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John Starks talks Knicks playoffs, headbutting Reggie Miller

1990s Knicks icon John Starks takes a shot at some playoff Q&A with Post columnist Steve Serby.

Q: What do you like best about this Knicks team?

A: I like their fight and their grit. It just kind of reminds me of the teams in the ’90s that I was on, the way that they’re scrapping for every single win … having a leader like Julius [Randle], who is truly coming into his own this year, obviously. And then to have veteran guys like Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, those guys who’ve been through the battles … been through the wars with Thibs [coach Tom Thibodeau] in Chicago. It just makes for a tighter team. I think it represents New York in a big way, the way that they go out there and play every single night, and they play hard. It’s just exciting just to watch them battle every single night.

Q: What impresses you about the improvements Randle has made this season?

A: I think he came back this year on a mission to prove himself. His conditioning was a whole lot better this year. He was able to sustain big minutes, and that says a lot about him and his commitment to get better. And the joy that he plays the game with, I love the most, and his teammates have been feeding off of him.

Q: What do you remember about your first playoff games?

A: Just anxious (chuckle). Just the excitement knowing that you’re in the playoffs, knowing that it’s a do-or-die situation, and you want to play your best basketball. Once the playoffs come, you have to take your game to another level. You got the best 16 teams in there, and you know you have to come to compete every single night. You can’t have any lapses in your play.

John Stockton at a basketball camp in 2018.
John Stockton at a basketball camp in 2018.
Annie Wermiel/NY Post

Q: What is the difference between this Derrick Rose and the young Derrick Rose?

A: I can’t even tell any difference. After his MVP season, he’s been dealing with leg injuries, and now that you see that he’s fresh now, it makes a big difference in his game. And you can see the confidence that he has out there on the court, and that spreads throughout the team when you have a guy like that that’s been through it, that understands the moment is not too big for him. It has been incredible the way he has reinvented himself, and for us, it’s been a blessing just to have him here.

Q: How many of these current Knicks could have played with your Knicks?

A: I would say all of ’em (chuckle), to be honest with you. I think Thibs and his coaching style plays it out of you. He’s like Coach [Pat] Riley: He’s gonna push you, and he’s gonna hold you accountable. And all those guys have responded to his style of coaching. And so, I’d love to play with any one of these guys on the team.

Q: What do you remember about Thibs as a young Knicks assistant coach?

A: He’s got that intense look, with a toughness about him. He was a student of the game, always watching film. It’s great to see that he has parlayed that into what he’s doing today. He hasn’t changed one bit. He still has that stern look on his face, and intensity and I think the players are responding to that.

Q: Does he remind you of Riley or Jeff Van Gundy?

A: They coached underneath Riley, and both of ’em have that DNA. They’re gonna push you hard, they’re gonna see if you’re gonna respond. Those that don’t respond, then they won’t be here. When you learn from one of the best ever, you can’t help but be who you are as a coach.

Q: Would Riley have liked this Knicks team?

A: Oh yeah. He definitely would. Just the temperament of this team and the way they fight and scratch and claw for every single win. And they’re all over the court defensively. They have each other’s back out there and you see these dogs flying around, diving on the floor for loose balls, taking charges, blocking shots. … You can’t help but love this team. Riles would have loved a team like this.

Q: Describe Van Gundy.

A: Commitment to excellence, commitment to working hard, commitment to getting the most out of his team. Long hours that he put in, obviously you could tell by the bags underneath his eyes (chuckle), because he’s been up all night watching game tape. A lot of respect for Jeff, because he came a long way.

Q: What difference do you see this season in RJ Barrett?

A: You see the confidence, and you see the game has slowed down to him. He’s playing at a different speed now. The confidence in his shot, the confidence in going to the basket. Defensively, he even took it to another level this year. He’s a young man that I say wants to get better, wants to be great at this game, and he works on it every single day.

Q: Whatever comes to mind: Taj Gibson?

A: A consummate worker. A guy who’s gonna go out there and lay it on the line. He’s gonna rebound, he’s gonna block shots, he’s gonna take charges, he’s gonna score when he has the opportunity to score … just a leader.

Q: Nerlens Noel?

A: What can you say about him? He’s just been amazing this year. Coming in here on a one-year deal, and just proving himself. … Shot-blocker, defensive-minded individual … he covers for any mistakes that you have out there on the court. He’s been a blessing ever since Mitch Robinson went down.

Q: Reggie Bullock?

A: A sharpshooter. His shooting has really helped to where we got to today, knocking down big shots. Cool under pressure. Good defense. He just does it all out there on the court.

Q: Alec Burks?

A: Coming in here and picking up the slack when we needed to pick up the slack from the offensive area of the court. Can play multiple positions from 1 to 3. Cool under pressure too. Big-time shot maker. Great defender. Can’t say enough about him.

Q: Immanuel Quickley?

A: (Laugh) Old soul. Had that confidence coming into the league at the point-guard position. I think the team and Thibs have a lot of confidence in the young man. Can knock down big shots. Just getting better every single day.

Q: Obi Toppin?

