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As the summer wears on, with training camps and preseason play still off in (what feels like) the distant future, we turn our attention to the past. Join us as we while away a few late-summer moments recalling some of the most scintillating slams of yesteryear, the most thunderous throwdowns ever to sear themselves into our memories. This is Dunk History.
Today, Dan Devine recalls John Starks' left-handed slam in the final minute of the New York Knicks' victory over the Chicago Bulls in Game 2 of the 1993 Eastern Conference final — a.k.a., "The Dunk."
It wasn't shocking that John Starks had the temerity to take it himself against the two-time defending champions in the final minute of a one-possession conference finals game, driving right at the goggles of All-Defensive Second-Teamer Horace Grant with Michael Jordan flying in on the late contest. Starks had the hops, after all — lest we forget, he made the semifinals of the 1992 Slam Dunk Contest — and this was a player whose determination to attack led him to try to scale the 7-foot Patrick Ewing, the shot-blocking face of the Knicks, during the final scrimmage of their 1990 training camp.
After stints at three separate junior colleges and Oklahoma State, after going undrafted and getting little more than a cup of coffee with Don Nelson's Golden State Warriors, and after a year split between the Continental Basketball Association and World Basketball League, Starks came to camp in search of a job better than bagging groceries in Tulsa. Literally. He needed to make a splash, and there was the basket, and there was Ewing, so here went nothing, as Mike Wise wrote in the New York Times:
Basketball was not Starks's career as much as it was his life. Both hung in the balance as he took flight.
"I blocked it," Ewing said, smiling at the memory. "I remember the whole play."
Starks [...] said: "Yeah, the Big Fella got me. I twisted my knee on the play. Had to go on the injury list. You can't predict how things are going to work out."
It worked out about as well as it could have. The Knicks were ready to cut him, according to then-assistant Jeff Van Gundy, but couldn't while he was on the injured list; his return to health coincided with Trent Tucker getting hurt, so Pat Riley gave him a shot. In a perfectly appropriate turn, Starks eagerly took that shot, producing 20-point performances off the bench in his second and third appearances while taking whatever defensive assignment Riley threw at him.
Attacking earned Starks a roster spot. Attacking opened the door to the Knicks' rotation, and attacking kept him there even after Tucker's return. Starks' NBA come-up was all about attacking. Why wouldn't his finest moment be about it, too?
I thought about the Knicks while reading Matt Ufford's fantastic essay on rooting for the U.S. men's national soccer team back in June. As Ufford writes, we don't get to root for underdogs very much as Americans, and the USMNT offers an appealing opportunity to support the kind of squad with whom many of us more closely identify: "As individuals, we see ourselves as fighting the odds in life, overcoming obstacles with sweat and cunning. We look for the same traits in the teams we support."
The same holds true if you take the focus from the U.S. as a whole and shrink it down to just New York City. Lots of people in New York City, where I live, are more than happy to do that. John Updike once wrote (in The New Yorker, naturally) that the "true New Yorker [has] a secret belief that people living anywhere else had to be, in some sense, kidding." He was later regarded (by The New York Times, naturally) as having "nailed it."
New York exceptionalism — the belief that, as Joey Litman once wrote at FreeDarko, "everything must be the best because it is of New York, and, naturally, it is of New York because it is the best" — isn't just something people here feel; it is literally the name of an e-seminar produced by Columbia University, one where "Professor Kenneth Jackson establishes the ways in which New York City is unique," and argues that "when we look at New York, we are not just looking at another place. We are looking at a very special place." (Columbia sits at 116th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Naturally.)
This exceptionalism extends to local sports fandom. There's long been a sense among New Yorkers that New York's teams are just supposed to be good because they're New York's teams. And when they're not, which is often, the anger gets as big as the payrolls: "How can a team that makes that much, that spends that much, that charges that much, and that is from New York be that bad?" (The answer is typically "mismanagement." New York sports teams, especially the one that employed Starks, often have that in spades.)
The failure of all that excess becomes especially galling because the unproductive bloat doesn't feel like it represents The Actual People Of The Purported Greatest City In The World. Few five-boroughs fans feel reflected in or represented by the nonchalant, light-a-cigar-with-a-hundred underperformance of late-model A-Rod, Bobby Bonilla, Eddy Curry and Jerome James. They more readily identify with the fighters, the strivers, the ones willing to scrap and claw and get a little dirty to make up for deficits elsewhere — Charles Oakley and Ken "The Animal" Bannister, Lenny Dykstra and Wally Backman, Paul O'Neill and Jeff Beukeboom, et al. They saw themselves reflected in Starks, the ex-stock-boy grinder who seemed more regular human than athletic royalty.
Yes, Starks would eventually become an All-Star and Sixth Man of the Year, but he was never a Jordan- or Reggie Miller-esque star; he always had to punch up when it mattered. And yes, he was a gunner making six (and eventually seven) figures to jack jumpers and occasionally boil over, but he always seemed to be doing stuff like kissing the Knicks logo at center court or saying "someone would have to tear the No. 3 jersey from his chest before he was traded to another team." Starks treated New York like the exceptional thing New Yorkers believe it to be, and in so doing gave the forever-bigging-itself-up big city a little-guy underdog to rally behind.
"A lot of the players in the league today had crowds cheering for them in college and high school everywhere they went," Starks told Wise back in 1999. "I never really had that. I was just happy anyone was cheering for me when I got to the NBA."
Knicks fans happily obliged because Starks never stopped approaching it like that, even as he went up and over the Bulls, and even after he descended in an exploding Madison Square Garden.
"I dunked it with my left hand, [spun] out and ran hustling back on defense, because Chicago liked to catch you sleeping after a play like that," he said in a recent interview. "And all my teammates are coming up to me, congratulating me, what have you, and all I'm thinking about is, 'We gotta finish this game.'"
The Knicks did finish that game, but couldn't finish the series; the Bulls won four straight to eliminate New York before knocking off the Phoenix Suns to secure their three-peat. (As Riley would later say, "John called, and Michael raised.") But for those few seconds — from Starks leaving B.J. Armstrong and Bill Cartwright flat-footed, through the lefty finish, through Rolando Blackman's weird hand-grabbing high-five — he made New Yorkers feel like no amount of pure basketball brilliance would withstand the right kind of relentlessness, and like not even the greatest player ever could stop a city whose time had come.
It was a lot to capture in just a few seconds, and an awful long way from bagging groceries in Tulsa.
More from BDL's Dunk History series:
• Tom Chambers rising like a Phoenix and taking orbit as a Sun
• Taj Gibson starts the break, then breaks Dwyane Wade
• Joakim Noah makes Paul Pierce a memory
• Baron Davis unloads on Andrei Kirilenko, moves beyond belief
• Michael Jordan embarrasses, like, all of the Knicks
• The joy of hearing Scottie Pippen posterize Patrick Ewing
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