Former New York Knicks shooting guard John Starks knows the meaning of hard work and perseverance, from his passion for golf to his charity work or building his own cigar brand.

By Joseph Finora

It's pouring rain outside the clubhouse of The Bridge, a secluded private golf course being developed on the site of the former Bridgehampton Race Circuit in Bridgehampton, N.Y., the fabled playground of the rich and famous near Sag Harbor. Inside, a crowd has gathered on an otherwise inhospitable, humid Tuesday in June for a fundraiser benefiting the Ross School, an event partially organized by Madison Square Garden's Garden of Dreams Foundation. Basketball legend and former New York Knicks shooting guard John Starks - the center of today's event - is still outside in the downpour, attempting to finish his daily, non-negotiable round of golf.

Based in neighboring East Hampton, the Ross School - a private boarding school founded in 1999 by the late Time Warner CEO Steven Ross - offers world-class education to children in grades K-12. The main event of today's fundraiser is a silent auction of - among other iconic items - boxes of cigars and autographed basketballs. Members and guests inside discuss everything from their handicaps, to the weather, to the price of Hampton's real estate, which frequently defies gravity.

The perimeter of the ultramodern, steel-clad clubhouse is ringed with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, but the rain is pouring so heavily one can barely see the surrounding course, much less the unusual artifacts across the landscape. Remnants of the nationally recognized racetrack, which played host to many icons like actor-turned-racecar driver Paul Newman generations ago, have been preserved throughout the property. The clubhouse also shares a dual racing and golf motif - an admittedly unusual mix in keeping with The Bridge's hip, anti-country club persona, but one that surprisingly works.

When Starks finally enters the clubhouse, he is soaked from the rain. It is an understated entrance, fitting of his genuine personality. He warmly greets several friends around the room and takes time to talk with the children who've come to see him, get his autograph, and talk basketball. He speaks directly with one boy about his shot. He offers another a tip on the pass. "Outstretch your arms," he says and the boy complies. Starks - who is slim and looks like he could still dunk on nearly anyone - gives him a high-five and autographs his New York Knicks jersey with a felt-tip pen.

Starks working with children at housing projects in New York City's South Bronx.
Fostering young talent is something Starks can personally appreciate.

"I was on the court from sunup to sundown," he tells one onlooker of his childhood love of basketball and his inspiration, Julius Erving. "I wanted to be Dr. J when I was growing up. I'd play anyone."

Starks moves in privileged circles these days - memberships at The Bridge run $750,000 - but he came from humble beginnings, having grown up as one of seven children in a hardworking family in Tulsa, Ok., raised largely by his mother and grandmother. Designer clothing stores are almost as common as farm stands in East Hampton, but Starks's charity work spans the socio-economic spectrum. Just a few months earlier, he was taking part in a New York Knicks clinic in Brooklyn's hardscrabble Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He also does fundraisers for his own John Starks Foundation (www.johnstarks.org) that he launched in 1994 to provide academic scholarships to high school seniors in the New York tri-state area and Tulsa. Based in Stamford, Conn., the foundation also provides community programs focused on furthering the educational, recreational, and career development of children and their families.

While it's often been said that good things happen when one works hard, they also may happen when one does good. Consider that it was during a golf game that Starks began smoking cigars, and it was his efforts in charity work that inadvertently got him involved in the cigar business. While on a charity mission to help deliver new and used sports equipment, as well as school supplies, and stage some clinics for disadvantaged youths in the Dominican Republic in the early 2000s, he became aware of a recently abandoned cigar factory on the island. It also happened to be at about the same time he started playing golf.

"A friend suggested I try a cigar one day on the golf course," Starks recalls between sips of Glenlivet over ice as the silent auction gets underway and the rain pounds away. "I'm very competitive by nature. I have a three handicap. He said it would make me relax." Since then, Starks has become particularly fond of maduros, but keeps an open mind towards other styles.

John Starks with Gary Basciano of Legend Cigars, which continues to grow and expand its line of premium cigars produced at its own Dominican Republic factory.

"The factory was entirely intact," he recalls. With the help of some partners, he began getting involved in cigar production and, in 2006, purchased the factory with the goal of producing his own line of cigars, eventually to become known as Legend Cigars (www.legendcigars.com). Starks teamed up with cigar industry veteran and master blender Rolando Villamil to oversee his cigar production.

The original cigar was called the Dominican Legend, a medium-bodied blend with a rich Brazilian maduro wrapper that sported a red-and-gold ring with an image of the Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration in Santiago, D.R. in its center. It took several years to develop the blend into its present form, a refined a mix of Dominican Seco and Olor tobaccos and a Dominican binder that lends it a more complex taste. The blend evolved into the John Starks #3 Signature Series Cigar, which prominently features a ring with Starks's former Knicks jersey number on the band.

In addition to the Brazilian maduro blend - Starks's personal favorite - Legend Cigars offers an Ecuadorian Connecticut version in its lineup, using an authentic Connecticut seed wrapper grown under natural cloud cover in Ecuador. Both Signature Series blends are produced in robusto, toro, and gordo sizes; the maduro is also available in a 7 x 60 gran gordo shape, while the Connecticut has its own exclusive 7 x 50 Churchill size.

Team Starks has also developed a stronger corojo blend that uses the original Dominican Legends ring. Called the Dominican Legend Corojo, it's a medium-bodied blend with a stronger kick thanks to its Ecuadorian corojo wrapper, which adds a spicy, peppery punch. Starks says they are also working on a full-bodied blend to add to the Legend Cigar family - stay tuned.

Starks regularly visits cigar shops to help host cut-and-light events as he promotes his brand. He is also a partner in the Stamford Cigar Lounge in Stamford, Conn., where his cigars are on display. It is one of a growing number of cigar shops throughout the country that carry his Legend Cigars. "Getting distribution is a challenge," he notes, "but I enjoy the atmosphere of bringing people together." His cigars can also be purchased through the brand's website.

Want more? For the remainder of this article, including more pictures and an in-depth interview, subscribe now - or pick up a copy of SMOKE Magazine at a Tobacconist near you!

SMOKE Volume 18, Issue 1


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