THE DECISION BY St. John's to bring back former star Chris Mullin to lead its basketball program, despite his never having coached at any level, may seem like a huge risk. It's not.
The high ball screens and drive-and-dish guards commonplace in the NBA are now standard in college basketball too, so Mullin won't be tactically out of his element. Recruits are sure to trust a 16-year NBA veteran and original Dream Team alumnus, who spent time in the front offices of the Warriors and the Kings, to guide them to the next level. Mullin's forthrightness about the drinking problem that nearly ended his Hall of Fame career before it began should help him impart the kinds of life lessons that young players need and parents want taught. All of which suggests that, compared with other NBA players who had no bench experience and returned to their hometowns to coach their alma maters, he's more likely to wind up a Fred Hoiberg (four NCAA appearances in five seasons thus far at Iowa State) than a Clyde Drexler (19--39 before quitting in 2000 after two years at Houston).
But the most auspicious part of the Mullin hiring lies in the contrast with his predecessor, Steve Lavin, whose California pedigree always made him an outsider in Queens. In five seasons Lavin made just two NCAA tournaments and never developed good enough relationships with the high school coaches who control New York City talent. His final team included no significant contributor from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut. And after his first recruiting class, in 2011, he failed to sign a star from the five boroughs.
Of course just because the last St. John's team to reach the Final Four, in 1985, included New Yorker Lou Carnesecca on the bench and outer-borough All-Americas Mullin and Walter Berry on the floor, doesn't guarantee that the same regionalist formula will work today. But there's no more credible figure to persuade greater New York City kids to choose St. John's over Duke and Virginia than Mullin, who once made that very decision and never looked back. That's the most striking part of the St. John's gambit: the audacious concession that maybe the Red Storm aren't cut out to be a national program but rather one that, by being unabashedly rooted in New York City, could still make a national mark.
Thirty-five years ago, before ESPN nationalized the game with a cosmic Big (Monday) Bang, the very charm of college basketball lay in its regional nature. Schools with little or no football profile, such as DePaul under Ray Meyer and Memphis State under Larry Finch, turned the cities of Chicago and Memphis into subsistence college hoops ecosystems, with totemic figures from those programs' pasts taking local talent on rides deep into the NCAA tournament. As the reborn Big East continues to settle into its identity as a football-free conference of urban Catholic schools, the league could find guidance in that tradition. And as the college game suffers from aesthetic shortcomings and an attendant slump in interest during the regular season, any way to stoke excitement is worth a try.
If the 1,000 people who showed up at Carnesecca Arena on April 1 to see Mullin's introduction are any indication, the crowd at the Johnnies' first game in Madison Square Garden next season promises to be big and boisterous. Former NBA coach and referee Charley Eckman liked to say that "there are only two great plays—South Pacific and put the ball in the basket." Mullin was the Olivier of the latter. It's a skill that's the same regardless of venue, whether it be the summer-stock stage of the AAU circuit or, as the Red Storm's bet would have it, Broadway. And if Mullin replicates Hoiberg's success, schools in other towns would be wise to consider the same move.
Career points at St. John's for Chris Mullin, the most in school history.
Final Four visits for the Red Storm, most recently in 1985, Mullin's senior year.