Dyami Starks was playing professional basketball in Australia in 2017 when former Duluth mayor Gary Doty and his daughter, Heather Johnson, reached out to him about the possibility of coming back home and helping area youth through basketball.
The Northland Youth Basketball Alliance was established in February 2018, and Dyami’s Starks Academy operates under the umbrella of the nonprofit.
“It was a tough decision (giving up professional basketball), but I’ve got to say I love doing this far more — far more,” Starks emphasized.
The culmination of Starks' decision to return home is a partnership between Starks Academy and the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx to host a summer camp. The camp is for boys and girls grades 1-12 and starts Monday and runs through Aug. 2 at Ward Wells Field House on the Minnesota Duluth campus.
As of Wednesday, they already had 100 children signed up.
“The Timberwolves said if we got 75, we’d be magic,” Johnson said.
Starks became connected with the Wolves through George Ellis, who was hired about three months ago as director of the Timberwolves and Lynx Academy.
“George Ellis and I are old friends, and he was also old friends of my father (the late Will Starks),” said Dyami Starks, 27, who discussed the camp Wednesday at a news conference at the Lincoln Park Middle School gym. “When he was hired, I congratulated him and we talked about different philosophies. We talked about basketball overall in Minnesota, and then we eventually rolled our way around to a camp, and now here we are, less than a week out.
“We’re really excited to see where this partnership is going to go. George Ellis is a great hire, the best guy they could have got.”
Starks said having the camp at UMD is rather fitting, with their burgeoning men’s and women’s programs, saying the Bulldogs “set the tone” for basketball in this area. Starks’ focus, however, is on younger children.
“I’m of the belief of getting kids young, getting kids early, so we can establish habits,” Starks said. “Our academy is steeped on growth, the growth mindset, and the earliest I can teach that, the better.
“It’s time to start showing people that the Northland isn’t just hockey. We’re known for basketball as well.”
Anyone who remembers the craze following former Duluth East star Rick Rickert, or “Bromania,” with Lakeview Christian Academy brothers Anders and Bjorn Broman, can attest to that.
Starks, meanwhile, carved out his own name with the Greyhounds, scoring more than 2,500 career points before going on to play collegiately at the NCAA Division I level with Columbia and Bryant universities. In addition to Australia, he also played professionally in Kazakhstan, Turkey and Latvia.
Talk about seeing the world, but for Starks, home was always beckoning.
“Dyami said this is more important,” Doty recalled. “He teaches so much more than just basketball. He teaches them how they should behave, how they should act. Life skills. There are so many good things he does beyond basketball.”
Starks returned to build on his father’s legacy as a community leader and organizer, with the elder Starks having run the Will Starks Basketball League for 22 years. Will Starks died of heart complications in June 2015 at age 49.
“We have a lot of kids in this area who are not only talented, but are great kids, on and off the floor, and that’s one thing we really preach at Starks Academy,” Starks said. “I think George and I are really focused on growing this thing. We’re really focused on the grassroots level, and we’re really focused on using basketball as a tool, so to see this expand is the vision, is the expectation, and I’m excited to see it grow.”
The camp is $65 for those grades 1-3 and $119 for 4-12, with nobody being turned away because they can’t pay, with sponsorships available.
Starks and Co. hope the camp becomes an annual event and said they expect the partnership with the Wolves to go beyond just camps. They would eventually like to get players up here, and they have connections with the Lynx's Sylvia Fowles.
Starks remembers attending the Minnesota Timberwolves Summer Caravan stops in Duluth when he was in high school and the impact it had on him, seeing the likes of Ricky Davis, Troy Hudson and Fred Hoiberg.
“Obviously when you’re dealing with professionals, it’s their schedule, not ours, but bringing some players up here in the future is an absolute possibility,” he said.
Johnson talked about the difference Starks has made in the life of her daughter, Chloe, age 9. Chloe has dealt with shyness but is perfectly comfortable on a basketball court. She never misses a session with Starks Academy. Chloe was putting on a display Wednesday at Lincoln Park Middle School that belied her age. She wasn’t trying to show off. That’s just her game, draining 3-pointers, dribbling behind her back or between her legs and kissing bank shots off the backboard with velvet touch. She was asked how much Starks helped her.
“A lot,” said said. “He helps me with stuff.”
But it’s not just basketball.
“Life,” she said.
Starks’ father would certainly be proud.
“Every chance I get, I like to say this vision was created by Will Starks,” Dyami said of his father. “It started with him. I ended my professional career to come back and take that vision and expand upon it, and George Ellis agrees with me.”
For more information on the camp or to register, go to timberwolvesbasketballacademy.com or e-mail email@example.com.