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JUST A GUY FROM DA NAYBUHHOOD

Nov. 26, 1984
Nov. 26, 1984

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Nov. 26, 1984

San Francisco
College Basketball 1984-1985
College Football

JUST A GUY FROM DA NAYBUHHOOD

St. John's hoopaholic Chris Mullin may be the King of Queens, but he belongs (pale) body and soul to his beloved borough of Brooklyn

Chris (Mo) Mullin is just a guy from da naybuhhood. Da same as Joey and Mikey and Mo's big bruddah, Roddy, and all dose udder guys who talk like Vinnie Barbarino. Like, it's ridikilus how heavy-duty a naybuhhood guy Mullin is, and guys bust his chops about it all da time, but to tell da troot, it explains a lotta tings.

This is an article from the Nov. 26, 1984 issue Original Layout

At 17 Mullin made a controversial decision to transfer from Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan to Xaverian High in Brooklyn, in part because he wanted to get back wit da guys from da naybuhhood. He chose St. John's University over the leafy groves of Duke and Virginia and, forgive him, Father, Notre Dame, because St. John's was a naybuhhood type of place. Like, da joint wasn't even in da naybuhhood; it was in Queens.

Mullin goes to Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas in da naybuhhood and drinks his beers at da Cuckoo's Nest in da naybuhhood. (But only in the off-season, right, Mo?) And before he goes to bed each night Mullin watches The Honey-mooners on TV, which is about some more heavy-duty naybuhhood guys. Bang-zoom! Right to da moon, Alice. Why, just last summer, after he had helped America win the gold medal in basketball at the Olympics, Mullin skipped out on breakfast with the President of the United States because he had to get back to da naybuhhood. Mullin didn't know it, but there was a block party waiting on his arrival home, and more than 500 people would show up from da naybuhhood. "I was lookin' forward to meet da President but he was, like, real late and I hadda plane to catch," Mullin says. "I hadda get back to Bruk-lun."

The apple never falls far from the tree. Singapore. Hong Kong. San Juan. Los Angeles. Queens. No matter how far Mullin strays from his native habitat, he yet remains da naybuhhood's everyguy. The kid from Troy Avenue in Flatlands. Friggin' Brooklyn, New York, U.S. of A.

As if Mullin would be allowed to be anything else inside the small row house his family has called chaos for 24 years, or almost four full basketball seasons before he was born. Around home Mullin is hardly more revered than Doc, the pet rabbit, or his older sister, Kathy, the nurse, and maybe even less so than Aunt Kathryn, the nun. If he comes in early at night, Mullin just grabs one of the beds in the room he shares with his three brothers, Roddy, John and Terence. "If Mo ever acted like a star in dat family," says Mike O'Reilly, a naybuhhood guy who grew up with Mullin and now plays for George Washington, "dey trow his clothes out da window, dat's it."

Speaking of which, after Mullin recently posed as a fashion plate for Playboy—decked out in a ribbed wool, shawl-collared cardigan by Merona Sport, crew-neck by Lord Jeff, plaid button-down from Gant's Big and Tall, and wool-blend pleated trousers by, ahem, Pierre Cardin—his buddy, Paul O'Donohue, practically vomited. The co-owner of JPOD's, the college tavern across the street from St. John's where Mullin drinks some more of his beers (but only in the off-season, right, Mo?), O'Donohue quickly recovered to accuse Mullin of selling out. "Mo looked like some disco wimp king," O'Donohue says. "I busted his chops."

Even if he could have kept the designer trash, Mullin wouldn't have. Too splashy, bright, colorful. "They had to slit the legs to make the pants fit," Mullin says. His personal taste veers more toward jeans and T shirts, beiges and blands and monotony, raiment mirroring Mullin's conversation, personality—"Mo is too, too normal," complains O'Donohue—and the way he plays basketball, as well. In an age when everybody's game is a triple-deluxe burger with the works, Mullin's is bacon, lettuce and tomato—and hold the mayo. But, oh my, what a divine BLT. Mullin plays the swingman position as if it had been invented for him. "Mo captures the imagination without dunking," says St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca.