A: I am impressed with his improvement from Day 1. Coming in here, being a high draft pick, a lot is put on his shoulders because of that, and he’s just taking it in stride, and you can see the improvement and the confidence, and the game is starting to slow down, too. His shot has improved a great deal … great rebounder … great shot-blocker … good defender out there on the court … can defend multiple positions, too. I just really like his toughness, the way he’s not afraid to go out there and compete.

Q: Hawks star Trae Young?

A: Trae Young, he’s a problem (laugh). He is definitely a problem. He’s shifty, obviously he can shoot it like no other. Has truly improved as a leader for that team. He can take the ball to the hole, get his teammates involved. Just real impressed with him as a young player.

Q: How would your Knicks have defended him?

A: Probably way we played back then and the way the rules were back in the day, we would probably keep a body on him and play him as physically as possible and try to knock him off his stride. Because he’s so shifty, you do have to hit him as much as possible. I think the guys do a great job of playing team defense against him and trying to keep a body on him, but that’s the only way you can truly affect him.

Q: How does he compare as a Madison Square Garden villain to Reggie Miller?

A: (Laugh) Reggie was more of a villain than Trae Young. I was at [Game 2 this past week], and the fans went a little overboard, I felt. I feel that we’re more of a classy type of fan base, and we just have to get back to that. I know it’s playoffs, and the Knicks fans are excited to be in the playoffs, but we have to show a little bit more class than that. But he’s not like Reggie; Reggie was a different villain.

Q: What prompted you to headbutt Reggie?

A: ’Cause we needed to get something straight out there on the court (laugh). During that time, unlike today’s game, you had to earn your respect, and what I mean by that is kind of like: If you’re going into someone else’s neighborhood, and they don’t know who you, and so you have to get your respect. And back then, it was a much older league than it is now, the veteran guys weren’t giving you any respect, you had a lot of fights back then from a lot of young guys with the veteran guys because they weren’t giving it up. So, you had to show that, hey, I need my respect just like I respect you. After that incident, me and Reggie never had any more problems after that.

John Starks headbutts Reggie Miller
John Starks headbutts Reggie Miller
YouTube

Q: What did he do that was disrespectful?

A: He was hitting me with elbows, and you know you can’t do that. He was testing my manhood, and so I had to let him know.

Q: How would you describe your mentality on the court?

A: I would say my mentality was like a Russell Westbrook in today’s game: You just go out there and you just play hard as possible. You don’t back down from nobody, you take me on the challenge, and you try to be as effective as you can out there on the court any way possible.

Q: Whatever comes to mind: Anthony Mason?

A: Just tough, gritty individual. New York player, through and through. Great ball-handler, could see the court as well as any point guard that I ever played with, and just a great teammate.

Q: What can you say about Patrick Ewing?

A: Just everything. Great teammate, great friend … warrior. I remember many a nights where he shouldn’t have even took the court, but he was dedicated to us as players as a leader, as well as to the fan base to go out there every single night and lead us into battle.

Q: Why did he have such a problem getting a head-coaching job in the NBA?

A: I’m not sure. In this game right here, you got to earn the stripes. I think eventually he probably will be able to get that head coaching job in the NBA. He’s doing a terrific job with Georgetown, he ended up winning the Big East [tournament] this year, first player to ever do it from a coaching standpoint, and won it as a player. I think the radar is out there on him as far as being an NBA coach, and one say that opportunity’s gonna come to him.

John Starks guards Reggie Miller in the 1995 NBA playoffs.
John Starks guards Reggie Miller in the 1995 NBA playoffs.
NBAE/Getty Images

Q: Describe the 1994 Game 7, 90-84 loss at Houston in the NBA Finals.

A: The worst night ever (chuckle) for me as a player [2-for-18 shooting]. Toughest night to be able to swallow that. Even up to today, I still think about that from time to time, because so many people was counting on me — the teammates, especially the fan base, I wanted it so bad for them because they’ve been so supportive of us as a team throughout the years. I wanted it so bad, and unfortunately, I didn’t have the night that I shoulda had. But in life, you have to look at those tough times and learn from them, and you have to move on and continue to live your life.

Q: How long did it take you to get over that loss?

A: You never get over it. You never get over it. It always sticks in the back of your mind. It took a whole summer for me just to like get back to work. It never goes away. You always think about that in the back of your mind, if I would have done this or I would have done that. But hey, you have to move on.

Q: Do you remember the flight back from Houston?

A: It was silent. Quiet. You could hear a pin drop on the plane.

Q: What was it like eliminating the Bulls with an 87-77 win in Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals?

A: It was satisfying. We wish we could have done it while Michael [Jordan] was there (laugh), would have made it even more satisfying. They were obviously our nemesis, they were the team that you had to go through. Even though Michael wasn’t there, they still had Scottie [Pippen] and still had [Toni] Kukoc, B.J. Armstrong. … They had a crew that we had to go through.

Q: How often are you asked about The Dunk, over Jordan in the 1993 Eastern Conference finals?

John Starks dunks over the Bulls in 1993.
John Starks dunks over the Bulls in 1993.
YouTube

A: Every single day (laugh). Up until this day, I get asked about The Dunk.

Q: How often have watched it over the years?

