He played on the team before "the team".
Sure, "the team" historically is the back-to-back national champions of 1961 and 1962. That's undisputed and always will be.
However, to modern day fans of the resurgence of UC basketball, "the team" was the Final Four group of leftovers and junior college kids that Bob Huggins took to the Metrodome to face the Michigan "Fab Five" in 1992. (By rights, UC should be recognized as a national finalist since Rose, Webber, Howard, King, Jackson et al were stripped of their records.)
The predecessor of that squad featured Herb Jones, then the most prized recruit of Huggins. However, in terms of guys you still see around town, one of the integral parts was center Keith Starks.
The former Taylor High School Yellowjacket played two years for Tony Yates and two years for Bob Huggins. On those first two Huggins NIT teams, Starks was a keystone player. Along with Lou Banks and Levertis Robinson, Starks was part of a rotation of guys that pretty much played the whole game.
Back then, "D" in terms of UC basketball, did not stand for depth. The guy that hit the winning shot to beat No. 20 Minnesota to christen the Shoemaker Center was Steve Sanders from the football team.
As for Starks, from 1987 through the spring of 1991, he averaged 4.7, 7.8, 11 and 9.4 points per game as a six-foot-eight center/forward. He typically averaged between five and six boards a game.
Now minus his "Fresh Prince Fade" hair, he's still recognized when he appears in area classrooms as a substitute teacher or in local gyms coaching girls basketball.
"We talk and break the ice and I tell them,'I played at UC and coached at Anderson and coach now at Ursuline,'" Starks said.
That usually stops the paper wads that often accompany a teacher filling in for a day. Being a foot taller than most subs probably doesn't hurt either.
More than two decades since his last three-pointer (and he did lead the Bearcats from the arc in '90-'91) Starks is in his second year coaching girls basketball at Ursuline. Married to an Anderson grad, he was an assistant for the Redskins before that.
"I applied for the Turpin (girls) job when it was open seven years ago," Starks said. "Chris Carletti who is the Anderson coach played in some leagues together with me. He called me the day before the interview and said, 'We want you to come here and be the assistant coach.' "
When his wife brought up her Anderson roots, Starks took the job to keep the peace.
With the move to Ursuline and the Girls Greater Cincinnati League, he's jumped right into the fire of competitive girls athletics.
"Last year we were 15-9 and we were OK," Starks said. "This year is going to be our year I think. It kind of opened my eyes last year. They take their sports seriously. I don't care if it's volleyball, soccer, handball, they take it very seriously."
Starks will soon learn more as he has a daughter at Nagel Middle School in Anderson Township that already stands 6-foot-1 in the seventh grade.
At a high school football game this fall, Starks said despite approaching his mid-40s, it doesn't feel like it's been that long since he trotted on the court as a Bearcat.
"Mentally it doesn't," Starks said. "Physically, it does waking up every day. I try to play with the girls out at Ursuline and physically you can tell it's been a long, long time."
22 years have passed since Steve Sanders downed the three in the corner to open the new gym that many see as outdated now. The last game for Starks was March 18, 1991; an overtime NIT loss to Oklahoma.
From that team, Herb Jones, Allen Jackson, Curtis Bostic, Tarrance Gibson, B.J. Ward and Jeff Scott went on to team with the likes of Nick Van Exel, Corie Blount, Anthony Buford, Erik Martin and Terry Nelson.
Starks and company laid the foundation.
"Kids at Ursuline, their parents know," Starks said. "Kids in their early 20s know. They see me and say, 'You played at Shoemaker the first time it opened up.' It's been a whirlwind. I'm surprised that people still recognize me."
His years at UC weren't exactly chopped liver. The final Yates team went 15-12 and beat No. 14 Louisville in Freedom Hall. In the first Huggins year, UC won 20 games and made the NIT for the first time in six years.
Entering 1990, Starks played in a memorable stretch of games that he still recalls.
"Beating Louisville in Freedom Hall after coming back from losing to Duke in Hawaii," Starks said. "It was Huggs' first year. We went to Hawaii and lost pretty big. We came back three days later and we beat Louisville when I think they were ranked sixth."
They were actually ranked eighth, but a win over Louisville is always sweet--just as his memories of the former coach now at West Virginia are.
"You guys have no clue!" Starks explained. "You see the outer shell of Huggs. You see him screaming and yelling and cussing. You've never been in his house on Thanksgiving. You've never been over just hanging out in the spring and summer. Huggs cares about his kids. That's not always portrayed in the heat of competition."
Though he was one of the many former players very disappointed in the handling of his old coach's departure, time has healed many wounds and Starks is still a Bearcat supporter.
"Huggs is Huggs and Mick is Mick," Starks said. "I think the program's in the right direction. I love Mick to death. Mick and I have known each other over 20 years. I think he's done a great job."
The big advantage Starks sees comparing now to then is the league. Though the Big East has taken it's shots recently, the basketball talent still garners tremendous respect. Starks had to compete in the Metro Conference as it was faltering and UC entered the Great Midwest after his senior season.
"They don't have to win the Big East every year," Starks said. "They just need to finish mid-pack or upper echelon to qualify for the NCAA tournament. He can have a great career here."
His analysis of basketball is also spot-on. Though coaching girls in high school, he still sees his share of games and will give you an answer that most of your pretty TV guys would deliver in evaluating the Bearcats.
"I hope they get a guy that can score in the paint," Starks said. "It's OK to have guards and be able to press the ball and shoot it a little bit, but there's going to be games when you've got to be able to get a basket. You've got to be able to go to the block and get a shot."
Starks could shoot it AND go to the block. Best yet, he was always a reliable and honest quote.
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