Original Old School: Down By The Bay
SLAM 129: During Chris Mullin’s careers with the Warriors, he was great at shattering initial judgments.
by Jason Turbow
As a kid, Chris Mullin read an article that described Pete Maravich’s attempt to dribble a basketball out the passenger-side window of a car being driven by his father. So inspired, the young Mullin tried it himself, but ended up only with a lost ball and a baffled father. This is an early tale in the Chris Mullin storybook, a tome in which legends are plentiful and drama is rife.
There’s also the one about how, as a junior at St. John’s University, Mullin missed a key free throw in the opening round of the 1984 NCAA Tournament that may have been the difference in a 65-63 loss to Temple.
Then there’s the time that a fed-up Don Nelson nearly traded the 24-year-old out of frustration with his self-destructive attitude.
The story you’re reading, however, isn’t about lost balls or missed free throws. This is a tale of redemption. Of Mullin coming back for his senior year of college to win the Wooden Award and reach the Final Four. Of Mullin the Warrior, not just nudging Nelson’s opinion of him toward the good, but spinning it all the way as he joined the ranks of the League’s elite players. Of Mullin the VP building a team in Oakland that became national darlings over the course of a single Playoff series in 2007.
By every indication, Mully’s latest endeavor will come to an end when his contract expires July 1. Although nobody within the organization has addressed it directly, speculation is rampant that Warriors President Robert Rowell decided the former All-Star’s services were getting in the way of whatever master plan is currently being enacted. (This being the Warriors, of course, master plans are not a historical strong suit.)
When Mullin joined the team’s front office in ’02, the Warriors were perhaps the organization most desperate for salvation in all of the NBA. This is the point at which Mullin’s most recent rescue tale begins. Deliverance, after all, can’t happen unless there’s something to deliver.
To judge by the euphoria surrounding Golden State’s stunning, six-game upset of the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the ’07 Playoffs, Mullin hit his mark spot-on. When the Warriors became the winningest team ever to miss the postseason a year later, it did little to diminish their feel-good vibe.
What we know is that Mullin’s authority has virtually disappeared. Mullin doesn’t want to discuss it while employed by the team, and Rowell did not respond to an interview request for this story, but insiders cite lack of communication and the president’s chafing at the amount of credit being thrown Mullin’s way as primary reasons.
The evidence is ample: Mullin wanted an extension for Baron Davis; Rowell overruled him and Davis joined the Clippers. Mullin was against significant discipline for Monta Ellis after an off-season moped accident sidelined the guard for what would be the first 43 games of this season; shortly thereafter Rowell announced a 30-game suspension and corresponding $3 million fine while proclaiming to a group of Bay Area reporters just how wrong Mullin was. In November, Rowell fired Assistant General Manager Pete D’Alessandro, Mullin’s right-hand man, and replaced him with Nelson confidant Larry Riley. Mullin’s essentially been underground ever since—unseen, publicly unheard from and, as SLAM went to press, presumed to be joining Donnie Walsh’s staff with the New York Knicks. This, however, is mere speculation. Before we look forward to what might be, let’s look back at what was.
When Mullin first joined the Warriors’ executive ranks, he had no fear of the team’s horrid reputation. After all, this is the story of a player who once shed his own labels—“too slow,” “unathletic” and “too white for the NBA”—to will himself into becoming a five-time All-Star, twice an Olympic gold-medal winner and one of the greatest pure shooters the game has ever seen.
In ’85, coming off an NBA-worst 22-win season, the Warriors made Mullin the seventh selection in the Draft, and within two years were shocking the favored Jazz in the first round of the Playoffs. Two years after that, they did it again.
Nelson, who began his first go-round with the Warriors as Executive VP in July of ’87, deserves credit for stocking the team with guys who could slash, shoot and push tempo. Nellie, who would soon become head coach as well, was willing to call Mullin out on the most personal levels. And during those early days, the young star frequently needed corralling.
Things hit their nadir late in ’87. Mullin entered the ‘87-88 season lethargic; he was 24, overweight, underperforming and terribly lonely. He was also drinking. A lot. Nelson confronted him, challenged him to go two months without booze—a bet the hyper-competitive forward heartily accepted. He didn’t make it two nights. Nelson suspended him, then put him on the injured list. Family members got involved. Mullin left the team and checked into a Los Angeles-area rehab center. He emerged 30 days later sporting the flat-top he still wears today, with the ability to re-channel the addictive parts of his personality away from booze and toward hoops.
If Mullin’s resurgence on the court was impressive, his resurrection off it was exceptional. He got married and stayed married, had four kids. He became one of the League’s fittest players, with day-long workouts that complemented his already-instilled practice habits. The 6-7 southpaw became an All-Star regular, a League leader in both free-throw and three-point percentage. He was also the NBA’s unofficial king of “distance run during the course of a game,” working every angle, pick and screen to shed defenders.
