NEW YORK -- Five years ago, John Starks, frustrated with his basketball future, dropped out of college to bag groceries for minimum wage. Two years ago, he played in near anonymity for the Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets in the Continental Basketball Association.
But last night, Starks was the toast of New York. He scored 27 points and upstaged Michael Jordan in leading the Knicks to a 100-86 victory over the Bulls to force a seventh-game showdown in Chicago on Sunday afternoon.
"We're playing a seventh game on the road," said Knicks coach Pat Riley. "But you play this type of game under any conditions -- no tears, no regrets."
Few figured the over-achieving Knicks would be in this position against the defending champion Bulls, who breezed through the regular season with a 65-17 record.
But Riley's tough-minded approach has the Knicks believing in miracles. CBA products such as Starks and Anthony Mason and All-NBA center Patrick Ewing, who scored 27 and grabbed eight rebounds playing on a swollen left ankle, say they can finish the job in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
After frittering away several sizable leads, the Knicks finally silenced the Bulls with a 13-0 run in the first six minutes of the final quarter to take an 81-70 lead.
Starks, who crammed 17 of his points into the second quarter, joined Ewing and Xavier McDaniel (24 points, 11 rebounds) in igniting the winning rally.
Jordan, known for dominating games in crunch time, looked fatigued. Only two of his team-high 21 points came in the fourth quarter.
Reserve guard Craig Hodges gave Chicago a last chance by making consecutive three-pointers to reduce the deficit to 85-78 with 4:18 remaining. But the Bulls never drew closer than six. Ewing's three-point play with 61 seconds left made it 95-86 and set off a celebration by the capacity crowd of 19,756.
Ewing, who limped off the court late in the third quarter, rekindled memories of former Knicks captain Willis Reed's gutty performance against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1970 championship series.
Said Ewing, who returned to score 11 points in the last quarter, "The only way I wasn't going to play was if my ankle was broke."
The Bulls expect such things from Ewing, but the way Starks humbled Jordan was unexpected.
Called "Feast or Famine" by Riley because of his streaky shooting, Starks spent an extra hour at team practice Wednesday shooting nearly 300 jump shots to correct his form.
"I was shooting off my palm instead of my fingers," said Starks, who converted nine of 14 shots and forced Jordan to expend more energy on the defensive end of the court.
But Starks was more proud of his defensive effort. Jordan hit only nine of 25 field-goal attempts.
"You can't hold Jordan, you can only contain him," said Starks. "Tonight, he wasn't making his shots."
But the Knicks made it difficult by clogging the lane and double-teaming him. But Jordan's teammates provided little help. Scottie Pippen made five of 15 shots, and John Paxson was 4-for-10.
The Bulls, however, used aggressive board work to stay close, and Pippen's two free throws after a flagrant foul by Starks gave Chicago its only lead, 70-68, at the end of the third quarter.
But the final 12 minutes belonged to the Knicks. As Ewing said: "Everybody stepped up big time -- McDaniel, Starks and [rookie] Greg Anthony to get us this win. It's not just me. It's everybody."
Said Knicks guard Gerald Wilkins: "The pressure has been on Chicago since we beat them in Game 1. They just didn't know it, but now they certainly do."