The Chicago Bulls seem to attract antagonists whether they are contenders or not. One of their major rivals during the Jordan years were the New York Knicks. A staple game each season and almost a guaranteed playoff matchup, meeting six times from 1989-1996. Each meeting providing more reasons to despise the other team. Some years those games were the toughest test of the Bulls’ playoff run.
The up and coming Chicago Bulls first took on the New York when the Knicks were at the top of the league and quickly switched places with them as the main Eastern Conference contenders led by Jordan and Pippen. Their only loss in a playoff series to the Knicks was during Jordan’s first retirement in 1994.
Final Results: 27-13; Bulls.
A mainstay of those Knicks teams was John Starks. Most famously known for purposely tripping Pippen a few times, choking hard during Game 7 of the ’94 NBA Finals, and “The Dunk,” which is only called that because Michael Jordan was involved. Starks was a dirty, tough, and a constant thorn in the side of whoever he was guarding. More often than not, that was Michael Jordan. One wonders if Starks’ hard fouls, dirty tactics, and inability to shut his mouth pushed Jordan (who didn’t need motivation in the first place) to take each game personally. Either way, Starks became one of the most loathed players in the NBA to the Chicago faithful.
Cut to the 2009 playoffs. The Boston Celtics are trying to defend their title and begin this defense by facing the up and coming Chicago Bulls led by the young Derrick Rose and defensive leader Joakim Noah. In what was the most exciting first round playoff series in NBA history, the Celtics were taken to Game 7 after a record-setting seven overtimes and multiple game-extending or game-winning buzzer-beaters from both teams.
In the middle of this heated playoff series one player’s dirty tactics stood out far above the rest: Rajon Rondo. During the closing seconds of the pivotal Game 5 at the end of the first overtime, the Bulls are down by two. Brad Miller is left wide open. To make up for this lapse in defense, Rondo punches Miller in the head from behind to prevent the wide open layup. No flagrant foul was called, which would have resulted in two shots and the ball and a chance for Chicago to win the game. The woozy Miller ends up missing his first free throw and giving Boston a 3-2 lead in the series.
Unlike today’s NBA, the league does not respond to these actions. In the following game, not one full quarter after the Miller punch, Rondo throws Kirk Hinrich into the scorer’s table and quickly runs away from getting knocked out by Hinrich. Once again, Rondo was not ejected from the game or suspended after the fact. The Bulls went on to win this game in triple overtime but lose to Boston in Game 7.
After a stint in Dallas and Sacramento, post-injury Rondo has ended up on the Chicago Bulls for a very reasonable price with today’s salary cap.
Starks was traded to the Bulls in the ’99-’00 season late in his career, quite a bit later than Rondo’s move into the roster. He only played four games before being released, but in each of his appearances the crowd at the United Center would rain down boos upon him. They’d mercilessly boo him when he would check into the game and continue to boo each time he touched the ball. Starks earned this type of welcome in Chicago and also earned his timely exit. Chicago never forgets.
Is Rondo worthy of a Starks’ welcome?
Starks was a staple villain against Jordan and multiple championship teams. Rondo played the anti-Rose, who was surpassed by Rose’s pre-injury talent. The Celtics’ big-three started to fade as the Bulls moved into the contender role in the East, never repeating a playoff matchup after the amazing 2009 series. The Bulls/Celtics rivalry still had bark, but without multiple playoffs to fuel the fire, it never reached the bite of those Knicks teams.
Starks had no productivity left by the time he arrived in Chicago so there was nothing left to gain from him. Rondo, being younger, might still have something left in the tank, even though advance stats everywhere show that Rondo has been horrible for team offense and defense over the last few years. Also, Rondo is apparently the starting point guard for the Bulls this season. With plenty of playing time, Rondo will be able to prove if he is still worth the minutes, but he deserves no leash. He has done enough to turn Bulls fans against him, and Chicago doesn’t put up with players who act like divas or refuse to work hard for the team. If Rondo doesn’t buy in, costs the Bulls games, or tries to supersede Jimmy Butler in any way, the United Center will turn on him quick. It won’t take much for Bulls fans boo him every time he enters the game and every time he touches the ball. The potential for a full Starks treatment is here, it is up to Rondo to prevent it.