3 The Hard Way

SLAM 30: Chris Mullin got the job done.
by March 08, 2011

For big games, the St. John’s University’s men’s basketball program is a tenant of Madison Square Garden. But MSG is not the program’s home. To really feel St. John’s hoops, you need to be in Alumni Hall, the venerable gymnasium on the university’s Queens campus. The cozy, 6,000-seat gym features old-school bleacher seats, and plain banners listing the team’s myriad accomplishments watch over the simplistic court.

There is a problem, though: “venerable” translates to “no air conditioning.” And in late August, it’s hot. Do The Right Thing hot. So it’s hard to imagine anyone giving an honest effort on the court at this time. A mid-winter practice at Alumni Hall? Exhilirating. Late August? Ugh. And yet, right before your eyes, is as intense a game of two-on-two as you’ll ever see.

Picking up the action late in the game, a powerful inside move by Ron Artest makes the score 10-6. “Alright, yo, D up!” Artest, the Red Storm’s star forward and one of the nation’s top sophomores, encourages his partner, freshman guard Eric Barkley (a high school All American), and with good reason. The two young guns are a point away from breaking a two-game losing streak in this two-on-two miniseries.

Their opponents? St. John’s sophomore guard Reggie Jessie and Chris Mullin. Yes, that Chris Mullin. One of St. John’s most successful alumni, Mullin has been a five-time NBA All-Star, was an original Dream Teamer and displays his still-killer jumper nightly as the Indiana Pacers’ starting small forward. But at the moment, Mullin’s accolades don’t mean jack. Him and Jessie are on the ropes, and Artest and Barkley are trying desperately to show Mully that they’re worthy of taking over superstar reins at a school he once owned.

Mullin, a man who works nearly as hard in the summer as he does during the season, is at Alumni Hall for his daily workout. He’s already been bustin’ his ass with his brother, former St. John’s point guard Terrence, for a couple hours — mad spring followed by the occasional jumper and some free throws — when the others show up. Remarkably, despite his 35-year-old legs, the heat and the fact that he’s the only one out there whose season is in lockout-induced jeopardy, Mullin’s got more energy than anyone.

“Training is almost religious to me now,” Mullin says, as the sweat pours off of his tightly-shaved head and lithe frame (with a long stint in the weight room yet to come). “I’m glad I started doing this a while ago, so I have a background in working out. Because I know one thing — if I don’t put the time in, my game can go away so quick. I also make it fun, and there’s not that many things that you can do that are fun and help your job like these workouts can.”

It’s this attitude that allows a 6-7, 215-pound, no-hoppin’ small forward to be valuable NBA player for so long. The God-given shooting touch, court vision and Payton-quick hands were the keys at age 22, but entering his 14th season, it is the New York-area workouts (besides current Johnnies, ex-Red Men Mark Jackson, Malik Sealy and Jayson Williams often join in) that keep him around.

“By last summer, I was dying to get out of Golden State, and I had to keep working so I’d be ready if I did get to go somewhere better,” Mullin says. “But most 34-year-olds are being told they’re not wanted anymore. It felt really good for Larry [Bird, Pacers’ coach] to let me know he wanted me.”

Bird’s interest set Mullin free when the Pacers acquired him for center Erick Dampier and journeyman Duane Ferrell to G. State in August of ’97. “My agent called me in the morning, and I was like, ‘Yeah! I’m done!’ I told the Pacers, ‘I’ll be out there first thing tomorrow morning,’ but I was so happy I actually got out to Indiana to take care of everything by the end of the day, Mully says.

Off Barkley’s inbounds pass, Artest tries another power move. This time, Mullin strips him. He clears the ball with a pass to Jessie, then gets it back and drains a leaner from the elbow. 10-7.

It was the type of leaner that Indiana could have used from Mullin any number of times the last time he was in the nation’s eye — during the Pacers’ heart-breaking seven-game Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Bulls that saw Mullin average an abysmal six points and three boards per game. His Scottie Pippen-induced struggles notwithstanding, as a whole Mullin gave the Pacers all they could have hoped for last season.

He started all 98 games Indiana played — he hadn’t even played in every regular season game since ’91 — and averaged 11.3 points a night while shooting 48 percent from the floor, 44 percent from three and a League-leading 94 percent from the line. And his stats aren’t even the half.

“He plays the game the way I liked to play,” Bird said last season. “[He knows] when to pass and when to shoot and when to cut…he fills a big hole for us.”

Another person who got a taste of Mullin’s worth to the PaceShow was Indianapolis Star-News beat writer Mark Monteith. “The guy is like a robot with the way he takes care of himself,” Montieth says. “He’s so repetitive before and after games and practice as far as icing himself, and even on such a veteran team, guys really started copying the things he does. He’s a quiet leader who loves the game.”

Mullin yells cross-court, demanding the ball from Jessie. Once Mullin gets it, he dribbles out to the corner and, with the defense scrambling, wets a 19-foot fadeway. 10-8.

Mullin’s season with the Pacers may be what young fans are most familiar with, but Indy’s only the latest stop in a career that’s seen more highs and lows than a drug clinic. A schoolboy legend in New York City, the Brooklyn-raised Mullin gained fame on the city’s playgrounds and at Xavierian High School; he attracted special attention from St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca early on.

“I met Coach Carnesecca when I was in the fourth grade, and then he spoke with me and my family throughout high school. After that, I kind of compared every coach and school to him and St. John’s,” Mullin recalls. When no one even approached Looie’s allure, Mullin headed to SJU for four dream-like seasons.

“I’ll say this: any coach should have the pleasure of coaching Chris Mullin,” the effervescent Carnesecca says. “The keys for Chrissie were his court vision and that everyone liked to play with him. He was a point guard at the beginning of high school, but then he grew to 6-7 and took his backcourt skills up front. And in practices and scrimmages, Mull never shot. He’d shoot for hours before and after practice, but during it he’d make sure everyone got involved.”

While even the youthful Mullin dunked about once a season, he used his shooting and team play well enough to be a true collegiate superstar. As a senior in ’85, a time when players actually stayed four years and the Big East was the cream of college basketball, Mullin lead SJU to its second-ever Final Four appearance. Along the way, he became the school’s all-time leading scorer and won the Wooden Award for player of the year.

“My time here was great,” Mullin says. “We won, there was a great bunch of guys, and we helped the city come together at a time that it was kind of down.”

Down 10-8, Mullin asks, “What’s game?” even though he knows the answer since it’s their third game in half and hour. Artest replies with a tinge of nervousness, “11 straight.” When “True Warrior” (Artest’s Rucker Park moniker) gets a piece of Mullin’s lay-up attempt, he and Barkley resume possesion. They’re still up two.

The downside to Mullin’s brilliant college career came at draft time. He was an obvious lottery pick, and the hometown Knicks had No. 1. But with Patrick Ewing available, the Knicks’ decision was simple. After that, the lottery was littered with organizations that meant nothing to Mully. He went seven, to Golden State. “I didn’t know anything about Golden State,” he says grimly, “not even where it was.”

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.

No sweat.

Ben Osborne is the Editor-in-Chief of SLAM Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @bosborne17.