A: It’s shown quite a bit. People will come up to me, they’d be talking to me and then took out their phone, and pull up The Dunk video and show it to me.

Q: What made you decide to do it at that time?

A: It just happened. You really don’t say, “I’m gonna come down and take it to the basket. I’m going to dunk on Horace Grant and Michael Jordan.” You don’t even think about that. Fortunately that moment was captured in a big way.

Q: How loud was the Garden?

A: The feeling that I had sitting there in Game 2 [Wednesday] was the same feeling that I had in Game 2 back in ’93. Same excitement, same energy.

Q: Do you have a relationship with Jordan today?

A: Yeah, we’re good friends. I got a lot of respect for him, because most people would think that we would be enemies and what have you, but he respected you as a player, and that’s why I respect so much about him. As great as he was, no matter who he was playing against, he gave that particular respect to that individual.

Q: Describe being traded to Golden State in January 1999.

A: That was like a death sentence (chuckle) to me, to be honest with you. Obviously, I didn’t want to go out there, and I didn’t want to leave the Knicks. But in this league, anything can happen, and you understand that as a player. It was worse knowing that, especially when Michael retired that year in the lockout season that we were gonna go to the [1999] championship, so I gotta get a chance to redeem myself. I was right, that we [the Knicks] went to the championship, but I wasn’t there to redeem myself. That kind of stuck with me.

Q: You coached in the USBL. Do you have aspirations to be an NBA coach?

A: I would never say never, but right now I love my position with the Knicks [alumni relations]. It’s perfect for me because I truly enjoy being amongst the public and dealing with our sponsors.

Q: Describe Cheyenne Park in Tulsa, Okla.

A: Oh, man, that’s where I learned the game. Many days out there on the court, many hours out there on the court by myself just envisioned myself bring a great basketball player, and working at it five, six hours a day. That’s where everybody in Tulsa who could play came to play basketball. So I had a lot of battles down there.

Q: What drove you as a kid?

A: I think my brothers and the competition that they put inside of me at a young age to compete every single day, and not to back down from anything. And just my family structure. We didn’t have a lot, and so we had to fight for every single thing as far as food and clothes and whatever. We had to scrap. Also we had to bond together as one in order to get through that period in our life.

John Starks defends Michael Jordan in 1995.
John Starks defends Michael Jordan in 1995.
NBAE/Getty Images

Q: What was it like working at Safeway?

A: That was an eye-opening situation for me. It actually helped me see that I needed to do something a little bit more in life, and that probably helped propel me to where I got to today, working a job bagging groceries for $3.35 an hour. That is not something that you want to do for the rest of your life. So that actually energized me to get back in school and do something for myself.

Q: Playing in the CBA in 1989-90?

A: That was a good experience from the standpoint of it was humbling, because I came right out of college and right to the NBA, and all of a sudden I was down in the minor leagues. But it gave me a chance to assess what I needed to do in order to get better, because having that taste that first year and saw the players and the talent level, I saw my weaknesses that I needed to work on. It gave me an opportunity to do that.

Q: Do you remember the first time you played in the Garden?

A: I remember the first time that I came to the Garden was when I was with Golden State [in March 1989]. I never got in the game. … The Garden has a special energy to it, and that’s why players love playing in the Garden. That’s why we always, when I was with the Knicks, always got the opponent’s best game, because they know they’re coming to the Mecca of basketball. No matter what the team record is, you have to throw that out, because their team is coming there to prove something. Whatever it is, the energy level in that Garden is just totally different from any other arena that I ever played in.

Q: What’s it like when the Garden starts chanting “Dee-fense, Dee-fense”?

A: (Laugh) It gets inside of you, and you just play at a different level. Obviously you could tell the way the guys respond to that, and when you start hearing that, your energy level just goes up. New York Knicks fans can sense the moment, and when they need you. They do a great job of telling you to play at another level.

Q: Three dinner guests?

A: Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali, Dr. J [Julius Erving].

Q: Favorite movie”

A: “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” (chuckle) with Dr. J. in it.

Q: Favorite actor?

A: Denzel Washington.

Q: Favorite actress?

A: Cicely Tyson.

Q: Favorite meal?

A: Steak and potatoes.

Q: Tell me about the playoff gift boxes.

A: We’re handing out gift boxes with Knicks merchandise in it at certain locations throughout the city for anyone who’s getting a vaccination.

Q: Why does New York City have such a love affair for the Knicks?

A: I think everybody loves basketball. Everybody in the city it seems like they grew up playing basketball, and basketball is king here. It’s The City Game, and they’re passionate about it. The team takes on the mentality of New Yorkers. That’s the way the game was played in the parks even to this day, and so they just grasped a hold of that.

Q: What does it mean to you to be remembered as a legendary New York Knick?

A: It means a lot. It means that the fans reflected the way I competed every single night, not only me but our teams, trying to win every single ballgame at any cost. I think they appreciate the way I played the game.

Q: What advice would you have for these Knicks?

A: I would just tell ’em to go out there and play the way you’ve been playing all year long. Go out there and have that defensive mindset. You have to be able to shut down players down at key moments. And these guys have proven that they can do that all year long.

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