Life of a Knick
I was born on August 10, 1965, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and except for two years when I was five and my mother moved the family out to Los Angeles, I stayed in or around Tulsa until I was 23. I was the third of five brothers – Tony, Vincent, me, Lynn and Lawrence – and then there were my two sisters, Anita and Nicole. Except for Lawrence and Anita, we all had different fathers. My mother, Irene Starks, and my grandmother, Callie West, looked after us all, but my grandmother had her own place, separate from ours.
My family lived pretty much all over North Tulsa. North Tulsa is where all the black folks lived. It was nice. It wasn't run down, although there were spots worse than others. We lived in houses and apartment complexes, and only once for a short time did we live in the deep North section of Tulsa, where the neighborhoods were a lot rougher and most of the drugs were dealt. Tulsa is a friendly city, but it can be dangerous, too. My brother Vincent, who we called "Monty," said that one year in the 1980s, Tulsa was statistically second to only Washington D.C. in murders nationwide and first in car thefts. The deep North is where most of those murders and car thefts occurred.
My family moved into our first house on Virgin Street when I was born. Before us, the previous owners of the house had been a white family. Talking to my mother and my two older brothers, moving into the house on Virgin Street felt like moving into a whole new world. We had never lived in a neighborhood with white folks before. I lived in the house on Virgin Street, off and on, until I was eight years old, and as more black folks started moving into the neighborhood, most of the white folks left and moved up into the bigger houses up on Reservoir Hill.
We used to wander up Reservoir Hill all the time and look at the houses and say, "One day, we're going to get up here." That was our dream as little kids. Reservoir Hill overlooks the city and many of the houses have beautiful views. I thought of moving a lot when I was a kid, because it was a normal occurrence for me. We moved 11 or 12 times as I was growing up, sometimes in the middle of the night because we didn't have the rent money.
My mother always scouted out places for us to live. We lived in the Morningstar apartments just after they were built, before all the trouble started years after we left there. Monty and Lawrence-- – youngest brother, who we called Ju Ju – later sold cocaine inside that complex. But when we first moved in, it had a nice, big swimming pool and a little store that few people on the outside knew about, because it was run illegally. It was a nice setup.
During my grade school years, mostly we lived in two-bedroom houses with a den and a kitchen. In the house on Virgin Street, there were 16 of us – two families, my four brothers and two sisters and me, my mother, my four cousins, my uncles Curtis and Lawrence and my aunt Betty, and my grandmother – all sleeping in two rooms. The 12 kids all slept in bunk beds stacked on top of each other all the way up to the ceiling. We had to slide into bed like sardines.
It was two kids to a bed, and I didn't want to sleep with the younger kids because when one of them peed in the sheets, I'd wake up with it all over me. All the kids would sneak back into the kitchen after the adults were asleep and make crazy sandwiches like peanut butter and bologna. If my grandmother caught us, she'd grab her belt and whip our butts. We weren't supposed to eat after dinner, but we never got enough to eat. In the morning, I'd wake up with a killer bellyache. We all had nicknames. Vince was "Monty," I was "Johnty," Lynn was "Bucky," Lawrence was "Ju Ju," Tony was "T," Anita was "Pooky" and Nicole was "Nikki." Tony and Monty played football on their high school team – Tony was the starting cornerback – Monty the starting free safety, and I always tried to do what they did. I was four years younger than Tony and three years younger than Monty, so they roughed me up a lot.
My grandmother would kick us out of the house in the summer and tell us she didn't want to see any of us until five o'clock. There were all kinds of sports to play and competition all the time. All I did growing up was compete against my brothers and friends. Even in the house we played football and clothes-hanger basketball, where we used to hang a clothes hanger on the top of a door and shoot a rolled-up sock through it. We didn't have a basketball goal so we created one indoors. We'd bang up against the walls and my grandmother would come into our room and say, "What is it y'all are doing in here?"
Sometimes my grandmother would come outside and play with us. She was only about five foot tall, but she used to come out into the yard and throw us passes. My grandmother made us go from football to basketball to baseball. My mother didn't much care for sports, but my grandmother was a sports addict. I even played a little tennis, because my Uncle Curtis was an All-American tennis player at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Inspired by Arthur Ashe, a lot of young black kids played tennis when he grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.
