Can Chris Mullin Save St. John’s Basketball?
Chris Mullin couldn’t help himself.
He and his former teammate Billy Goodwin were hobnobbing with some big, swinging alumni around the St. John’s campus. Mullin had officially been hired as the Red Storm’s newest coach a few weeks earlier and was doing what most new college coaches do when they first set foot on campus – sell the people who matter on their vision. Mullin is the icon of icons in the history of St. John’s basketball, so the sell wasn’t so much a sell as it was an acknowledgement that these guys were important enough to get an audience with the new coach.
Goodwin happened to be visiting his old friend that day and so he was tagging along, listening to Mullin talk about the type of players he’ll bring in, how he’ll reinvigorate the fanbase, yada, yada, yada. Goodwin smirked as he heard Mullin sell things he could do with his eyes closed. And then, when the alums weren’t looking, he’d peek behind their backs and try to get Goodwin’s attention.
“Billy! Billy!” he’d whisper.
“Yeah Mo,” Goodwin kept saying.
“Look at this! I’m the coach at St. John’s! Can you believe this?!”
Mullin did this about 10 times during the course of the walk-and-talk.
“That’s just him though,” Goodwin recalls. “He’s excited to do this, and it makes you excited and you live it through him. When I see him, I don’t see the superstar or the Hall or Famer or the millionaire or the coach. He’s still just ‘Mo.'”
Which is why so many folks in Queens are living vicariously through his enthusiasm about his new gig these days. Chris Mullin could’ve done anything at this point in his basketball life. He could’ve stayed in the NBA, continuing life as a front office man or advisor to any person smart enough to listen to what comes out of his mouth. He could’ve coached in the league, especially if you believe a Yahoo! Sports report from December that mentioned him as a serious candidate to take over the Sacramento Kings. He could’ve retired, lived comfortably on the West Coast – where he’s spent most of his adult life since being drafted in 1985.
Instead, Mullin decided to return to St. John’s.
It’s a job with a little less luster and a lot more complications than when he was here last, but at the end of the day the lure to go home was too great to ignore. This was something that Mullin had always thought about – even if he never admitted it publicly – and when the opening came about, there was very much a now-or-never feel to it.
He, of course, was a shoo-in. The pomp and circumstance afterward was predictable. Now comes the hard part: Winning.
“I don’t know if you ever know when the right time is,” Mullin says. “For me, the last few years, I had been talking about coaching with different teams. But the St. John’s thing, when they approached me, it was like, ‘All right, you know, maybe this is time.'”
By now, the legend of Chris Mullin is a familiar one. More than three decades ago, he was a New York City hoops supernova. A white kid who became a star in an increasingly African-American game, he wore out gym floors and asphalt blacktops all over the five boroughs. He became so good that St. John’s – the marquee program in the metro area – began scouting him in earnest as a CYO player when he was 10.
Then, he arrived at St. John’s at the perfect time in program history.
The Big East Conference was beginning to take shape as the best basketball league in the country. Along with Patrick Ewing (at Georgetown) and Ed Pinckney (at Villanova), Mullin was part of the foundation of the conference’s golden era.
“He was ‘Chris’ from day one,” Goodwin remembers. “He was the big man on campus.”
At the end of his four years in Queens, Mullin was a can’t-miss star in the making. He was drafted seventh by the Golden State Warriors. That’s when the dream tale of Chris Mullin started to go in a much different direction – in the middle of his third season as a pro, Mullin realized and admitted that he was an alcoholic.
“I needed to regain control of my life,” Mullin told The New York Times in 1989, the year after he stepped away from the game to seek help.
Mullin spent 31 days at the LifeStart Program for substance abuse under the care of Dr. Jerry Rozansky. His rehab meant a month at the Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, far away from his new home in San Francisco and even further from the comfort of New York City. But even there, he managed to find a basketball hoop.
