While his body eventually found Golden State, Mullin’s head got lost along the way. He missed his family and friends, he was on a lame Warrior team with no leadership and his slow feet were getting him killed on defense.
To cope with his pro career’s nightmarish start, Mullin turned to an old friend: alcohol. He’s been off the bottle for years now, but there was a time when a Mullin story had to start and end with tales of his struggle. For now, understand that there were two-plus mediocre seasons, wrought with missed practices and lonely phone calls home, followed by an end-of-the-rope suspension handed down by head coach Don Nelson in December of ’87. Mullin reluctantly checked into rehab and spent his holiday season sleeping on a cot, but he bought into the program when he looked at the people he was surrounded by, many of whom were career drunks with no home. “It was easy to say, ‘Hey you guys are messed up, not me’” Mullin told Sports Illustrated in ’92. “[But] I just felt that if I did the right thing, I’d get rewarded in the end.” He did.
Today, with a good 3,000 post drinking workouts behind him, Mullin is short with his answers about the dark days. “You know, life takes twists and turns, and you don’t know when they’re coming,” he says. “Looking back, I’m glad everything everything happened then. I have three kids and a wife now, and I’m settled. I don’t look that far back, because it’s done.”
Despite being a point away from victory, Barkley seems shook as he launches a hurried jumper. Mullin manipulates the rebound with his hands, eventually tipping it to Jessie at the free throw line for an easy shot. 10-9.
Mullin returned to the Warriors in January, ’88 and used the rest of the season to get back in shape; when his fourth season started, the Western Conference had its own Larry Bird. From the start of that ’88-89 campaign through January ’93, Mullin was one of the five best players in the League. Besides the many intangibles he brought to the locker room, Mullin’s per-game digits over that period were sick: 25.8 points on 52 percent from the floor and 87 percent from the stripe, 5.6 boards, 4.1 assists and 1.9 swipes. In ’90-91, Mullin dropped 25.7 points a night while hitting 54 percent of his field goals (mostly on jumpers and runners, not that Mark West put back stuff) and 88 percent of his freebies. No player in NBA history has ever averaged so many points on such high percentages. Besides his on-court stats, there were the All-Star games and the aforementioned ’92 Olympic experience. Not to mention the central role on the Warriors’ only exciting team since the 70′s — the Run-TMC bunch composed of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris that wreaked havoc on the left coast.
“It was a great feeling,” Mullin says of his time at the top of the sport. “And knowing you do it your way. I would love to play above the rim. That’s what’s pretty, but that’s not me. I was able to take what I do well and master it. I made it work and fit into a team.”
What Mullin is not doing well is penetrating on Artest, so after getting tossed by big Ron before, he goes back outside this time, hitting a jumper to knot the score. 10-10.
Unfortunately, the next big bump on Mullin’s career ride came just before the ’93 All-Star break. A torn ligament in his right thumb ended his season, and along with it his period of dominance. The remainder of his years in Oak-Town were tarnished with nagging injuries and ultimately by an embarassing franchise. By ’96, the Warriors were populated by the likes of Bimbo Coles, Joe Smith and Felton Spencer, and “coached” by Rick Adelman. While he won’t call people out by name, Mullin admits now that, “It was a disgrace. There was no hard work.”
At 10-10, Mullin does the unthinkable. Off a switch, he lazily shoots over the 6-1 Barkley, and it gets nicked. The shot falls into Artest’s hands, and yet again St. John’s future has a chance to top its past.
The summer of ’97 came along, and Mullin got hit by all he was missing. “My wife and I were out in East Hampton for a couple days, and we went to this factory store to go shopping,” he says. “I stayed in the car while she did the shopping, and I was listening to the Knicks-Heat playoff series on the radio. I was like, ‘Damn, I’m on early vacation again.’”
Freedom came August 12th, and now a year later, Mullin is happier with Indy than Snoop is with No Limit. “The season ended and we felt like we had done something, really put in our work. Next year, I think we’re right in there with the favorites to win the title, and I think I can do even better personally. The hard practices and the intense Eastern Conference games were more taxing than I was used to, but now I’m expecting it, and I’m looking forward to starting up again.”
Artest coughs up the rock, and with it, his team’s last chance to win. Jessie grabs the ball and feeds Mullin at the college three line. Body to the basket, Mullin backs away with the left-hand dribble, trying to create even an inch of space between him and Artest. The moment Mully sees daylight, he lets fire.