It’s pretty lame to say that for Knicks fans, the greatest moment in franchise history since the ’73 championship is a dunk.
While we’ve been tortured watching other franchises achieve levels of organizational excellence in recent years, we remain stuck with the circus that continues to make its annual return to Madison Square Garden. Knicks games and the crowd’s collective energy once rivaled the greatest show on earth.
But now that Ringling Bros. is out of business, nothing can compare with the stench of dung that emanates from 33rd Street and 7th Avenue nowadays.
But that wasn’t always the case.
Despite the mental midgetry in the owner’s box, there have been the occasional celebratory moments, like when head coach Jeff Van Gundy, Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and Marcus Camby made their improbable run to the ’99 Finals against the Spurs. There was also the 1994 season, when OJ’s damn Bronco chase put the hex on us after we’d led the Houston Rockets three-games-to-two in the NBA Finals, only to succumb in an excruciating Game 7.
Knicks guard John Starks shot a horrific 2-for-18 in that game, but as much as we were mad that the franchise blew another shot at a championship, we couldn’t blame Starks because we knew that he walked off the court with an empty clip. He was symbolic, despite being from Tulsa, Oklahoma, of the grit and hustle of a native New Yorker.
Starks was all heart, a guy from humble beginnings who willed himself to the upper echelon of his profession through hard work and a fighter’s spirit. We might have been upset, but no one hung the man in effigy because we loved him, warts and all.
And he’d already built up enough equity in the bank with us to receive the benefit of the doubt. We hate that we lost, but we loved John Starks.
Because in one moment, in the previous year’s Eastern Conference Finals against our dreaded nemesis, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, in a flash of anger and ferocious athleticism, he gave us the gift that keeps on giving to this day.
Ya’ll already know what it is, one of the greatest in-game postseason dunks in NBA history. The rivalry was a heated one, despite the Bulls smacking us around year after year, because we fought the bully tooth and nail. And even though we could never beat them in those ’90s matchups, they respected us. They knew that they’d earn every inch on the court, every bucket, every victory.
The Bulls were the back-to-back NBA champs, a dynasty in the making. Michael Jordan was on his way to becoming perhaps the greatest player and closer in the history of the game. But Starks didn’t care about any of that.
In the final minute of that one-possession conference finals game, Starks drove hard on the right baseline against Horace Grant, one of the league’s best defensive players. The Knicks shooting guard’s determination was on full display. As Michael Jordan closed in, Starks elevated toward the rafters in Madison Square Garden to deliver the most vicious of left-handed dunks, the force of which dislodged Grant’s goggles.
Throughout our depressing modern history of falling short, Starks willed us to something big, as Luther said, if only for one night.
The echoes of the crowd can still be heard for those who saw it in real time. Jordan and the Bulls eventually won the battle, as they always did against us. But in lieu of not winning the championship that year, or in any season since ’73, Starks’ moment, “The Dunk” as it came to be known, reminds us that despite falling short, you always go for the gusto.