Well, at 6'6" Mullin can dunk. In the words of teammate Ron Stewart, he used to "squeak" it in there, but hours of serious pumping and lifting on the Nautilus teeter-totters have strengthened Mullin's puffy popcorn torso and now he can make a subtle advance in elevation and throw some down—at least in practice.

Honestly, though, Mullin is a glorious throwback to the old days before hang time, when Caucasians got by on guile and guts and something known as ball handling. In the meantime, is it any wonder friend and foe alike—though it's difficult to find the latter, even in the raw and raging Big East Conference—proclaim Mullin a living, breathing coach's clinic just waiting for the whistle to blow. Carmine Calzonetti, a former St. John's player and assistant coach, calls Mullin "America's Player."

Mullin has worked and worked. And then worked some more. His ICBM (Irish Catholic Basketball Mind) and work ethic are such that he can hardly stop working. "The competition is too tough," he says.

In the St. John's practices, Mullin works on the drab disciplines of the game, the little things: a jab step, a back cut, the crossover dribble, simple movement. Later on, long after practice is through and everybody has gone home, after he has eaten dinner and hit the books and finished all the other everyday dreary stuff, Mullin will come back to Alumni Hall with a friend, switch the tape deck to the sassy rock of Madonna and...shoot. Yeah. To shoot is to dream. To shoot is to love. Mullin sometimes shoots till one o'clock in the morning. On the occasion of a late winter blizzard roaring outside, and most of New York under siege to the burgeoning snowdrifts, Mullin went on shooting for the better part of two days.

There is no truth to the rumor around campus that Mullin sleeps in Alumni Hall. But on that snowbound Valentine's weekend in 1982, his friend and ball chaser, Larry Falabella, did bed down in Carnesecca's office. Mullin was still shooting. He had to chase the rebounds for himself. Falabella, an assistant to St. John's athletic director Jack Kaiser, is now one of Mullin's closest friends. How did they meet? "I was the guy who had the key to the gym," says Falabella.

The night of Feb. 21, 1984 gave Mullin the opportunity to find the key that unlocked whatever mysteries remained in his quest for basketball perfection. St. John's was on the road playing bitter rival Georgetown, a team that had already whipped the Redmen by 22 points. Mullin shot 13 for 18 from the field and seven for eight from the foul line to score 33 points. He added four rebounds, four assists and three steals. Twice he stripped Hoya center Patrick Ewing of the ball as Ewing was turning for a short, nearly automatic jump shot. These set up baskets for the Redmen. And finally Mullin clinched St. John's 75-71 upset victory with a steal from Horace Broadnax out front, followed by a feed to Mark Jackson for a breakaway dunk with 20 seconds left in the game. It was one of the more exquisite individual performances in recent times. "Against Georgetown, everything Chris did with the ball, it was like the game was on a string in his hand," says Stewart. "He gave us three times our usual confidence. We saw him going, so everybody just went with him."

The showcasing of Mullin against Georgetown in the Capital Centre was the kind of exhibition that comes once a Mullinnium. Moreover, it prompted comparisons to Tom Gola, Bill Bradley and, yes, even Larry Bird—college workaticians of yesteryear who exhausted observers with the mere thought of how much time they spent mastering their craft. "The good players make themselves better," says Carnesecca. "The great players make others better."

If there is such a thing as playing white or playing black, color Mullin gray. Somehow he manages to be spectacular and inconspicuous at the same time. This emanates from way back. As a 12-year-old at Carnesecca's summer camp, Mullin was given the name "Mookie" because he played like a tricky black camper of that moniker. Today, in two-on-two pickup games—Mullin's favorite kind—he is obliged to play some razzle-dazzle. Yet, except for a situational, flick-wrist blind pass—Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt rates two of his '84 assists, against Georgetown and Syracuse, up there with the best of Ernie DiGregorio, whom Gavitt coached—Mullin is content with simple, prosaic genius.

Mullin's skills are self-contained, precise and by the textbook. He has been an extremely smart player since he was in swaddling clothes—"the only white boy I ever met who understood street ball," says Billy Goodwin, a former St. John's teammate.

