at school, he occasionally slips. A passion for winning and a volatile temper sometimes cause him to stray from the path.

But he continues to dust himself off and move forward and renew his commitment to do the right thing, both on and off the court. On Monday night, Starks will be honored as the male recipient of the Henry P. Iba Citizen-Athlete Award.

***

John Levell Starks is the first basketball player and the first Tulsan to win the Iba Award. He spent one year in California when he was a toddler. Otherwise, he has resided all over north Tulsa. He estimates that he moved to as many as 13 houses while growing up, attending two elementary schools, Madison Junior High and Central High School.

Starks was raised by his mother, Irene, and his grandmother, Callie West. His father bailed out when John was 3 or 4.

Things were not always easy. Starks and his six brothers and sisters always had clothes, just not necessarily new clothes. He sometimes wore shoes that didn't quite fit. On some occasions, he went to bed with an empty stomach.

But he said he was blessed to be raised by two strong women.

"My grandmother, she always worked very hard," he said. "She was one of 13 or 14 kids in her family. The only thing she knew was just how to work hard. My mother, she's a survivor. She did what she had to do in order to put food on the table and clothes on our back. Those two things that you saw as a young man, coming from two strong ladies, it helps mold you a little bit."

Boys will be boys, so John got in his share of trouble growing up. When he got out of line, he got his tail spanked. But in hindsight, he knows he inherited more than a whipping.

"I'm a survivor and a hard worker," he said. "So I guess I got something from both of them."

Because of an appreciation for hard work, the millionaire is not ashamed that he once bagged groceries at a Tulsa Safeway (now Homeland) store for $3.35 an hour. "It's an honest living," he said. "I don't care what you do. If you are out picking up garbage, that's an honest job."

Starks said he was blessed just to have an opportunity to provide for his family.

"It was a good lesson for me in life, teaching me to go out and work and continue to work if you want to get something in life."

It was not the most difficult job he ever had. The summer before he became a professional basketball player, he worked for a roofing company. He got scorched while putting the roof on the University Center at Tulsa.

"I almost fell off that thing a couple of times," he said. "But you talk about hot. I think it was like 95 or 100 degrees at the time. With that metal roof, it might have been hotter than that."

***

Starks' work ethic came in handy during his dogged pursuit of a professional basketball career.

He had to walk on to junior college teams with no promises of a scholarship, but worked his way into financial aid. He was not drafted by an NBA team, yet was so scrappy and feisty that coaches liked to keep him around.

Starks is the longest of long shots. But he has known ever since he was a teen-ager that he could hold his own with virtually anyone on the court.

Growing up, his stomping ground was Cheyenne Park. It was there that he participated in rough- and-tumble pick-up games with folks like Wayman Tisdale, Anthony Bowie and Lee Mayberry -- other Tulsans who would go on to NBA careers.

But Starks remained a well-kept secret because he did not play high school basketball as a senior. He began the season as a starting point guard, but had a disagreement with the coach over the role of his position. He thought he should distribute the basketball. The coach urged him to shoot more. A benching and a practice incident resulted in Starks leaving the team.

"Actually it made me work harder because it made me want to prove to him that I'm a much better player than he thought I was," said Starks. "I worked very hard, even though I wasn't playing. I was playing every day and getting stronger and lifting weights. That's probably what drove me to be as good as I am."

Most kids who skip high school ball don't have the proverbial snowball's chance of going to the next level, but Starks was confident that he could walk on somewhere.

He attended Rogers State, but did not play because no scholarships were available. He jumped to Northern Junior College at the urging of a couple of friends already on the team. He left school, went back home and began playing in the intramural league at Tulsa Junior College.

It was there that he was spotted by Tim Bart (now head coach at Moore High School) and recommended to Oklahoma Junior College coach Ken Trickey. Starks enrolled at OJC with no promise of a scholarship, but Trickey liked what he saw.

"That was my break because I got looked at by a lot of Division I schools," said Starks. "With Trickey, he has a gift for gab, so he knows how to get people in to look at you."

Starks was courted by as many as 20 schools, including a couple of major colleges. He chose Oklahoma State and averaged 15.4 points while playing in the shadow of freshman All-America Richard Dumas.

Because of his much-traveled past, the NCAA ruled that Starks could not play a second season at OSU. He had planned to play his senior season at a lower-division school, Grand Canyon University, until Larry Brown intervened.

Brown coached at Kansas during Starks' stint at OSU. "And every time we played against them, I normally busted them up," said Starks.

When Brown left Kansas to become head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, he invited Starks to camp. Brown liked Starks more than management, which offered $10,000 for his rights. Starks was gutsy enough to say no thanks and jumped to Golden State.

Don Nelson kept Starks on the Warriors roster for the entire season. He said he knew Starks was going to be a player because he would "go through a wall for you."

