The Return of John Starks

by Thomas Beller

05/07/2003

Suny Purchase, Westchester

Neighborhood: Uncategorized

The Westchester Wildfire, a newly formed franchise of the United States Basketball League, held open try-outs the other day at their practice facility at Suny Purchase, and nearly eighty people showed up, in spite of the $150 dollar fee. A fair number were playground all-stars for whom the try out was a kind one day basketball fantasy camp, an opportunity to run up and down in the same gym where the Knicks practice. Most of them were cut after the morning session.

But there was a good deal of talent on the floor as well. Zach Marbury, Stephon’s younger brother was there, as was Brian Reese from North Carolina, Kawana Rymer from U Mass, and Lenny Cook, the high school player who declared for the recent NBA draft and then failed to get drafted.

Cook now finds himself in the strange limbo of leagues like the USBL, where sub-NBA players operate on a barnstorming circuit, hoping to develop their skills, attract attention, and move up to the NBA.

Hoping, in other words, for the spectacular moth to butterfly transformation experienced by John Starks, who the Westchester Wildfire have named as their first head coach.

Starks kept a low profile during the morning session, haunting the sidelines briefly and then appearing upstairs at a booth overlooking the gym. At one point another familiar face from years past appeared next to him up there–Jeff van Gundy.

After playing at Oklahoma State, Starks played briefly in the CBA, the World basketball league, and at one point was bagging groceries in Tulsa before making it to the Golden State Warriors and then the Knicks, where, in spite of his Oklahoma accent, he embodied a hyperactive energy and enthusiasm that went beyond the Knicks franchise and seemed to speak to the whole city, at least for a little while.

When a TV crew stood in front of Cook and posed the question, "Lenny, do you still think you have a shot at the NBA?" his answer was inaudible. But I’d like to think it was: "Most definitely."

This phrase – "most definitely" – was for a period of time the touchstone of everything John Starks said. He used it as the preface to every statement, the beginning of every answer. It was a linguistic crutch and philosophy of life rolled into one. It was the essence of Starks. At some point someone must have told him to drop it, and apparently he had some speech coaching somewhere along the line.

When he spoke at the mid day press conference he was smooth, composed, and articulate. He sat besides the team’s owner, Gary Leiberman, to say how happy he was to be here, where he spent so many years with the Knicks. He was relaxed in blue shorts and a grey Westchester Wildfire Polo shirt, and looked remarkably unchanged from his days in New York, his round almost baby-ish forehead as smooth as ever, the pensive eyes, the little, almost bashful smile. He spoke about how playing for Pat Riley and Jeff van Gundy has taught him a lot about what it takes to win. When asked about the talent he had seen he said, "It’s too early to tell right now. You can get a sense of a players athletic ability and you can see their offense, but you can’t really see how well they’re going to play defense until you see them in a full court game."

With Van Gundy in the house one almost expected to see Patrick Ewing stride in. Starks said he hoped his former team mates would put in appearances. "There’s a host of players and former coaches who will come by, and I welcome that, because I learn too."

Asked if he would consider suiting up he said, "I wont pull a Michael Jordan," and smiled.

Leiberman, the team owner, a former Bear Stearns banker and how a hedge fund manager, roamed the sidelines of the afternoon session and explained the secret method he used for acquiring Starks’ as a coach. "I was watching the Ewing retirement ceremony and I saw John interviewed. He said he wanted to coach, so I called him up."

The afternoon work out was intense. There were running drills and then four on four fast break drills. Jarold Macrae of Northwestern, and Greg Stevenson of Richmond, were stand outs, both of them throwing down gigantic dunks in traffic. Craig Austin, from Columbia, and last year’s Ivy league player of the year, had a calm, distant, almost zenned out expression the whole time. He has a wandering eye, which is an odd attribute for a guy whose game revolved around a jump shot. Zack Marbury looked more like his brother Stephon than Stephon himself– the round head, the terse, almost militant hand gestures, directing traffic, the faintly fascistic air of a martinet. But he does not have his brother’s game.

Then there was the long faced, ominous, and extremely skinny seven foot two inch Terry Sellers, in his late twenties, out of Compton, now residing in New Jersey. His thin legs were nicked and scratched. One of the coaches, asked why Sellers didn’t have a higher basketball profile, said, "The streets got him," and shook his head sadly. I had a vision of him literally falling into a whole.

In an empty hallway near the lockers I bumped into Lenny Cook, 6 foot 5 but just eighteen, having an emotional conversation with a small man in a grey suit carrying a briefcase.

"I’ll give you $200 hundred dollars out of every week’s paycheck!" said Cook.

"Listen I can’t help you," said the man.

"I’ll give you two hundred dollar out of my paycheck every week I swear!"

Oh God, I thought, what? Loan Shark? I got a glimpse of the small man’s brittle died black hair: he had loan shark hair.

"I’ll give you three hundred dollars every week! Please!"

"Hey listen I’m already in Two Thousand dollars so far for your travel, your hotel, I can’t do anymore!" said the man.

The man could have been an agent or an owner, it was unclear.

I walked away. It was a random snippet that made the distance between the promise of the NBA and the reality of getting there seem very large. Seeing Starks roaming the sidelines of his old practice facility and knowing what he had accomplished – he was an All-star, he dunked on Jordan! – was a pure example of Most Definitelyness.

In a way the whole tryout was John Starks impersonation day. Everyone wanted to be like John.

This piece appeared, in a different form, in The New York Times, Sunday, April 20, 2003.

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Starks speaks after the Westchester Wildfire’s opening game, a victory over the Pennsylvania Valley Dawgz, coached by another former NBA player, whose nickname was Chocolate Thunder. The most prominent basketball writer, as the game and in this picture, was Tom Kertes.

Here coach Starks is seated beside the star of the opening night game, Lance Williams. Williams, is a large man, in height and weight. Midway through the game came over to the sideline just in front of the press table to inbound the ball. You could see the folds of flesh under his jersey. I had been asking Kertes some questions about these players and their prospects for the NBA, and just then, as Williams walked to a spot just in front of us, Kertes remarked, "With most of these guys, there is usually a reason why they are not in the NBA. This guy, for example, is fat."

I nearly jumped out of my seat. Quiet! I wanted to say. He’ll hear you! Maybe it was a moment of fat-boy empathy, I don’t know, and Williams showed no signs of having heard, though it would have been hard to not to. At any rate he didn’t let on.

I later wondered if this was just cruelty on Kertes part, or maybe he was trying to goad Williams with tough love, calling him fat so as to make him lose the weight and get the NBA. I later found out that Williams, twenty four years old and with a very jolly disposition (a fat person’s disposition!) has five children. Lose the weight Lance!

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