Zach Marbury snatched the loose ball and pushed it up the floor.
Though he had a three-on-two advantage, the 23-year-old point
guard and younger brother of the Phoenix Suns' Stephon Marbury
pulled up from 15 feet and fired. His jump shot clanged off the
rim. "Zach," his coach with the United States Basketball League's
Westchester Wildfire said softly, stopping practice, "you've got
to get a layup on that."
While the mild reproof was to be expected, the source of
it--former NBA guard John Starks--was surprising. During 13
seasons, mostly with the New York Knicks, Starks proved himself
an exceedingly willing if streaky shooter (he ranks ninth in
career three-point attempts, 13th in makes) who was also known
for his explosive athleticism and equally volatile temper. Since
March, though, he has been preaching patience as the coach of the
expansion Wildfire. "If you make a mistake, he's not going to
jump up and down and scream," says guard Vonteego Cummings,
Starks's teammate with the Golden State Warriors in 1999-2000.
"He'll pat you on the ass and tell you what you should have done.
He doesn't take away your aggressiveness, so you can't help but
play hard for him."
The thought of the 37-year-old Starks carrying a clipboard
doesn't surprise those who know him well--though it does amuse
some of them. Jeff Van Gundy, Starks's coach for 2 1/2 seasons
with the Knicks, quickly snapped up season tickets to the games
in White Plains, N.Y., aching to see Starks's face the first time
one of the Wildfire jacked a three in transition. After Van Gundy
watched Westchester's 99-75 win over the Texas Rim Rockers
earlier this season, Starks confessed to his old coach, "I can
see how some of the shots I used to take would be stressful."
Starks's own rags-to-riches rise from supermarket bag boy in
Tulsa to minor league hoops player (stops in the Continental
Basketball Association and the World Basketball League) to NBA
All-Star was part of the attraction when Wildfire owner Gary
Lieberman was looking for a coach. "The fact that he came from
the minor leagues certainly enhances his credibility with the
players," says Lieberman, who's had courtside Knicks seats for
more than a decade. "He has a real appreciation for what they're
In his bid to return to the NBA as a coach, Starks is again
starting near the bottom. While the USBL has sent more than 135
players to the NBA in its 19-year history, its players make only
$400 to $500 a week for a three-month, 30-game season and do
almost all their traveling by bus. During a 116-97 win over the
Brooklyn Kings earlier this season, Wildfire guard Rod Grizzard,
a former standout at Alabama, yelled at Brooklyn's P.A.
announcer--while standing at the free throw line--for
consistently mispronouncing his name.
The less than glitzy surroundings--and the fact that only two NBA
coaches have come up through the USBL ranks--don't faze Starks.
"That shows me he wants to learn," Van Gundy says. "He's not in
it for the instant gratification of fame or money."
So far Starks has been repaid in victories. He and assistant Ed
Pinckney, a 12-year NBA vet, had Westchester off to a 13-6 start
through Saturday. Not surprisingly for a man who played under Van
Gundy and Pat Riley, Starks stresses defense. Even with his team
leading by 22 with less than a minute to play against the Kings,
Starks exhorted, "Let's get a stop!" His sideline and practice
demeanor is upbeat, with lots of clapping and instructions
shouted three times. ("Be solid! Be solid! Be solid!") And also
like Riley, Starks is learning to work the refs. In the Brooklyn
game he twice pleaded for a defensive three-seconds violation; in
both cases the Wildfire got that call on its next possession.
Starks wants the same responsiveness from the Wildfire. "I expect
my guys to compete every minute they're on the court because
that's the kind of player I was," he says. "I have aspirations to
get to the NBA, and so do my players. I've told them that if we
work together, we can all succeed."
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN BEEN THERE, DONE THAT Starks's own travails and travels before joining the Knicks make him ideal to lead the Wildfire.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN [See caption above]
In addition to John Starks, here are five other former NBA
players cutting their coaching teeth in the USBL.
NBA PLAYER USBL TEAM YEARS AS COACH
Darryl Dawkins Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs 4
2001 USBL title winner now names lineups instead of dunks
Cliff Levingston Dodge City Legend 2
Member of champion Bulls off to 16-4 start through Saturday
Robert Reid Texas Rim Rockers 1
Ex-Rocket can't get expansion team (2-19) off the ground
Mike Sanders Adirondack Wildcats 3
Could use 49ers WR Terrell Owens, who played in 2002
Kenny Charles Brooklyn Kings 4
A lawyer, he has to make a better case after 9-12 start