SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- There are some players who seem organically connected to their alma maters. That is, you can't imagine seeing them in any other uniform except the one they wore. Patrick Ewing? Eternally a Georgetown guy. Was Christian Laettner not made for Duke? And another such player was Chris Mullin, St. John's through and through.
Yet it wasn't a sure thing that Mullin, the ultimate old-school New York player -- fundamentally sound yet street-wise -- was going to make the short journey from the Flatbush area of Brooklyn to Queens. When Mullin was a hot recruit out of Catholic Xaverian in 1981, a young coach named Mike Krzyzewski, then in his second season, badly wanted him at Duke. And Mullin thought about it. But in the end, he decided to stay home.
"I think St. John's, playing in the city, was who I am," said Mullin, who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday night. "But there are times that I wonder what would've happened to me if I had gone there instead of St. John's. I don't know, but it would've been something different. Maybe I would've been a better ... "
"A better what?" I asked him.
"Maybe, a student, I don't know," Mullin said. "A better something." He smiled. "But not a better basketball player. I'm pretty sure of that."
We had this conversation more than a year ago. That was right before Mullin would be inducted into the Hall as a member of the Dream Team, but also after he learned that he would not make it as an individual. (He made it easily, as he should've, on this, the second time around.)
"I know this sounds so typical, but, honestly, it does not bother me that I didn't make it," Mullin said. "Too many good things have happened to me. The Dream Team, my career, my family. I really couldn't ask for anything more."
Though he certainly feels honored to have eventually made it, I truly believed him. Of all the Dream Teamers I interviewed for a book I just finished on that immortal squad, Mullin was among the ones who seemed most at peace. Perhaps that's because he once had so much to lose.
Alcohol was part of the Mullin culture. His late father, Rod, a customs inspector at Kennedy Airport, was an alcoholic -- a gentle one but an alcoholic nonetheless. Other family members drank, his friends drank, everybody, it seemed, drank.
Chris could drink at home, but he could be a club guy, too. Throughout his gilded years at St. John's, from 1981-85, when players like Mullin and Ewing put the Big East on the map and the conference sent five teams to the Final Four in those four seasons, Chris could be spotted in New York City bars, always part of the crowd but never making a scene, the quiet star leaning on the bar. But if he had to drink alone, back in his room, he could do that, too.
It had become easier to drink alone after the Golden State Warriors drafted Mullin with the seventh pick in 1985. Oakland, Calif., was a world away for a kid from Queens. Mullin was the epitome of New York City basketball, the old-school kind anyway. He could shoot, of course, but he also learned the rudimentary geometry of basketball, the angles, all the jab-steps and quick cuts that would get him open. He loved playing one-on-one, then two-on-two, then three-on-three, which was the most fun because you could screen away, flare, always get yourself open. "I was taught how to negotiate the other guys on the court," Mullin said. That geometry applied to getting his shot off, too. Like Larry Bird, he learned spins and caroms and English, sending up more junk than George Jefferson, much of it ending up in the basket.
But on the West Coast, things started to change. The Warriors were primarily a me-first team -- "We had a lot of guys who just punched the clock," Mullin said of that era -- and Oakland itself was disorienting, 3,000 miles away from his family, his longtime girlfriend, Liz Connolly (later to be his wife), the unspeakably bad sweaters of his beloved college coach, Lou Carnesecca, and the overall warm familiarity of New Yawk ball. So Mullin drank, maybe not a lot more than he always did, but a little more and a little more often and with a lot less reason to stop.
In early December of '87, Mullin, the kid who would shoot a thousand jumpers alone in a darkened gymnasium, missed a couple of practices and Warriors coach Don Nelson suspended him and told him to get to alcohol rehab. Mullin resisted, but then Nelson got a report from a fan that Mullin was out boozing it up after a game. Nelson confronted him again and, finally, Mullin said yes and entered an alcohol rehab clinic.
The rehab part of the Mullin story is not dramatic, which befits his persona and his game -- all economy, no frills needed. He went into rehab dirty and came out clean. He says there was no relapse and no return, and I never met anyone who believes differently. Mullin just beat it, and his career turned around immediately. It was that sudden. He averaged 26.5 points per game in his first booze-free season (1988-89) and 25.1 and 25.7 in his next two, the ones that mattered when Dream Team candidates were being identified.
And, so, the guy who could've lost everything became a member of possibly the greatest team ever assembled.
"I don't think I realized this until years later," Mullin said, "but the Dream Team turned out to be a very positive reinforcement about the way I was living my life. To come from where I was to make that team ... man, that really helped me. And the lessons went far beyond basketball."