Carnesecca says, "The first game Mo played here, it was as if he had been at St. John's for 100 years." Maybe he had. In three seasons at the school, Mullin's consistency has been almost tedious: a scoring average that has risen from 16.6 to 19.1 to 22.9, a shooting percentage that now hovers at .562 (mostly from 15-foot range), assists, blocks and rebounding averages that have increased in lock-step every year. All of this while taking barely 12 shots a game, a preposterously unselfish figure for a rifle of such accuracy. It was almost a relief when Mullin's most feared weapon, foul shooting, was revealed to be vulnerable in St. John's final game last year. Mullin went into the NCAA tournament leading the country in free-throw percentage at .910. However, with 10 seconds left in a first-round game against Temple and the score tied, Mullin missed from the line. This was an incident tantamount to Arnold Schwarzenegger being caught wearing a brassiere. Terence Stansbury swished a 25-footer, and St. John's season was over.

In the physical Big East, with its barbed-wire brouhahas, Mullin may be the most beaten-upon player of all. Having logged 39.6 minutes per game over St. John's 18-12 season a year ago, certainly Mullin was the most overworked. Yet he can always be counted upon to keep a cool head even as it is being hunted. During still another outbreak in the infamous St. John's-Georgetown tong wars of two years ago, Mullin could be seen calmly shooting baskets at one end of the court while fists flew at the other. "My theory is dat you only live once, why go around widda chip on your shoulder or down in da dumps or mad at somebody," says Mullin. "I'm young enough not to have any responsibility. I wanna enjoy myself. What's da big deal?"

Mullin professes to have held this opinion prior to his luxuriating in the brain-jangling California experience when his family rented a Malibu beach house during the Olympics. In Malibu, Rod Mullin, a customs inspector at Kennedy Airport, and his wife, Eileen, were joined during their first visit to the Left Coast by an enormous, veritable Mullination of friends and relatives and guys from da naybuhhood.

Respect for Mullin around the Big East is universal. Last year when Georgetown's Michael Graham had a confrontation with the St. John's star, Hoya coach John Thompson quickly removed Graham from the game. But veneration apparently goes only so far in D.C. Later, according to the New York press, Thompson voted for Syracuse freshman Pearl Washington as Big East player of the year. Coaches cannot vote for their own players. Thompson's ploy effectively prevented Mullin from winning the award outright. Mullin finished in a tie with—surprise—Georgetown's Ewing.

At Pittsburgh, Mullin sometimes hears the derisive chant "Chris-sie, Chris-sie," satirizing his prettified choirboy face—"I got cut from da choir in da fort grade," he says—but no other Big East fans have had the effrontery to jeer such a fine sportsman.

Not that his appearance doesn't make Mullin fair game. If his Gaelic sweet pug features aren't target enough, his sickly pale complexion surely will suffice. It must be truly bewildering to strangers when this shy, quiet, angelic-looking soul opens his mout. The first time St. John's sports information director Katha Quinn heard Mullin's tough-Mick Brooklynese schtick, she nearly went into shock. "Yikes," Quinn shrieked, "I can't believe that voice is coming out of that face."

It's a wonder hecklers haven't dubbed Mullin "Casper," so ghostly does he arrive on game night. Of course they'd be vanilla wafers, too, if they spent four-fifths of their life ratting around inside a gym. "Guys bust my chops," Mullin says. "But to tell da troot, last season when I hadda rash on my nipples, I started wearin' a shirt under my uniform, so I didn't look so white. I looked, like, O.K. But den I see dese pittures of me widdout da shirt. Ugh! I guess I really do look ill."

Fading into his whiteout, so smoothly efficient, playing within himself at all times, Mullin is often overlooked. Following the daily wipeouts at the Olympics last summer, opposing coaches kept referring to "Jordan and Number 13" or "Ewing and Number 13" as if they had never heard of or seen Mullin (No. 13) until they had consulted the scoresheets and discovered who that lefthanded stiletto was, the guy piercing them between the ribs.

In the eight games at Los Angeles, Mullin had 93 points (second on the U.S. team to Michael Jordan), 14 steals (second to Alvin Robertson) and 24 assists (third behind Leon Wood and Steve Alford). Yet he was a starter only once and was fifth on the team in minutes played. A couple of times Mullin got noticed. In his one start he led the scoring with 20 against Canada, and when Jordan was injured against Spain, Mullin came in to score 16 second-half points, with six steals and four assists.