Monty was an All-American football player at Nathan Hale High School in Tulsa. His father was Johnny Lewis, who played four seasons of major league baseball. In 1965, Johnny Lewis was the best hitter on the New York Mets, batting .245 and smacking 15 home runs. He later was the third base coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. When Monty was around 12, the Cardinals played against their AAA minor league team in Tulsa, the Tulsa Drillers, and Monty went and got Bob Gibson's and Lou Brock's autographs. His dad told Monty to write him and he did, but Monty never heard back from Johnny Lewis.
Monty was the best all-around athlete in the family. By the time he was 13, he was built and looked a lot like Lawrence Taylor and was just as tough. I never played against anyone in the NBA as tough as Monty. All four of my brothers and I, along with the other neighborhood kids, would play football in the street. I played wide receiver in the park leagues until my mother steered me away from football. She thought I wasn't big enough, and it was too aggressive a game and I might get hurt.
The best catch and hit I ever saw was when Monty led Bucky with a pass that made him crash right into a parked car. Right when Bucky caught the ball, he slammed into the car, knocking him down, but he held onto the ball. It was the last time Bucky ever played football with us. But it was an amazing play.
You had to be tough in our family. If someone called one of us a "punk" or a "sissy," those were fighting words. There was nothing soft about any one of us. Monty likes to say that he taught me desire and the attitude of: "Don't take no kind of mess from nobody." If I got into a fight and lost, Monty would find out about it and make me go back and fight the kid again, but this time in front of him – and I had to win. He'd tell me, "You don't lose fights in our family."
Fighting was something all my brothers and sisters and I were very familiar with growing up. The first rule in our family was to mind our mother and grandmother, Callie West, and the second was not to back down from a fight. Tony and Monty fought each other almost on a daily basis. It was big brother against little brother, even though they were only a year apart in age. Tony was trying to keep control of the household while Monty was trying to gain control. My younger brothers and sisters and I would sit back and watch them fight.
We got our fighting spirits from both my mother and my grandmother. They were small women in stature, but they didn't back down from anyone. I remember once when I was eight years old, the toilet backed up on me while we were living in my Auntie Iona Grayson's house on Xyler Street. She moved to California, so we moved into her house. The plumbing was messed up, so when I flushed the toilet my stool backed up into the tub.
My grandmother walked in and said, "What in the world have you done, you nasty rat? You're going to have to bail that out." "I'm not bailing that out," I said.
"Get your butt down there," she said "and bail that stuff out."
Like I said, you didn't cross my grandmother. I got down on the floor and started bailing the tub out and I had tears running down my face, it was so bad. My brothers came by the door laughing and making fun of me. But Tony went too far. He got my grandmother so angry that she took off her shoe, and as he ran away from her down the hall, she threw it and nailed him with it in the back of his head.
My mother had a lot of trouble with the men in her life. She was very unlucky with the men she chose. She was a very beautiful woman, short with cocoa skin, and she really knew how to dress. She was married three times, but never to my father. I was in college the last time my mother got married. When she wasn't married, she would date occasionally and, depending on what these men could bring to the table, some of the men she dated would move in with us.
Looking back on it now, as I do a great deal – sometimes I wish I wouldn't, but I can't help it, I'm a thinker by nature – I believe my mother was looking for a father figure. Like my brothers and sisters and I, except for Tony – she didn't have her father on a daily basis. When my grandmother moved back to Tulsa from Los Angeles, my mother's father, Harold Starks, stayed out in Los Angeles. My mother only saw him during the summers. That's why I think she was always looking for a man to take care of her. All these cats out on the streets sensed that, and they'd say to my mother, "I'll take care of you." My mother got into terrible fistfights with some of the men in her life. I was just a kid, and I didn't like seeing anyone messing with my mother. But she was a real tough lady, a fighter. She never backed down from anyone.
It was disturbing to watch these men beat up on her and see her bleed and hit them back. Despite being only five foot four, she was a woman who could handle herself in a fight.