"I wouldn't back down from anyone," added Starks. "He's from the old school and that's the kind of players they had back then. He kind of liked that."

Nelson wanted Starks to spend the next season on the injured list. Starks balked. He told Nelson he wanted to play. They parted on bad terms.

Said Starks, "He probably looked at me like `this guy has some nerve. He doesn't have a guaranteed contract and he's coming up here and asking me to play.' I think he took serious offense to that."

Nelson banished Starks to the CBA and told him he could be a heck of a player if he improved his shooting and ballhandling.

"That made it easy for me," said Starks, who spent just one season in the developmental league. "I knew exactly what I had to do and I went in the CBA and did it."

The Knicks signed Starks in October of 1990. Late in the season, coach John MacLeod told management he didn't know if Starks could play. "But does this kid ever have one of those," said MacLeod, pointing to his heart.

In 1994, Starks blossomed into an All-Star. He can play.

***

Starks is playing out a $12.1 million contract extension that will keep him in New York until the end of the 1999-2000 season. He was so happy with the contract that he sent agent Leigh Steinberg a bottle of champagne once the pact was completed.

Starks is financially set. He could easily sit at one of his homes and watch big-screen television from a recliner and never do anything for anybody, and who could blame him?

But he gives back to the community, both in Tulsa and New York.

"Sometimes you just need a helping hand or a word of encouragement," he said. "I got all those things growing up and that kind of molded me into thinking that there are people out there who need the same type of things."

Starks said you would be surprised what a big effect it has on kids just when you speak to them. He said they are wide-eyed and hang on to every word. Growing up, he was influenced by the words of childhood idol Julius Erving.

In order to give back to the community, the youth-oriented John Starks Foundation was created in 1993. He has brought players like Scottie Pippen and Patrick Ewing to Tulsa for charity games. His annual fund-raising 3-on-3 tournament tips off again this weekend.

It was during a previous 3-on-3 tournament that Starks' commitment can best be measured. He played an alumni basketball game at OSU on a Friday night and did not sleep because he spent the rest of the night putting up basketball goals for the opening day of the 3-on-3 tournament. He then worked all day in the hot summer sun.

"I was wore out," he said. "But for something that has my name on it, I like to be a part of it. I like to show that I am supporting it, too. A lot of guys lend their name on projects, but they're not always there. I like to make sure things are running very smoothly and things are going right."

Besides the various community contributions he has made in New York, there are the good deeds that aren't public knowledge.

For instance: In 1994, when the Knicks were in the NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets, Starks agreed to visit a dying child at the hospital on game day. Starks normally doesn't do anything on game day, especially when so much was at stake.

"I can remember that the only thing that he said was that he wanted to see us win a championship," he said. "I said `I promise you we will win a championship.' I think he died just before we played in game seven."

Also: A man once offered Starks $1,000 to visit his ailing mother in New Jersey. Starks, whose regular-season home is in Connecticut, agreed to make the trip, but refused to accept the money.

Starks' take on money is that it allows you to buy things for your family and provides financial security, but it shouldn't change you as a person.

"Don't forget where you came from and try not to forget what got you there," he said. "I keep all the values I learned growing up and try to apply them today. I want to get my life in order as far as spiritually and having that straight. I think that kind of guides you through the ups and downs you go through, especially in this game."

***

A 1994 Basketball Digest story once ranked Starks No. 2 (behind Dennis Rodman) among the NBA's top 10 villains. Some players, like Rodman and Bill Laimbeer, hunger to be the bad guy and made a profitable living at it.

Starks does not want to be a villain. Really.

"The things that I do on the court because of the way I compete, it may look like I'm trying to be the bad guy," he said. "But that's not true. I just want to win."

Starks has had several well-publicized blow- ups. There was the playoff head-butt of Reggie Miller. There have been lesser clashes with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Latrell Sprewell and Glen Rice. And, of course, there was the gesture to the Miami crowd after Starks was ejected from game five of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

As time passes, Starks looks back and wishes he would have handled some things differently. But he believes most of the incidents were necessary because they served a purpose.

The gesture in Miami (it caused him to be scolded by his grandmother) is the only incident he truly regrets because he knows children were watching. He sought out TNT television cameras and the Knicks' radio network the next day in order to make public apologies.

Starks has worked to control his temper in recent years. He has learned to count to 10 and talk to himself in order to calm down. If a doctor could somehow surgically remove his temper, he said it would make him a better player.

But that doesn't mean Starks is going to swing completely the other direction and be some kind of sissy sweetheart on the court.

"I just think I need to keep it inside of me and keep channeling it into a positive mode," he said, "instead of letting a negative effect come out and affect the way I come out and perform."

Starks will be a bad guy in some arenas no matter how much he tries to change his ways or how much community work he does. But he is confident that anyone who meets him face-to- face will be pleasantly surprised.

"No question," he said. "I get that from people who come up to me all the time."