It has largely been a pinch-me basketball life, much of it spent in the practice gym, an Irish kid from Brooklyn obsessed with straight shooting. Chris Mullin, 54, is still there, taking aim now with blunt talk.
His third season at the coaching helm of St. John’s, where he was counseled by the raspy-voiced musings of Lou Carnesecca in the 1980s, began with the expectant fruition of a program rebuild, with NCAA Tournament ambition. By the peak of winter, when afternoon light shifted too quickly into darkness, Mullin’s team was enshrouded in an 11-game Big East Conference losing streak.
Mullin always appreciated how Carnesecca — still, at 93, a patriarchal presence around St. John’s — became less demanding in the face of adversity. How during Mullin’s freshman season the diminutive coach affectionately known as Looie walked into the locker room after an unsightly first-half effort against Georgetown and told his players they had had a figurative bowel movement on the Madison Square Garden floor, to go clean up as much of it as possible and then wipe it from their memory bank.
“I don’t come in and break TVs when we lose,” Mullin said. “Practice, practice, practice — Coach Carnesecca did the same. You maintain that level of routine and it’ll work out.”
For sure, the gym rat’s mantra. But what happens when the fundamental mistakes continue to be made, when the narrow defeats pile up to the point of being numbing, when injuries and defections have necessitated a six-man rotation confronting an unforgiving grind in a major conference?
That, Mullin recognized, was an actual life challenge, a test of outside-the-lines character and a part of the personal journey he would rather share more than any singular competitive triumph from his Hall of Fame career.
So one January afternoon, in the middle of the losing streak, he asked his players: “Where do you think I was on this date 30 years ago? I was on the Warriors, but where, exactly, do you think I was?”
Blank stares came back at him. A few guesses.
“No,” Mullin told them. “I was in rehab in Los Angeles.”
In rehab for alcohol addiction, his early pro career at the proverbial crossroads.
“They had no idea,” Mullin said of what would be ancient history to today’s 20-year-old.
What his players did know, or had been told, was that four years later, Mullin was at the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, alongside Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, cranking out textbook southpaw jump shots for the one and only Dream Team.
The point being, life goes on. Narratives do change.
“I’m not telling you to hang in there because some magical thing is going to happen,” Mullin told his team. “But this doesn’t have to be life and death. One practice at a time. One day at a time.”
There were charmed days to come for St. John’s, stunning upsets in early February of then-No. 4 Duke at the Garden and then-No. 1 Villanova on the road. Consider it a case of college basketball imitating college life — study habits maintained, grades improved.
But the tests of intestinal fortitude for coach and players didn’t conclude there, and won’t end with a season that must be objectively judged. And the revolving door of scholarship players perpetuates the long-pondered question of whether St. John’s can ever reinsert itself into the national conversation.
Perhaps the challenge has been overstated some. Steve Lavin, whom Mullin replaced, did have three seasons of at least 20 victories and made two NCAA Tournament fields. But St. John’s was essentially bereft of talent when Mullin returned in 2015. Moving forward will require more of the contextual approach to life he has had since emerging from that rehab facility, through the highs and lows of a 16-year NBA career, through the pain of losing his parents in the years sandwiching those 1992 Olympics.
Even during that Dream Team summer, what he has called the apex of it all, he sat on a hotel room terrace overlooking the Mediterranean in Monte Carlo and told me: “I’m grateful to be here. I’m proud. But it’s just part of the road I’m taking.”
After working in executive NBA positions and passing time as a television analyst, Mullin returned to the architecturally muted campus on Union Turnpike in Jamaica, Queens, 30 years after starring for Carnesecca in the Final Four. Some said it was a natural homecoming, a nostalgic leap — and risk — that he was destined to take. Others questioned what his tolerance level would be for the game within the game, duplicitous to the level of dirty, according to recent allegations and reports.
Sitting in his office in the St. John’s practice facility, Mullin said he was not big on “fancy slogans” to contrive a program identity. He does not promote himself on social media. To the players he recruits, he is selling what he never regretted buying into — a New York experience, the Garden atmosphere on the night of a big game in Midtown Manhattan.
“I do tell my personal experience, how I came to that decision, but what happened for me is going to vary,” Mullin said. “You can dress that up, but it’s not for everyone. Some kids need to leave, but for the ones that it’s the right fit, there’s nothing like it.”
Losing makes for a harder sell. Mullin made his St. John’s coaching debut with a 90-58 exhibition defeat against St. Thomas Aquinas, a Division II school. His first-season record was 8-24, and then came modest improvement to 14-19, followed by this regular season’s 15-16 heading into the Big East tournament.