My mother was scared of guns, but the men who stayed with us kept guns in the house that she would get her hands on. She used one of those guns to shoot and almost kill Nikki's daddy. These were knock-down, drag-out
One time in the middle of a fight, my mother ran out of the house and got into her car to get away from this man. He chased her, and as she was pulling out, he grabbed onto the car door handle and she drove halfway down the street with him still hanging onto the car door handle. I don't know what he was thinking trying to stop a moving car. It was like something you see in a movie, it was just crazy.
I never knew when I lay down to sleep at one or two o'clock in the morning when a fight might start. The police showed up sometimes at the different houses we lived in, and it was embarrassing to see police cars out in front of your house and everyone in the neighborhood outside their houses watching. That probably explains why I'm a light sleeper today. Whenever my mother got into fights, I would call my grandmother and tell her, "She's up here fighting." Tony and Monty were living with my grandmother by then, and she'd always send Monty or Tony up to stop the fights. My uncles sometimes would try to stop the fights, but they weren't always around. Lawrence was mostly out on the streets, and Curtis was away at college.
Monty, at 10 or 11 years old, stood up to these men. I can remember one time waiting for Monty to show up, and when he didn't come right away I picked up this kitchen knife and had crazy thoughts on my mind. I wanted to kill the man who was battering my mother. But then Monty came through the door.
These men didn't care about the kids in our family who were not their own. They didn't feel committed to us. Our house was just a place to lay their heads. Lawrence and Anita's dad, Buster Peoples, lived with us the longest. My mother and he lived together for about five years until he died in a car crash. This was back in the 1970s, and Buster was a drummer in a band. Drugs were everywhere. Everybody was doing everything, and I'm pretty sure Buster was doing a lot of stuff. When his band went out to Los Angeles for a while when I was five, my mother
Buster had a lot of anger in him. I'm not sure if he was abused as a child, but he beat us kids with a clothes hanger wrapped in thick rope. He treated Lawrence and Anita different than the rest of us. He resented the fact that we weren't his kids. He hated that my mother had other children besides his own. He used to try to make us eat menthol, but I used to outsmart him by sitting with my back to the window and when he wasn't looking, I would dump all the menthol out the window and then pretend that I ate it.
We all got in the middle of my mother's fights with Buster and the rest of these men. We'd yell at my mother and the men, "Stop it! Stop it!" We'd tell my mother to leave, but there was nowhere to go. These men lived with us. My mother was under a lot of stress to provide for us, and she did the best she could. She used to tell us all the time, "You have to get through it. Just deal with it."
She was a young mother with seven kids to bring up. She didn't have time to do much of anything but survive. My mother worked as a nurse, she worked in a beauty salon, and for a while, she owned a laundromat. She taught me how to drive when I was 13 years old, and I used to drive her car – it was a little bitty thing called a Champ--from our house on Denver Street to the laundromat.
But my mother worked all kinds of odd jobs as well, and when her jobs stressed her out, we would get back on welfare or another man would appear in our lives. It wasn't like we were the only family in North Tulsa going through hard times. I had friends whose mothers had the same problems. We just had to get through it.
My mother was a tough woman. She enjoyed going out on the weekends and having fun. She was a free spirit, but cautious, too. She enjoyed people and I got my people skills from her. It made me feel good to see my mother enjoy herself when she had so many tough times. I think back to those times and I wonder what our lives could have been like if we had a place to call our own. I love my mother very much and I know in my heart that she tried to take care of us the best way that she knew how. Even so, those fights affected all of my brothers and sisters growing up.
I think my combativeness on the basketball court goes back to those days when I watched my mother get beat by so many men. Watching her go through what she did built a lot of anger in me. But seeing her display so much heart through all of her ups and downs, trials and tribulations, I learned her survival skills. All of what my mother went through and how she handled became a part of me.
As I got a little older, I would block out of my mind the violence I saw my mother go through by taking my ball and going down to the court in Cheyenne Park or at Burroughs Elementary School and spend hours shooting baskets. Basketball was my salvation. For as long as I can remember, playing basketball always made me feel better. A basketball court was always the place where I could shut my mind off and just play.
