In the grand tradition of the spaghetti western, nobody wore the black hat in Denver. Or—this being the Italian Open—everybody did. But after the fire and smoke had lifted and the linguine jokes had finally subsided, it was no surprise that the best and baddest of the hombres in the West Regional was none other than Ol' Paleface himself, that left-handed gun Christo Mullino.
But what appropriate fare preliminary to Oscar night were the scenarios! First Alabama lost to North Carolina State, with Tide coach Wimp Sanderson resplendent in green and red checks—proving dead men do wear plaid. Then Kentucky's Joe B. Hall galloped off into the sunset—come back, Shane. Ultimately there were State's Jim Valvano and St. John's Lou Carnesecca trading Mediterranean heritage cracks, the young V winning that battle handily over a mysteriously subdued Looie with lines like, "Mine is a used suit, I think somebody got blown away in it." And they agreed how special the game was, owing to the similarity of their origins. Carnesecca coached his first high school game against a team coached by Valvano's father, Rocco; V's aunt, a nurse, delivered Looie's daughter Enes.
Carnesecca is going to the Final Four for the first time ever and St. John's for the first time in 33 years, basically because State decided to guard Chris Mullin with dwarfs after Kentucky had decided to not guard him at all. Result: 55 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and five steals in 80 minutes. Oh yes, and because the Redmen got 41 points and 17 rebounds from Walter Berry, the unorthodox forward called "the Truth." The consequences were 86-70 and 69-60 victories for New York's finest. "It felt like being out of jail for a night," said Mullin after hitting 30 points, mostly from the deserted wings, against the Wildcats. After he had telegraphed 25 over tiny Wolf-packers Terry Gannon (6'1", maybe) and Spud Webb (5'7", give or take a few french fries), the 6'6" Mullin was kind enough not to mention that he must have felt as odd as another cinema favorite, Snow White.
Nevertheless, Mullin demonstrated last weekend that he is the most exquisitely versatile player in the land—one who doesn't need any "protection" from the referees, as both opponents suggested he received in the tournament. Moreover, Mullin used this significant occasion to justify his controversial John Wooden award as player of the year. At the very least, he's the most valuable player; Georgetown won its regional somewhat without Patrick Ewing. St. John's would have lost its without Mullin.
As it was, the Johnnies had to win the regional final at least three times in the closing minutes, so tenacious was the Spud-inspired Wolfpack, so fearsome the presence of Lorenzo Charles, who muscled for 15 points and 11 rebounds. With St. John's leading 49-44 and 7:47 remaining, Valvano made the doomsday decision that he needed both Webb (for penetration) and Gannon (for outside shooting) in the game at the same time. This meant one of them had to check Mullin. "I was playing a little odds," said V. Not to mention little people.
Quickly, Gannon struck twice from long range and the Redmen lead was soon down to three points. But Mullin smartly noticed not only that he could shoot over Webb's head but also eat a meal upon it if need be. "It's a game of inches, as the cliche goes," said Gannon. About 12 of them. The All-America called for the ball twice and what resulted was a layup/three-point play followed by an 18-foot jumper and a 56-48 lead for St. John's.
At 5:07 Mullin committed his fourth foul and at 3:35 he drove into a collision on the baseline for maybe his fifth. But the call went the other way. Following six straight St. John's free throws, the Red-men led 65-55 with 1:22 left, and soon Carnesecca was screaming "Goin', Mo" at Mullin. "Goin', guys," he yelped to his beloved Boswells at courtside, the New York press. Imagine, say, Joe B. Hall calling to the media: "We're goin'."
Well Joe B. is gone now. Nearly lost in the reams of Italiana was Hall's Kentucky team, which made the tournament on a couple of wings—Kenny (Sky) Walker's—and a prayer. The lowest seed (12th) remaining, and playing as the preposterous annual rumor circulated that Hall was about to retire, the 'Cats seemed to have more than emotion going for them when they led St. John's 20-13. But just before that the lights went out for Walker when he was whacked in the eye by none other than Mullin. The blow arrived from the blind side and left Walker practically a blind Sky.
"Chris said his finger felt like it went all the way through Kenny's eye," said St. John's Willie Glass. "You could hear it—like squiiiish. Ugly!" And accidental—although Chris, remember, learned fortification at the knees and elbows of the masters, Georgetown's Hoyas.
His eye swollen almost shut and horribly discolored, Walker returned as Carmen Basilio to score 23 points, but Kentucky faded in the late rounds because of the unheralded Glass, who kept climbing the offensive boards.
Afterward a bizarre scene occurred at courtside when Hall sat down for his postgame radio show. A couple of hundred fans, cheerleaders, reporters, cameramen and other vultures surrounded Hall, straining to hear if the rumor would become fact. Someone suggested sending up smoke rings Vatican-style to notify the people in the bleachers of the decision. After an interminable wait—it was 12:30 a.m. back in Kentucky—Hall said, "I looked around and decided I didn't want to be an old coach," confirming the end of his distinguished 13-year UK career at age 56.
"Pressure?" said Carnesecca, who's 60, when asked if he was ready to quit as well. "What pressure? I coached three years in the ABA. I'm going straight to heaven."