Because most of the 14 losses in the conference were not decisive, the 2017-18 what-ifs begin with a knee injury to the point guard Marcus LoVett, who with Shamorie Ponds formed one of the more intriguing backcourts in the country. LoVett played in seven games as the Red Storm began the nonconference schedule by winning 10 of 12, but then he got hurt and subsequently left school, reportedly to turn pro.
A 2016 recruiting coup went bad when Zach Brown, a 7-foot center from Florida, was arrested on a robbery charge, then dropped. In August, Sidney Wilson, an incoming freshman from the Bronx, abruptly transferred to Connecticut. More recently, Mullin’s top-rated 2018 recruit, J’Raan Brooks, rescinded his commitment.
It’s not too difficult to imagine what Mullin finds distasteful about a career fate hanging on the whims of teenagers and those — parents, friends, the shoe-company crowd — whispering in their ears.
What’s to love? The game, he said. Always the game, and the gym.
“I don’t really differentiate from big-time college basketball to any other kind of basketball,” Mullin said. “It’s basketball. It’s fundamentals and defense and shooting — they’re all the same. There are some new innovations, of course. But on the court, the things that win games are the same, and the things that lose games are the same. It looks a little different — the 3-point line — but we were averaging 120 points with the Warriors in 1990.”
Can this old-school approach with an embrace of new curriculum work in a culture inhabited and largely dominated by verbose men with well-oiled shticks?
Tariq Owens, a 6-11 redshirt junior from Maryland, who transferred to St. John’s from Tennessee upon Mullin’s arrival, had an ideal profile for St. John’s. His father, Renard, grew up in Queens during the Mullin era.
“This was my dad’s dream school,” Owens said. “When we heard that Chris Mullin was getting the job, that helped a lot, the history of it all.”
Ponds, a 6-1, flashy scoring guard from Brooklyn, chose St. John’s over its Big East rivals Providence and Creighton, becoming the highest-rated Red Storm player from New York City to stay home since Maurice Harkless, now with the Portland Trail Blazers, did it in 2011.
Tom Konchalski, a Queens-based scout of high school players in the New York metropolitan area, said that although New York was “not quite the hotbed for talent it once was,” Mullin and his staff had done a reasonable job of establishing a recruiting base in New York while also looking elsewhere.
Konchalski said that what has been a growth process for St. John’s overall student body — a significant expansion of on-campus housing — might have been detrimental to the basketball program.
“Before they had dorms, they could give players a living stipend for an apartment, a used car, and that helped,” Konchalski said. “What they’re selling now is Chris Mullin and Madison Square Garden. Can they ever return to the glory days? I don’t know. But they could be a solid Big East program.”
Who knows what is in store for college basketball with the FBI prowling its back alleys? Who knows which programs may become toxic and what opportunities may arise for those who emerge unscathed?
“Those sneaker companies have gotten much bigger, and they have a lot more power now,” Mullin said on a recent Friday, speaking about the latest crisis to envelop the sport.
At the Garden the next day, Ponds and the Red Storm pushed Seton Hall to overtime before losing in front of a near-capacity crowd, the kind of recruit-friendly environment that moved Mullin to say, “Where else would you want to be on a Saturday afternoon?”
In its finale at Carnesecca Arena last Wednesday, St. John’s outlasted Butler — a team it had lost to by 25 in late January — without the injured Ponds. That result piled onto the belief that the resurgence will carry into next season. In addition to the returning starters Owens, Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon, two promising transfers and one injured freshman will expand the depth chart, along with at least three new recruits.
“Everyone knows we’ve been playing short, lost our point guard,” Owens said. “Even with that, we know we’ve been able to compete with the best teams in the country.”
Cautious optimism would be the advised kind. Having caught the eye of professional scouts, Ponds is sure to explore declaring for the NBA draft. And this being college basketball, every turned corner brings the possibility of a head-on collision.
After the Seton Hall game, coach Kevin Willard was peppered with questions about his program’s inclusion in reports of players from multiple top teams being paid. Drawing similar queries merely on the grounds of being in the same business, Mullin said, “I wouldn’t comment on any of that,” while adding that he “didn’t experience” such impropriety as a player.
When Mullin was a freshman at St. John’s, Ron Linfonte began a 37-year run as the team’s trainer. Mullin is the sixth coach he has worked with since Carnesecca and, he said, the most adaptive.
“I think the way this team has held together has been due to Chris,” he said. “I’ve seen coaches here, when the losing starts, they crunch the guys even more. Chris got a lot of this from Looie. With everything he’s been through, he knows how to reach them.”
Linfonte has his own career dream, finishing with a Mullin-led flourish. “Having him hand me a Final Four ring,” he said.
No harm in wishing upon St. John’s brightest star, who, in turn, would no doubt say: Hold on, slow down, one day at a time. The only certainty in this life, this game, is the gym.