Monty was older and right in the middle of all the fighting that went on, so he remembers more of it than I do.
Monty: It'd be two or three o'clock in the morning, and my mother would be fighting with Billy, her boyfriend. I was in the fourth or fifth grade and John would call my grandmother's house and tell her they were fighting again. My grandmother would wake me up and say, "Monty, go up there and see about your Mama."
I'd have to walk two or three miles sometimes. My grandmother's house was on Virgin Street, and my mother and the rest of the family would stay in different places. I was in the fourth grade walking up and down the damn streets at three or four in the morning going to see what was going on. I'd get to the house and go inside, and there'd be blood all over the house, you'd think your Mama was dead. That's just how it was. Walking up there, you didn't know what you were likely to see. I remember when I was younger, and Buster was staying with us up in a house on Emerson Street and he was beating up on her for a whole day. We had to stay in our room. So I picked up all the kids and put them out the window, and we walked all the way down to my grandmother's house in the middle of the night. I was around ten and John was seven. It was all up to me to make sure that everyone was all right.
Grandma told me I had to take care of all the other kids in the family. She sat me down and said, "Monty, you and Tony are the oldest, and you're the biggest. You've got to look after the kids." What Granny said was the Bible. I did what she told me.
Buster used to whip us all night when we were real young and living in south central Los Angeles, on Second Street and Washington Avenue. It got to the point where I used to dream of killing him, and I would've if he was still around when I got to an age where I was big enough, no more than 13, to do it. I used to dream all the time of getting strong enough to kill him.
He'd put menthol in our mouths and tell us to eat it. He did all kinds of cruel stuff to all of the kids in the family. When we were out in Los Angeles we were isolated, far away from grandma, so we had no one to turn to for help. If we did something wrong, our mother would whip us, but she didn't come after us for no reason like Lawrence's dad did.
I hated him so much that to this day, if he was still alive, I'd try to kill him. When we moved back to Tulsa, it finally got to the point where my grandmother said to my mother, "Are you going to stay with him or take care of your kids? Because he can't come around here no more." Being just a kid and listening to a man beat your mother and hearing your mother scream, we used to hurt a lot. Every time we heard a loud noise or heard something hit the wall, we'd think immediately, "Mama's in a fight again." It just happened so often.
When the family was by ourselves, we'd do fairly decent. But the moment my mother brought home a boyfriend, it'd bring us down. We'd have no food, no money to pay the bills, and we'd have to move out of houses in
The next day she shot him six times and reloaded and shot him two more times but still didn't kill him. She pleaded self-defense and told the police that he had beaten her that day when actually it'd been the day before. The police had been called up to the house so many times that there was a history of their fights, and she got off.
My mother was a hustler. She did what she had to do in order for us to survive. She was a survivor. Whatever guy she was with, if he stopped making money and brought nothing home to help out the family, she'd tell him he'd have to go if he didn't start doing something. I beat up her boyfriends and threw them out of the house when I got old enough.
She never apologized to us about what happened. She'd say, "Deal with it." And if things got too crazy, she'd tell us to go down and stay at our grandmother's house. Granny wasn't too happy about that. She'd raised her four kids on her own pretty much. She got tired of us, but she never turned us away. She tried to make us do the right thing, but if we did wrong, she was always there to help us out.
When I got old enough, 13 or 14, I moved out of both my mother's and grandmother's houses and stayed at my girlfriend's house. I started selling drugs in the far north and I was making a lot of money. I got the drugs from family members out in Los Angeles. They would send it back to me or I would go out and get it. I was the first person to bring rock cocaine to Tulsa back in 1981. I would pay $300 for an ounce and make $3,200. It was booming back then.
I made enough money that at one point I had three houses. I gave one to my mother, because she and her boyfriend had gotten into a fight and she and the kids didn't have anywhere else to go. I started buying food for
Monty and I dealt with the tension in our family differently. Monty would fume when my mother and Buster would eat steak while the rest of us ate stew. But as long as I was eating, I was happy. My mother wouldn't eat all her steak anyway, and then she'd let us go get the steak.
John Starks played 14 seasons in the NBA, eight of them with the New York Knicks
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