Dennis Pitta and the Curse of John Starks

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January 31, 2013 by NowhereButPop

By Steve Secular

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Lets begin here: I’m a Giants fan. So I’ve felt very conflicted rooting for the Ravens during this postseason. In spite of Ray Lewis and horrific flashbacks to the 2000 Super Bowl, I just can’t help myself. I watch Lewis, Suggs, Reed, and Pollard and their intensity and love every minute of it. I mean, it’s exactly what New York has always loved in its teams. Defense that teeters on the brink of erupting into an all-out brawl, balanced with questionable offense. The Giants had Phil Simms in the 80s, but they were the Big Blue Wrecking Crew, with LT, Banks, and Carson racking up sacks on sacks on sacks. And in an altogether different sport, the Knicks of the 90s had that same grit. That Knicks team, with Ewing, Oakley, Starks, and Mason, is one of the most fondly remembered in all of New York Sports, yet they never even won a championship. Instead, they brought intimidation and intensity with their defense every night. That’s why New York loves Ewing’s Knicks. And that’s why I can’t help but love this Ravens team.

Watching the AFC Championship, though, I was struck by a terrifying thought: Dennis Pitta is the Ravens’ John Starks.

To capture what John Starks meant to the early 90s Knicks, I defer to his Wikipedia page:

“Although he was passed over in the draft, Starks signed with the Golden State Warriors in September 1988 as a free agent. He was cut a year later, but worked his way back into the NBA after stints in the Continental Basketball Association (Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets, 1989–90) and World Basketball League (Memphis Rockers, 1990–91). In 1990, he tried out for the New York Knicks. In one practice, he tried to dunk on Knicks center Patrick Ewing. Ewing threw him down and Starks twisted his knee. The team was not allowed to release him unless it healed by the end of December. When it did not heal by that time, the Knicks could not release him. As a result, Starks has referred to Ewing as his saving grace. He eventually became the starting shooting guard, becoming a key player on the team and playing 8 seasons in New York from 1990–98. Starks was a posterchild for their physical play during that era, along with teammates Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley. He was a participant in the 1992 NBA Slam Dunk Contest…

…In Game 7 [of the 1994 Finals], Starks had one of the worst games of his career, shooting 2-for-18 from the field, including 0-for-10 in the fourth quarter. The Rockets went on to win the game and the championship, denying New York from having both NBA and NHL championships in the same year.”

When I watch Pitta, I can’t help but recall John Starks. A player largely unnoticed in the draft, kind of dimwitted, who slowly got more and more playing time and morphed into a beloved starter. Where their skills are lacking, they make up for it in heart. Flacco clearly likes Pitta, as he’s gotten him more and more catches, just as the fellow Knicks liked Starks. Something about the two just makes the hometown fans smile. And when Starks and Pitta are playing well, it’s more satisfying than seeing almost any of the other players succeed. They’re likable guys.

But the heart masks an inconsistency that doesn’t matter so much when the team is winning. Everything matters in the postseason though. In the handful of Ravens games I watched this season, Pitta made some spectacular grabs, which he’d then follow up with some head-scratching drop. When Starks was on point, the Garden roared. But then he’d have a game like Game 7 of the ’94 Finals, stupidly trying to shoot his way out of a cold spell.

If the Ravens do lose the Super Bowl come February 3rd, it’ll be from a huge Pitta drop. It just seems like it has to be that way. Obviously more factors go into a loss than a single play. But that’s the moment that’ll linger. Starks didn’t lose the Finals for the Knicks; they had plenty of chances and couldn’t close. But Starks is the guy everyone remembers. The little underdog shooting guard that could, at least until he couldn’t. Pitta’s the new underdog story for another scrappy defensive team in another sport, and yet they couldn’t feel more similar to me. I hope Pitta gives Ravens fans the ring that the 90s Knicks fans never had. But looking ahead to the game, with Kaepernick and 49ers down the field, something doesn’t feel right. Starks hasn’t reared his head yet. It’ll happen.

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