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Starks carrying on father's basketball legacy

Dyami Starks runs young basketball players through a drill where paired-off players pass a tennis ball back and forth while dribbling a basketball with the other hand during a recent session in the old Central High School gym. Starks is following in his father’s footsteps in coaching and training area players. Will Starks died in 2015 at age 49 of complications related to a heart defect. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
Dyami Starks gives advice to young basketball players during a recent session in the old Central High School gym. A 2010 Duluth East graduate, Starks scored 2,526 points with the Greyhounds. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

Chewed up and spit out by professional basketball overseas, Dyami Starks returned home to Duluth knowing precisely what he wanted to do next.

Carry on his father's legacy.

Will Starks was a fixture on Duluth's basketball scene until he died from heart complications in June 2015 at the age of 49. The Will Starks Basketball League operated for 22 years, its namesake performing virtually every role necessary to keep things running smoothly.

He was an assistant coach at Duluth East under longtime friend Chuck Tolo and worked closely with some of the best players to come out of the region recently — Anders and Bjorn Broman, Johnny Woodard, Steve Tecker and Taylor Stafford, to name a few — in what he dubbed "The Academy."

That list includes his son, upon whom all the quirky drills received their trial run.

"I was his guinea pig," Dyami Starks, a 2010 East graduate, said.

Now back in Duluth, the 25-year-old, who hasn't officially retired from pro basketball but also isn't seeking playing opportunities, is dusting off many of his dad's tactics as he makes a go of it himself in the world of coaching and training. His Starks Academy, which functions under the umbrella of the upstart Northland Youth Basketball Alliance, launched this winter.

Starks' roster includes players of all backgrounds and skill levels, from college athletes to second-graders. He is hosting a clinic for youngsters in grades 2-8 on Sunday at Lincoln Park Middle School.

Calling a career audible

The 6-foot-1 Starks looks like he could go out and again lead the South East Australian Basketball League in scoring, just as he did last season. At 25, he hasn't yet reached his prime. So when asked what his dad would think of him calling it a wrap, Starks laughed.

"My father worked me out, not so I could work kids out, but so I could achieve my own success," Starks said. "But I think he would also say, 'Well, you tried it, you did it and you did it well.' I'm choosing to leave the sport. The sport didn't make me quit. I think I accomplished what I set out to do, and certainly what he wanted me to do."

What Starks did was put the ball in the basket. With the Greyhounds, he became the 11th Minnesota high schooler to surpass 2,500 career points. Then, after playing his first NCAA Division I season at Columbia of the Ivy League, Starks transferred to Bryant University in Rhode Island, another D-I school, and averaged 18.4 points over three years.

Having grown up competing against men sometimes twice his age in the WSBL, Starks, always in attack mode, wasn't afraid of much once the ball went up. That same headstrong personality, molded partly by his dad's persistent prodding, was admirable on the court. Off the court, Starks admits, it might have initiated irreconcilable differences in Australia.

"When I want to get something, I go get it. Especially basketball. This is my pastime. I put in work to do this," he explained. "So if my coach and I don't agree on something, we're going at it. But that shouldn't be looked at as a disrespectful thing. It's two grown men trying to achieve the same goal.

"Overseas, there's none of that. You're at the mercy of whatever your coach's prejudice is. And it just didn't work out. My personality did not work out in Australia."

He comes by his stubbornness honestly.

"Dyami is just like his father in that sense — going against the grain, ruffling some feathers and doing what he believes is the right thing," said Starks' mom, and Will's widow, Becky Starks.

Finally, the former Minnesota Mr. Basketball finalist arrived at a painful conclusion: This isn't for me. No athlete, especially one in his mid-20s and still climbing, wants to admit that. Just last year, Starks was told by a prominent coach in Australia's top professional league that he had outgrown the SEABL and was playing his way into a promotion and a hefty pay raise.

But that was part of the problem. Money changes the dynamics. Basketball had always been an escape for Starks, something "my dad gave to me." It never was meant to be a job.

He had become a commodity.

Rather than continue as a hoops vagabond — Starks also played in Kazakhstan, Turkey and Latvia — he headed for home, buoyed by the belief that he could make a greater impact helping others reach their goals than continuing to pursue his own.

Will, Tolo believes, would have supported the decision. Eventually.

"I can hear him right now. First of all, he'd get all over him because that's what he did. He pushed Dyami, and that's why Dyami is who he is," said Tolo, recently hired to be the first men's basketball coach at Lake Superior College. "But he's up there looking down on him and he's thrilled Dyami is doing what he's doing."

Lessons learned, passed down

Starks doesn't mince words when he describes wanting to change the basketball culture in Duluth. The sport, especially at the prep level, always has climbed and cratered while trying to escape hockey's shadow.

As he immerses himself into that battle, Starks' style is noticeably familiar.

He's starting to sound like his dad.

"What I realize now when I'm working out with kids is that I'm doing a lot of the same things he was doing. And it clicked, like, 'Oh, man, I am my father,' " Starks said.

The biggest similarity between the two, Becky said, is their passion.

"(Dyami) just loves being in a gym, and even when Will was sick I couldn't keep that man out of the gym," she said.

Will never allowed his players to coast, whether they were practicing at Washington Community Center or running hills at Chester Bowl. His son certainly didn't receive preferential treatment.

If Starks buried 10 3-pointers in a row, Will would ask why he didn't swish them. If he scored 30 points in a game, Will would nag him about missing three free throws. No matter what Starks did, his dad told him he could do it better, harder.

"He lied like that to purposely make things unfair for me, so that I could continue to raise the bar myself," Starks said. "There was no comfort zone with him."

As Tolo said, "They didn't call Will 'The General' for nothing."

Starks is similarly demanding, firmly nudging his players beyond their comfort zones, Becky said. He combines his upbringing with everything he learned competing for so many different coaches. And, like his dad, he knows it's about more than a game. Life lessons hold equal sway.

The goal, Starks said, is to connect with each player, whether it's the 19-year-old man from Chicago hoping to earn a jersey at Lake Superior College or the second-grade girl trying to figure out a bounce pass. It is, he said, "100 percent about the kids."

"We need to get things back to where they were," Starks said.

He is following in his dad's footsteps.

"No better feeling for a father, right?" he said. "I'm filling in the vacuum he left behind. He started this ball rolling and I'm just taking it and getting it going even further.

"This is my calling now."

• For more information about the April 22 clinic, go to northlandhoops.com.

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