“That’s a part that he accepts,” Goodwin says. “It is what it is.”
“I thank God that he was able to step forward and get help,” Lou Carnesecca, Mullin’s coach at St. John’s, told the New York Daily News while he star was in rehab. “There’s millions of people who never even take that step.”
Mullin emerged from his stint away from basketball and booze and turned into the player everyone believed he would be. He went to five straight All-Star Games, was a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team” and became a Hall of Famer. Now, he’ll get to weave all of that into messages for his new job.
“I’ve been involved with basketball for over 30 years,” Mullin says. “So I get to use all of those experiences and the things I was taught by great people and great coaches and GMs and pass on my knowledge.”
On a hot afternoon in late May, Mullin leans against the visitors’ dugout at Yankee Stadium, ready to make another re-debut onto the New York sporting landscape. He is in the building to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Yankees-Royals matinee and even at 51 years old, he looks athletic enough to pass for an old-timer who refuses to give up the game.
During a pregame media scrum, Mullin – wearing jeans and a loose-fitting gray Under Armour workout shirt – immediately gets a taste of how quickly the honeymoon period for new coaches wears off.
Even though he’s Chris Mullin and has impeccable basketball credentials, he’s never coached a game at any level in his life. While the trip down memory lane was great for St. John’s as a feel-good moment in late March when he was hired, the kids he’s recruiting to play for the Red Storm weren’t even born when he was drilling shots against Patrick Ewing and Georgetown.
Hell, some of the kids he’s recruiting weren’t even born when he retired from the NBA in 2001.
Not a problem.
“We spoke on a regular basis our whole lives,” Mullin’s new associate head coach, Barry “Slice” Rohrssen, says in a quiet moment away from the crowd. “But it had always been about the NBA. But he knows college. He knows the environment. It’s going to be exciting to be a part of.”
Rohrssen, known in basketball circles as one of the most tireless recruiters in the game, was a must-have for Mullin’s staff. (And while they’re friends, Mullin’s clout is apparent when you realize it was the only thing that would get Rohrssen to leave his assistant coaching position at Kentucky.)
The critics who said hiring Mullin was nothing more than a publicity stunt for St. John’s following a forgettable five-season experiment with Steve Lavin are beginning to get quieter now. Mullin is winning recruiting battles and injecting life into a St. John’s program that hasn’t won a NCAA tournament game since 2000.
“I don’t know if it was possible or not,” Goodwin says of Mullin’s hiring, “but this is something that should’ve been done long ago.”
Whether or not Goodwin is right remains to be seen. Mullin has won public relations and recruiting battles already, but many former great players have fallen flat in both the NBA and college as head coaches. The season won’t begin until November, leaving Mullin plenty of time to brush up.
One thing that everyone agrees needs no polishing is his love for this job.
While there have been plenty of notable and successful coaches in the 108-year history of St. John’s basketball, none is more identifiable with the program than Carnesecca. He is the iconic Italian patriarch of the Red Storm. (Or if you’re Mullin’s age, the Redmen.) He’s been retired for 23 years now and even though he’s 90 and isn’t as big of a public presence as he used to be, “Looie” still casts a long shadow over his former program.
Even the popular and successful coaches since have struggled with that. But Mullin – so connected to Carnesecca – can bear that weight.
After showing the alums around that day, Mullin and Goodwin retreated to the head coach’s office inside the building named for their old taskmaster. They laughed and talked about the future, when Mullin realized what had happened.
“Carnesecca was a legend,” Goodwin says. “We used to sit in his office and he would to tell us these stories about Rick Barry and Billy Schaeffer – all these guys. He was one of the greatest storytellers ever. And we would sit there listening to these stories, hoping that one day we would be a part of them.”
Chris Mullin was definitely a part of those stories. Now, he gets to be the one telling them.
“He understands what it means to sit in that seat,” Goodwin says. “He understands better than anyone could. And he has a lot of stories to tell.”