“I always thought I was a gym rat, but Mully put me to shame,” says Mitch Richmond, who along with Mullin and Tim Hardaway formed the core of Nelson’s “Run-TMC” teams that from ’88-91 were among the most successful and entertaining in the NBA. “Nellie would have to tell us to go home because we’d be there for an hour-and-a-half after practice ended, just shooting and shooting. And Mullin was our ringleader.”
Mullin’s high point might have come in ’91, during Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Lakers. A sprained knee forced him to sit out the first contest, which Los Angeles won handily, and he was determined not to let the same thing happen again. Hobbling up and down the Forum court, Mullin exploded for 41 points in a 125-124 victory. “When God made a basketball player,” Magic Johnson told the Los Angeles Times after the game, “he made Chris Mullin.”
The Warriors won precisely one more Playoff game over the next 16 years, a streak that took nothing less than Mullin’s return to extinguish. After all, if the man was able to remake himself in such remarkable ways, how difficult could it be to remake a basketball team?
“One of my first goals [as Executive VP of Basketball Operations] was to change the reputation of this organization,” Mullin told us before he stopped speaking on the record. “I played here when it was a destination. People wanted to come here. There were a lot of things that were attractive, and that had gone away. In fact, it had become the opposite. So when I first got the job, I felt like it was important to set standards, to make it a place where people wanted to play.”
At this point it must be noted that a key to any tale of redemption is the lead character’s ability to weather a storm while simultaneously upgrading the ship. To extend the analogy further, when Mullin took over as VP, the S.S. Golden State was on the verge of full breach, taking on new water every time it appeared that efforts at bailing might show promise. But Mullin didn’t bail—he rebuilt the boat.
Upon joining the front office, Mullin inherited a squad that had missed the Playoffs eight straight seasons—a streak that would reach 12—and was noteworthy mainly for having recently had its best player choke his coach. Mullin got right to work. The facilities were upgraded. Mike Montgomery was brought in as head coach. Huge contracts were given to Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, Adonal Foyle and Derek Fisher.
This brings us to the point where Mullin the VP looks remarkably like Mullin the player. Bobcats GM Rod Higgins (who held the same job under Mullin in Golden State and who still has not been replaced) described the mentality as one in which a player must be unafraid to take a three-pointer for the win when down by two on the road. He has to be able, Higgins told the Contra Costa Times, “to take and make the tough shot, make the tough call. You don’t go back and say, ‘What if?’ If it doesn’t work, you do another one. You make another decision. You attempt another shot.”
Which is just what Mullin did. When it became clear that many of his moves weren’t working, he changed course without trace of ego or hesitation. Players started to tune Montgomery out, so Mullin brought back Nelson. Foyle, Fisher, Murphy and Dunleavy were traded or bought out, as were Draft busts Patrick O’Bryant and Ike Diogu.
Like the beginning of this story, though, that’s merely an accounting of the moves that didn’t work; there were also plenty that did. Mullin drafted Ellis, Andris Biedrins and Anthony Randolph; he acquired Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington for a collection of unwieldy contracts and spare parts.
Because this is a story about redemption, it must be noted that much of the talent Mullin acquired through trades could be had for cheap because of off-court issues. Jackson had Detroit’s “Malace at the Palace” brawl and a gun-related arrest on his résumé. Davis had feuded with coaches and was labeled in one newspaper as a “petulant malingerer.” But Mullin wrapped them in the blanket of his team-focused philosophy, his well-known distaste for ego, helping each man shed perceived character issues. Ironically, this stance also likely contributed to his current situation with Rowell. It’s all wrapped up in what’s become a drama-rich season for the Warriors, albeit one with precious little talk about winning.
“A lot of times the biggest killer of success is blame and credit,” said Mullin. “People are either looking to blame or looking for credit. When you get the wrong group of people and the wrong things emphasized, it can go sideways pretty quick.” The VP was speaking about team-building in general and not his situation in particular, but at this point one can be forgiven for confusing the two.
As an 11-year-old, Mullin’s court habits won him a national free-throw contest. As a pre-teenager he spent so much time on the court that he was given his own key to the elementary school gym. Two decades and millions of dollars later, he was still the first one in and the last one out. Now, with the Warriors, “last one out” takes on new meaning.
This is the story of how Chris Mullin built himself into arguably the best player in Big East history, then an NBA superstar, then an NBA vice president. It’s the story of how he tried his level best to build the Warriors in much the same manner—and to compare the team he left at the start of his rift with Rowell to the team as it now stands, it’s a story of redemption of the highest order. It’s also the story of what might be, no matter what comes next.
Mullin never did manage to dribble that basketball out the window of his dad’s car, but it’s almost better to pretend that he did. Envision Chris Mullin attempting the impossible. Now picture him pulling it off.