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May 25, 2018

Over Jordan, Over Grant … A Classic Garden Moment Relived

With the newest Madison Square Garden celebrating its 50th year, John Starks dissects his signature play — The Dunk. It appeared to happen in a flash. Or did it?

John Starks, breaking down The Dunk step by step. Reaching half-court, he says, he already saw the play developing in front of him. (Photo: Zack Lane/MSG Photos)

The play unfolded in small snapshots, with one frazzled defender twitching left, then right, and another caught flustered and flatfooted. Then came a final, furious burst toward the basket, ending with the ball slammed home.

The unlikely skywalker — the Knicks’ John Starks. And left in his wake, a helpless Michael Jordan, who made a last-ditch try at stopping Starks mid-air, their fingertips nearly touching at the rim. It didn’t work. 

With that, the Madison Square Garden crowd erupted, the fans responding in something like a collective gasp. This was a raw, not-in-my-schoolyard act of defiance against the Knicks’ vaunted nemesis, the Chicago Bulls.

In this 50th anniversary year for the current Garden, today marks 25 years since Starks rose up and made his statement in the closing seconds of a victorious Game 2 in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals. The building has been electrified many times over, but The Dunk carries its own legend.

At the center was an unassuming player who had scraped his way into the NBA, his pedigree carved out in pickup games growing up in Tulsa, Okla. Knicks fans recognized a piece of themselves in how he played, a connection not lost on Starks to this day.

“If it had happened anywhere else, people wouldn’t still be talking about it,” Starks says. “But it happened at The Garden, and these were the Bulls. They were the champs and had been giving it to us for so many years.

“For New Yorkers, the play was like saying, ‘Yeah, right back at you.'”




Swimming Toward The Rim

Drawing up a chair the other day to watch a replay, his eyes widened as if beholding the cleared path to the hoop for the first time. He had scored 25 points in Game 1 of the series, and the scouting report on him said he sometimes exploited the baseline for a jumper or a drive toward the basket, a nugget lost on the Bulls at a critical moment.

“Look at that,” observed Starks, as he watched his younger self bring the ball up the court. “If you watch closely, you can see that the play began taking shape at half-court.”

At that point, Starks saw past the man defending him, B.J. Armstrong, and detected the Bulls’ center, Bill Cartwright roaming from his sentry position down low. As Starks reached the 3-point line, Patrick Ewing was preparing to set a pick to his left.

“Look at B.J., look at B.J.’s head,” Starks gushed. “He’s looking two ways.  He can’t find Cartwright. Right there, B.J. knows there’s nothing he can do.”

With that, Starks, began his arcing dash to the right of the basket, dribbling twice with his right hand before he planted and launched, the ball now in his left palm. With both feet kicking beneath him, it looked for a second as if he were not jumping but instead swimming up into the air. Chicago’s Horace Grant was the first to greet him, but he was no match. The protective goggles Grant wore were jarred out of place.

Then Jordan swooped in, a flicker behind the action. With 47.3 seconds to go, Starks had sealed the game. For a few seconds, he had become Jordan.

As his joyous teammates surrounded him, Starks appeared dazed. But watching the celebration now, he said, “No, I was thinking, we got to close this out. And I was tired, worn down.”

A few years ago, Jordan was sitting courtside watching The Dunk replayed on GardenVision. Starks couldn’t resist the urge and sidled up to him with a smirk. Jordan shrugged and the two laughed.

The superstar, recalled Starks, asked why the play was shown every time he visited The Garden.

“I told him” said Starks, “‘then stop coming to The Garden.'”

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