April 13, 2024
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April 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The New York Knicks are legendary—for producing great players, for having inspirational coaches, and for some of the most exciting games ever to hit a basketball court. One of the most amazing moments in New York Knicks history was the 1993 historic dunk on the great Michael Jordan by none other than Knicks point guard, #3, John Starks.

Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School considers itself legendary as well–for getting some of the most interesting speakers to speak to and inspire its students. Rabbi Richard Kirsch has reached out to many people over the years, bringing to the school speakers ranging from rabbis, to supervised prisoners, to various accident survivors, to Holocaust survivors, to sports figures. On April 13, he brought former New York Knicks guard John Starks to speak to the RKYHS students. How did he connect with Starks? John Starks regularly attends New York Board of Rabbis programs, as he is a fierce supporter of Israel. When asked to speak to a school of yeshiva students, he graciously and eagerly agreed.

Starks’ presentation started with a video replay of that famous 1993 dunk, which was followed by thunderous applause from students and faculty alike. Rabbi Kirsch then gave a brief bio of Starks, after which he “was thrilled and humbled to introduce the great John Starks”.

John Starks, knew from a young age that he wanted to play for the NBA. He was raised in near poverty in Tulsa, Oklahoma, living in a two-bedroom house with 16 family members. He desperately wanted a better life, but couldn’t keep out of trouble as a child. His personal motto, however, always was “one day, this will change.” What he didn’t learn for many years was that it was up to him to effect that change.

Starks only played one year of high school basketball, quitting the team in his senior year over a dispute with his coach. The coach demanded that the guard play selfish basketball and take all the shots available, while Starks believed that a true guard needed to play selflessly and share the ball whenever possible. The two could never resolve this difference, and after Starks left the team he was determined to one day prove the coach wrong.

The summer after high school, Starks grew to his current height of 6’2”—not the 6’5” he is listed as on basketball cards—and went on to play basketball at a junior college. He was not recruited to play ball for a four year college and there was no scholarship money available to him. Unfortunately, he made some mistakes that got him expelled from that school, and also the next junior college he attended as well.

“That one and a half hour trip home [after getting expelled a second time] was the longest bus ride I ever had. I knew I was going home to face the music and by that I mean my mom and grandma”, said Starks. Luckily, his mother simply instructed him to get a job, which he did, working as a grocery bagger at the local Safeway for $3.35 per hour. Even though he was making some money, he knew he wanted more from his life and rededicated himself to his future.

Starks went back to junior college and, this time, seemed to “get it.” His D’s and F’s turned into A’s and B’s, simply because he changed his concentration and started to work hard. Previously, it was basketball first and school second. Now Starks focused on his studies, only playing intramural basketball in his spare time.

That was the turning point in Starks’ life. He was scouted by a coach for a new junior college and recruited to play on that team. For Starks, it was ‘fourth time’s a charm,’ because he was named Junior College All American while playing for Oklahoma Junior College.

Starks was getting noticed—by Larry Brown, the San Antonio Spurs coach and by Paul Westphal, assistant coach of the Phoenix Suns—and he believed that his time had come. He attended an NBA tryout and was signed by the Golden State Warriors in 1988. For Starks, this was confirmation of everything he had always believed – “have faith, work hard, and believe in yourself.” “Don’t ever listen to the haters,” he trained himself, “who will only mess with your head.” This advice would serve him well in later years playing in New York. Success is often all about timing and never wasting opportunities. These lessons were imparted to a listening RKYHS audience.

Starks described for the students playing for the CBA and World Basketball League and, finally, realizing a dream of playing for the New York Knicks. He did so for eight seasons. “There is not a player alive who will say he doesn’t want to play in MSG,” Starks commented.

Like everything else in his life, becoming a Knick was not straightforward and simple. On the last day of cuts he decided to be a showman and dunk over the seven foot center Patrick Ewing. As he came down off the dunk, he twisted his knee, forcing the team to put him on IR (injured reserve). As luck would have it, the rule was that he could not be cut while on IR, where he remained until December. He was brought off IR to replace an injured Trent Tucker, and he played his first game as a Knick against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

Starks then discussed his greatest highs and lows while playing for New York. The high, of course, was the dunk on Jordan which “dunk over Horace Grant and Michael got in the picture,” Starks remarked with a smile. His biggest disappointment was his poor play in game seven of the 1994 Championships against the Houston Rockets. “Everything was on the line and I went 2 for 18, and we lost.”

While losing was disappointing, it was more so because of an experience he had just prior to game six. He visited a young girl who was dying, and promised her that the Knicks would be victorious. Failing to bring home the championship was that much more painful because he felt he had let her down.

“It is never about me, it’s all about the fans. That’s who I played for,” Starks explained.

One of the biggest lessons Starks brought to the Kushner students was “never letting disappointments get you down.” He said that sometimes one has to dig deep to get past a disappointment, and how one deals with it will shape one’s life forever. That 1994 loss to Houston taught him an important life lesson, after which he went on to a successful NBA career.

Starks knows how lucky he is to have been able to get the life he always envisioned. He credits his mother and grandmother with setting him on the right path, but knows that ultimately his success rested with him alone.”

“I am proud and happy to be able to speak to you and be a role model. I know my life could have gone another way. I finally learned to make the right choices and when I had no one to help me, I learned to help myself.”

After concluding his talk, Starks himself was humbled by the parting gift given to him by the school, and even more so by Head of School Rabbi Rubin’s words. Rabbis Rubin and Kirsch presented Starks with a Kushner basketball jersey, with ‘Starks’ and ‘3’ on the back. Before allowing students to approach Starks for pictures and autographs, Rabbi Rubin reminded the students of what he believed to be the most important take-away lesson of the day: “John Starks taught us about having a positive attitude, refocusing ourselves, and dealing with disappointment. What he didn’t say was that throughout all his successes and his entire career, he always remained true to himself. He remained a humble and kind man.”

John Starks, fan favorite and one of the most beloved players in Knicks history, bowed his head at this simple and heartfelt compliment, teaching the students yet another beautiful lesson in humility.

By Jill Kirsch

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