For some reason—bang it inside, take it to the hole, force it down to the paint—the trend in basketball is to the two-foot offense. Whomp! As a result, nobody can hit the outside jump shot anymore. Mullin came to St. John's able to hit the jumper. Now he can get the jumper, which is entirely different. Mullin's use of every inch of the floor, and the other nine players, to get himself a shot is something to behold. This may be sacrilege, but Carnesecca compares his man's ability in this regard to Oscar Robertson's.

If love of the game matters, Mullin is a cinch. He has raised the caliber of his play at every level, working harder and enjoying it more; his passion is to the point now that there is only one thing Mullin actually dislikes about basketball—halftime. "Halftimes are da worst," he says. "I just wanna play troo."

In the fourth grade Mullin won a national foul-shooting contest, sinking 23 of 25, all expenses paid, in Kansas City. At Power Memorial, which produced the former Lew Alcindor, not to mention Len Elmore, before closing its doors last spring, Mullin's teams won both the freshman and jayvee city championships. Mullin survived one bus and two subway trains each way in order to play at his older brother Roddy's old school, but on the varsity Mullin encountered a coach who had had a "personality conflict" with Roddy. One day in the Monsignor King tournament, held at his old grade school in Brooklyn, around the corner from his house, Mullin, then a junior, scored nine straight first-quarter points for Power as the home parish crowd went wild. Suddenly he was yanked from the game, the coach mumbling something about "no superstars."

Wrong move. Punt-on-second-down move. Pitch-to-Kirk Gibson move.

Two days into the new year, Mike O'Reilly was sitting in history class at Xaverian, a small Catholic school overlooking the Narrows, when he saw Mullin lurking out in the hall. O'Reilly raised his hand to go to the bathroom and rushed out to meet his friend.

Whadda you doin' heah?
I'm friggin' goin' to dis school!
Get oudda heah!

The fact that O'Reilly remembers bits and pieces of this ancient history demonstrates what a landmark incident the transfer was. By the rules, Mullin had to sit out basketball for an entire calendar year, but it was a period in which he came to realize for the first time how serious the game had become to him. "It was a risky move. I was afraid nobody [from the colleges] would see me. It hurt me not to play ball," says Mullin. So he worked and built himself up and ran, ran, ran. Xaverian assistant coach Jack Alesi, who had coached Mullin in elementary school, says the youngster "trained like a prizefighter" for that last senior half year.

Mullin's long-awaited debut for Xaverian came against Christ the King. The stands were packed on a Tuesday afternoon, 1,000 when 200 was the norm. "It was like a Friday night game," remembers O'Reilly. Mullin scored 17 of the team's first 21 points and 38 for the game, and Xaverian went on to win the state title. Instant legend.

Three years later Willie Glass, then prowling the playgrounds of Atlantic City, would enroll at St. John's and discover to his surprise that he was now a teammate of the great Mullin. "I heard of who he was. I just never knew where he was," Glass says today.

In his first two tournaments with St. John's—the Lapchick Memorial and the Holiday Festival in Madison Square Garden—the freshman Mullin was voted MVP. His ensuing years on Union Turnpike have helped to embellish the story for children of all ages. In May 1983, Kerry Mahoney, the 5-year-old daughter of St. John's assistant coach Brian Mahoney, urged her parents to name her newborn sister after her favorite Redman. Voil√†! Christine Mahoney.

Mullin's celebrity has not interfered with his relentless pursuit of perfection. Carnesecca speaks of his bellwether's "monastic devotion to the rehearsal. Mo makes everything look so easy," says the coach, "but it's all happened before, over and over. He sees plays before they develop. He photoflashes them and then creates. I watch him, and I see Joe DiMaggio in centerfield. I learn from Mo."

Mullin is still a step slow. But aren't all the immortals like that? Robertson? Bird? All have read the picks in the man-to-man and the seams in the zone. All have been bright enough and sneaky enough to square up in the defender's face for the shot before the poor man knew what hit him. As the Knicks' coach Hubie Brown says, "Those guys couldn't jump, weren't quick and didn't block. But after every game all their columns were full. That's Mullin."

