Glory does not always come in the form of NBA championships or gold-plated socks. Glory is not always a pronouncement, or a number or an achievement.
Sometimes it’s just about playing a game you love in front of people who love it, too.
It has been about a decade now since Corey Starks felt the glory on a regular basis.
Then he was a small forward for Missouri-Kansas City out of Rancho Cucamonga, California, a relatively undersized hustler who nonetheless pounded the glass.
Now he is a married father of three in Tucson, a foster-care provider and a relatively undersized hustler who nonetheless pounds the glass for the Texas Roadhouse team of the Tucson Summer Pro League.
He’s a former MVP of the league, and a former champion, and he’s going on Year Seven.
“There’s nothing like it — professional level, semipro, summer pro league — being able to play in front of a crowd. … And when the crowd is just as in tune with the game as we are, it presents an atmosphere that you can’t replace,” Starks said. “That’s why I still do it. I thrive on it.
“I play as much as I want in the gym, in rec leagues, but feeling the energy of the crowd, still wanting to perform. That’s why I come back.”
Added league operator Corey Williams: “Most of these guys, that crowd on a Saturday and Sunday, that’s bigger than they ever played in front of in high school. For a lot of these guys, it’s lights, cameras, action. You come down for the league championship, there’s gonna be 600 to 700 crowded in.”
Any person who has laced them up in front of anyone more than mom and dad knows the feeling does not go away. Time may heal old wounds, but it doesn’t cheer for you on a Friday night at 32 years old.
No, now the kids do that, and Starks’ parents-in-law. The kids are 4, 6 and 8 — boy, girl, boy — and they still get to see daddy play, and that’s all that matters. That and the love from ma-in-law.
“She really gets into it,” Starks said. “Last summer she’d watch a bunch of games. And these are good games. They like seeing the different skill sets, skill levels. There are some nail-biters.”
Don’t be fooled – “pro” might be in the name, but you won’t find any Houston Rockets in the TSPL. Maybe one, at 45, coming off a hip replacement.
No, these are players riding on the shoulders of father time or just coming up to his knees, sporting jerseys from longtime local sponsors like Casino Del Sol Resort, Truly Nolen, Ace Hardware and Clausen Moore Law Firm.
Some on the way down, some on the way up, some just trying to get noticed, maybe good enough to parlay a handful of games into a look from a junior college coach.
That’s one of the reasons Starks sticks around, too.
The game, he says, is in his DNA.
“I love the game. I really love it,” Starks said. “It’s like a brotherhood on the court. Being able to play with the guys, that kind of camaraderie — now that I’m in my early 30s, I get to give back to some of the younger players who are either in college or aspiring to be. I try to let them know what it takes. The drive, the competitiveness.”
It takes a lot, and Starks can attest.
He wasn’t a star for Missouri-Kansas City, which hasn’t had many stars in its history. Just one NBA player hails from UMKC — 1994 No. 19 pick Tony Dumas. The rest of the Kangaroos have mostly played in obscurity.
But they played college basketball, and they got educations and that was enough.
Now, Starks hopes to make it his mission to do the same for others, as he runs NextLevelRecruits.net, in addition to Starks Homes.
“Even though my role over time has gradually changed, just being in that atmosphere matters,” Starks said. “This year, our team started out with two losses and guys were looking to me. I’m one of the elders of the team – and that’s a great feeling. To say, ‘Here’s what we need to do.’ Being able to delegate, bring guys together, really pour into guys, I get a lot out of that.”
This isn’t some everybody-clap-now story about a wily old veteran on busted ankles. Starks can still ball, and he knows he can, and that matters to him. Don’t forget, this is a guy who won the 2008 TSPL MVP and a 2010 TSPL championship.
“I was talking to my wife — when you have a family, you’re sacrificing some time to play, and I find myself even more competitive now because of that,” he said. “It’s a great outlet. I really want to get after it. I want to light a fire.
“Before the league started, we were supposed to be out of town, and I told my wife, we need to alter our plans. If I’m out, and there’s a couple losses, I mean, that can shape the entire summer. It would shape my entire summer.”