Prowling the sidelines in a cream-colored suit, 37-year-old John Starks still looks more like a teenager than an adult. But the kid from Oklahoma who invented himself as a professional basketball player and became one of the most memorable New York Knicks is now trying to invent himself as a pro coach. The wild man of Game Seven of the 1994 NBA Finals who had the audacity to jack up shots from all over the court, even (as Knick fans can attest) when he wasn’t hitting anything? Don’t bet against him. He’s also the audacious guy in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals who jammed an unforgettable lefty dunk over Michael Jordan.
Late this spring, Starks made another bold move: He started a new career by coaching the Westchester Wildfire in the USBL, a minor league deep beneath the NBA. Other ex-players, notably Phil Jackson, started their coaching careers in the minors.
Here’s a scouting report, from a USBL mid-season game, on Starks as coach:
As the Wildfire’s late-season game against the Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs tightens in the second half, Starks sheds his relatively calm pacing and becomes intense, animated, his Oklahoma drawl barking out over the din of the small crowd in Westchester. He almost twists out of his suit coat yelling at his dawdling players to chase ValleyDawg guard Kareem Reid on a breakaway layup. Seething, he walks down the Wildfire bench, shooting quick asides to Vonteego Cummings, a former teammate on the Golden State Warriors, and Richard Dumas, a star-crossed ex-NBA player who shared one year at Oklahoma State with Starks.
“Are you ready to play?” Starks asks, wild-eyed. “Ask yourselves. Are you ready to play? Ask yourselves.”
Pumping his hands and stamping his feet à la Pat Riley (the Knick coach who believed in Starks so deeply that Riley refused to yank him even as Starks shot down the championship in ’94), Starks yells at his players, “Go, go, go!”
With 27 seconds left in the game, the Wildfire lead 83-81, and Starks is checking every possible contingency with his players. “Hey, listen,” he tells his center, Lance Williams, “when you set that pick, you’ve got to set it right.”
On the opposition bench, ValleyDawg head coach Darryl Dawkins, the former Chocolate Thunder, is sweet-talking his players. As the Wildfire five get ready to walk back on the court, Starks says, “Do not give up a three. Do you understand me?”
The Wildfire understand, and they hit a big bucket to seal the victory, giving them 10 wins in their first 14 games. (They finished with a 19-11 regular-season record and made it to the USBL semifinals before losing to the ValleyDawgs.)
Starks takes a long swig of blueberry Gatorade, shakes the hand of a ValleyDawg player and says, “Good job,” then flicks a quick finger-point wave and smile at his former Knick coach, Jeff Van Gundy, who’s looking down on him from up in the stands.
“I watch his team—they play hard and they’re organized,” says Van Gundy, who’ll be coaching the Houston Rockets this season. “That’s a great first step. John has the courage to start in the minor leagues and coach on his own terms and learn from his mistakes. He always had good basketball intelligence. Now he just has to put what he learned as a player into coaching. I wouldn’t be surprised to see John on an NBA bench soon.”
Herb Williams also appeared at a Wildfire game to support Starks, and Charles Oakley bought season tickets. Oakley’s one coaching message for his former running mate: “Don’t give in to the new generation of players.” From Starks’s performance, it seems he hasn’t.
“These kinds of games,” says Starks, “separate the men from the boys. Near the end you have to lift your intensity up. That’s what this situation is about. What separates NBA players is what they got up top. I check my players’ brains real quick. I’m trying to help them get to where I got to. I always saw myself as a teacher, even when I was playing. A teacher and a nurturer.”
But doesn’t Starks, who after all isn’t even 40 yet, sometimes wish he could put himself in the game when it gets tight?
He replies with no hesitation: “As a coach, when you haven’t given the game up and start thinking of yourself and wishing you were still a player who could go in there and do things, you get in trouble. I’m in a teaching phase now, teaching guys how to compete and be players at the next level.”