Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, John Starks came to personify New York City as one of the most beloved New York Knicks players of all time. Since retiring from the game, Starks brings the tenacity he brought to the court to philanthropy. For the past 5 years, he has served on the Board of Directors of the Garden of Dreams Foundation, and has been involved with the Foundation since its inception in 2006. The Foundation, in partnership with MSG Entertainment, MSG Sports and MSG Networks, provides young people with life-changing access to educational and skills opportunities; mentoring programs; and memorable experiences that enhance their lives, help shape their futures and create lasting joy.
Starks shares, “When they first asked me to be a member of the Board, I felt that it was right up my alley. I have always wanted to help people and the Garden of Dreams Foundation accomplishes this in such a significant way. It means so much to be part of an effort to give back to the community that has given us so much for so long. Our focus is on kids and families in need and being able to help brighten their lives is incredibly uplifting to me.” Starks’ work in the community is not limited to the boardroom. He regularly visits kids in the hospital and has developed lasting relationships with their families. “Visiting those kids and seeing them smile despite what they are going through, has changed my entire perspective on life,” he says.
Starks attributes both his desire to help others and his tenacity to his mother, who raised 5 sons and 2 daughters as a single parent. She had help from his grandmother, who Starks says was only 5 feet tall, but could inspire fear in her grandsons. He recalls with a chuckle, “My Grandmother was like E.F. Hutton. When she talked; we listened.” Being raised by two strong, outspoken women taught the siblings to speak up for what is right. But it is his mother that Starks credits for his tenacity. “I saw my mother fight and scratch to keep her kids clothed and fed—and with 5 boys in the house, food ran out quickly. I saw how she never gave up and that is where I get my tenacity from.”
Life, he says, is like a basketball game. It can start off rocky and then smooth out. The key is to stay focused; to stay in the game and never give up. Starks remembers struggling to focus when he was going to school hungry. His childhood experiences provide a powerful connection to the kids that he and his colleagues at the Foundation are working to support. Starks wants kids to know that he is a living example of what staying focused and putting in the hard work can do. His journey began at age 7, when he first dunked a basketball by jumping off an oil can. The feeling of flying hooked him, and he never looked back. Now he works to provide kids with opportunities to discover their passions and be supported in pursuing them.
Unsurprisingly, the basketball great also talks about the importance of knowing when to pivot. “In my youth I had to make the difficult decision to leave behind some friends who weren’t taking me in the right direction. Sometimes you must look at the man in the mirror and make that tough decision for yourself. You have to be able to pivot to keep moving toward your goals.” Starks is proud of the way the Garden of Dreams Foundation pivoted to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, shifting funds initially earmarked for grants for improvements to physical spaces like courts, to instead provide immediate financial relief to its partners, including New York Edge, which the Foundation has long supported. Budget cuts have impacted summer camp programs this year, including New York Edge’s camps, and as part of the Garden of Dreams COVID Grant Program, the Foundation made a generous $100,000 grant to support NYE summer camp for 200 kids. “Everyone has been hit by this pandemic, but the communities New York Edge and the Foundation serve have been hit hardest. In these times, our Foundation has stepped up for youth by supporting the work of organizations like New York Edge. Together, we make a real impact on young people’s lives.”
In reflecting on his own journey, he recalls the days of being bussed from his neighborhood of North Tulsa to the predominantly white South Tulsa. On his very first day of junior high, Starks was kicked out for defending himself against a student who called him the n-word. He remembers the KKK burning crosses at his brothers’ football games to intimidate the Black players. The 7th grade was the first time Starks ever had a white coach. “Coach Hunt was a great man. I have so much respect for him. He treated all the players like we were his sons and his son was on the team. That taught me a lot about relationships and that people can work together no matter the color of your skin.”
While his hometown has changed, more change is needed there and across the country. Starks is inspired by the youth speaking truth to power and advocating for Black lives. “There is no place for what happened [to George Floyd] in Minneapolis. It has galvanized the world and it is good to see people coming together to say, ‘enough is enough.’ It is good for children to see that we are in this fight together,” Stark shares. “As a parent, you want your child to feel safe every time they walk out the door. For that to happen, we have to do better. We have to respect all citizens and protect their rights.”
The power of teamwork is evident across Stark’s work at the Foundation. Starks marvels at the dedication of the Board and staff at the Garden of Dreams. “I think we are able to make such a significant impact because we are so focused on our work to uplift lives and because we listen to our partners and the community and respond in meaningful ways.” Stark shares special words of praise for the staff, “They put their heart and soul into everything they do for the Foundation. Our staff makes sure the impact is known and felt by the community. Our accomplishments would not be possible without the staff on the ground. I take my hat off to them.”