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By Peter D. Henninger, Crimson Staff Writer

On the walls of the Crimson Sports Office, placed prominently among old sports pages, varsity schedules and a small picture paying homage to Don Mattingly hangs a poster entitled, "The Dunk."

For New York Knicks fans, there have been few greater moments at the Garden in the last decade.

On a Tuesday night in May at 34th street and Seventh Avenue, the Knicks faced the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals--the first Conference Finals for New York since the 1973-74 team fell short against the Celtics.

This wasn't just any New York team--these were the Knicks of veterans Mo Cheeks, Charles Oakley and the ever-present Ewing; the over-practiced Knicks of Pat Riley, whose hair and celebrity outshined everyone during introductions.

"The Dunk" came in the third quarter, when 6-5 shooting guard John Starks found an opening on the right side of the key and drove around once-Knick Bill Cartwright at the right foul line extended.

Alone along the baseline, Starks quickened his step and jumped off both feet, rising off the Garden's royal blue key.

In mid-air, Starks transferred the ball to his left hand, elevated above a begoggled Horace Grant and his Airness himself, Michael Jordan, and put it down.

Marv Albert was speechless, the Garden exploded and I think I may have given my brother a high-five in our living room across the Hudson.

Only Larry Johnson's improbable four-point play last year could provide a more thunderous memory from the Garden.

If Starks had thrown down like that on the chain-link playgrounds down at Greenwich Avenue or on the asphalt along the West Side Drive, Grant and Jordan would have been forced to leave, their places taken by someone else who could have stopped a kid nearly half a foot their junior.

For Starks was always a kid on the Knicks; always Riley's spark plug and a good friend to the older, bigger Ewing. To my mother, with his round face and full smile, he was always "Johnny."

Starks had never even been drafted to the NBA, and came to the Knicks only after a year in the CBA and an uneventful season with the Warriors, a history that only heightened his stature around New York.

Despite his inexperience, he pacified the New York press with his easy Oklahoman drawl and had a hot hand from behind the arc.

Sure, he could go cold, like his 1-for-23 performance in the sixth game of the 1996 NBA Finals against the Rockets, but Johnny was ours on a team where regular stars like Ewing and Oakley, and later thug Anthony Mason, didn't have much to say.

Last week, after a short stint with the Warriors, Starks was traded to the Bulls in a deal headlined by Toni Kukoc's departure for Philadelphia. For fans in New York, however, the deal was highlighted by its reckless sense of irony that sent a favorite--no, a proud part of our history--to the enemy.

It could be worse--Starks could have ended up with the Pacers. But while New Yorkers hate Reggie and the Pacers, the Bulls represent sheer depression--a decade of impenetrable Eastern Conference dominance.

The image of John Starks in Bulls' red is nauseating, and even he has admitted that he doesn't feel comfortable playing for the Bulls, claiming Chicago will not be in contention for the NBA championship any time soon.

As the Bulls wallow at 12-38, 22 games behind the Pacers, Starks has a point. Nevertheless, his trade request must also have something to do with emotion he carried into all 25 Knick play-off games against the Bulls over the course of the 90s.

It might also have something to do with the fact that he is now playing for a Bulls team that has two veteran shooting guards already on the roster in Hersey Hawkins and B.J. Armstrong.

Maybe it's just the red jerseys, the very same jerseys that brushed against his own Knick whites as he willed himself to a monstrous left-handed jam in front of 19,763 in 1993.

Beyond the dunk, his history against the Bulls is memorable, though that moment alone may ruin his ability to lace up.

For Starks was our man against Superman: he guarded Jordan in almost every game, regular and post-season.

Although he later shared the duty with Mason when Jordan reverted to his high-post turnaround jumper for the last years of his career, Starks spent hours with his forearm in Jordan's back, contesting shots on nights when Michael couldn't miss.

Sure Jordan always won, but we commiserated with John, for his was a tough task, we understood, and who else was up to the task, Mark Jackson?

(Yes, Jackson in Pacer blue is also depressing, but he had no heart under Pitino, only flash.)

Starks may be going to Miami in the near future, where he will once again play under Riley. Deep into the play-offs, John Starks in black might be devastating.

But alas, Starks on the floor of Jordan's United Center night in and night out--this alone is enough trauma for one column.

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