CHICAGO -- In the early 1990s, when the Bulls and New York Knicks had their old-fashioned, take-it-to-the-floor rivalry, Chicago fans couldn't hate John Starks enough.
He was a thug, tripping Scottie Pippen and jawing with Michael Jordan almost to the point of blows. He was a taunter, giving Bulls fans grief whenever he got the chance. Worst of all, he had the game to back up his mouth, dunking over Horace Grant in the playoffs and hitting killer 3s.
So where has Starks' career taken him now? Chicago, of course.
"Being in New York and the rivalries we had here against Chicago made this city well-hated, in a sense, team-wise," he said Saturday after his first practice with the Bulls.
"It's funny how this league works. You can't never say never."
Starks came to Chicago from the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday as part of the three-team, Toni Kukoc trade. At first, it seemed like it had to be a mistake. This, after all, was Starks, one of the biggest sources of bad blood between the Knicks and Bulls.
He and Jordan once got into an argument so intense their teammates had to separate them. He tripped a fast-breaking Pippen once, and took him down with a hard foul another time.
"Chicago was the team to beat," Starks said. "You knew you had to go through them in order to get to what you wanted to get to and that was a championship. You had to come in here with a focus like no other."
That never made Bulls' fans feel any better, though. To many of them, the only thing worse than acquiring Starks would be if the Bulls took down Jordan's banner and gave Starks his number.
"Starks!!!!!!!!!!!!! Our mortal enemy!!!!!" one fan wrote in a message board on the Chicago Tribune's Web site. "Starks ... is the last player in the world I would ever have wear a Bulls uniform."
Starks entered Saturday night's game against the Los Angeles Clippers with 6:21 left in the first half to a mixture of boos and cheers. Every time he touched the ball, though, a loud chorus of boos rang out. One fan yelled, "Hey Starks! Go back to New York!"
Starks only smiled.
"You want the fan involvement. That's what draws fans to the arena is if they can feel like they're out there on the court with you," he said before the game. "It's all part of the game and without the fans, I'm not sure where this game would be."
While it may take fans awhile to warm to Starks, Chicago can be a forgiving town for the players who wear its uniforms. Dennis Rodman's antics in his days on the Detroit Pistons' Bad Boys crew make Starks look like a choir boy. Yet when Rodman came to Chicago before the 1995 season, he quickly became a fan favorite.
Of course, helping Chicago win its last three titles didn't hurt.
"Our fans have always appreciated hard-playing guys," coach Tim Floyd said. "That was clear when Dennis Rodman joined the Bulls. John Starks is a hard-playing guy. It might be a little unusual to see him with `Bulls' on the jersey early on, but I think the first time he dives on the floor or does something defensively, he'll be a Bull."
Still, it's odd to see Starks practicing alongside B.J. Armstrong, the point guard on Chicago's first three championship teams, and taking tips from assistant coach Bill Cartwright, the Bulls' center from 1988-94.
"It is a little (strange), but as a player in this league, you learn to adapt," Starks said, laughing. "These guys understand. When you're in this league, basketball is the same wherever you go and guys are the same wherever you go. This is a great bunch of players, as well as good people.
"Whenever you come into a new situation, you want to be welcomed with open arms and that's what they've shown me since I got here."