And now the St. John's senior has adapted to looking for his shot first, rather than bailing out and seeking a foul call. It was a habit that used to earn Mullin a load of charging calls. "I've grown out of throwing my body into people," Mullin says.

Mullin learned that in the driveway at home. Rod, his old man, played some rough basketball in da naybuhhood with Doug Moe, the former North Carolina star and current coach of the Denver Nuggets. Roddy played at Siena in Loudonville, N.Y., scoring 14 points a game as team captain in his senior year. John is a freshman guard at Bridgeport (Conn.). And Terence—the clone, Chris all over again, shrunk up as if he'd been slam-dunked into a whirl dryer—is an exciting ninth-grade prospect at Xaverian. Basketball is the constant at the Mullins' house in Brooklyn.

Chris Mullin on how he chose St. John's: "Grass and nice buildins and all dat are not what I was lookin' for. A dorm school has lots more distractions. Here I'm close ta da guys from da naybuhhood. Dere ain't no campus life. After practice no one's around, so I just go home, study, eat and hang out till it's time to come back here and shoot."

We are in the presence of a serious hoops junkie here, a basketball cartoon head. Mullin even kids himself about his single-mindedness. Responding to a request to list his hobbies, Mullin wrote "training dogs" and "dealing with my and others' emotional inner feelings."

If it goesssssss....

"Mo even dances like he's dribbling a basketball," says Falabella, bustin' chops. On the one occasion in his life Mullin was without a dance, without basketball, he nearly became a basket case. Having broken his foot practicing with the U.S. Pan American Games team in Puerto Rico in 1983, Mullin was forced to fly home and miss the competition in Caracas. Of course, it was too painful for him to watch the U.S. win the gold on TV. Mullin broke three casts trying to come back and play basketball too soon.

So where's the game? Let's play two. Let's play two days. Alesi says Mullin has played more basketball games than any person, living or dead. "Mo loves his 'ball," center Bill Wennington says. "What else does he do? Well, nothin'. I mean, he goes out. But it's not like he goes out and does anything that'll get him arrested. That would jeopardize 'ball."

In reality, Mullin may not be a New Yorker at all but some Midwestern farm kid whom E.T. or the Gremlins or somebody secretly picked up lock, stock, knee-pads and Naismithian instincts and all, then set down near Gotham to do nothing but shoot to his heart's content and save us all from runaway Slam-Jammania.

Other than the few annual appearances by St. John's in the Garden, Mullin seems totally uninterested in Manhattan, its bright lights, glamour, style, challenge. Mullin doesn't even visit "the city" except for, as he puts it, "da occasional Saint Patrick's Day parade."

Now that makes sense. Even a basketball schmoo like Mo can appreciate St. Paddy's Day in New York. Just a bunch of guys from da naybuhhood. Nothin' to jeopardize 'ball. And no halftimes.

"After Verdi composed Otello, the great singer Francesco Tamagno sang the role like nobody else," says Carnesecca. "The Italians had a saying, Mòrto Tamagno, mòrto Otello." Translated, does this mean that when Mullin goes, so does St. John's? Well, something like that. "We may not see another fella like this one for a long, long time," says Carnesecca.

And unless some udder guy comes out of da naybuhhood, using his head, shooting till dawn, bustin' chops, dat's prob'ly da troot.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRATWO PHOTOSJOSÉ AZEL/CONTACTMullin laces into the pile of sneakers in the bedroom he shares with his brothers and Malibu.PHOTOJOSÉ AZEL/CONTACTA great big happy family: Kathy, Eileen, Chris, Roddy (sitting); Terence, Rod and John (standing).PHOTOJOSÉ AZEL/CONTACTAt a deli near campus, Mullin is caught loafing with the owner, Tony Galeotti.PHOTOJOSÉ AZEL/CONTACTMullin, who doesn't mind joking about his ghostly appearance, has been a terror on these teams.PHOTOJOSÉ AZEL/CONTACT"I learn from Mo," says Carnesecca, while praising his star's "monastic devotion to the rehearsal."PHOTOJOSÉ AZEL/CONTACTFalabella (left) shared the keys to the kingdom with Mullin, and they've been cruising together ever since.