Just in case an out-of-towner did not get it, Chris Mullin spent his first day on the job showing you why there isn't a man, woman or child in the five boroughs who wants him to fail. He is a true son of the city, and all those years on the West Coast did nothing to temper the Brooklyn in his voice or strip that East Coast fearlessness from his approach.
Christopher Paul Mullin has never been afraid of anything. Well, maybe one thing, and on that 2011 night he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he made sure to say that thing didn't involve the bright lights and heavy burdens of his hometown. "I was more intimidated leaving New York," he said.
A confession up front: Personally, I would have hired Dan Hurley or Mark Jackson before I hired Mullin. Hurley, because he'd proven he could quickly rebuild two Northeast programs (Wagner, Rhode Island). Jackson, because he had the things Mullin had (city roots, a seat at Lou Carnesecca's table, a place in St. John's mythology) and the things Mullin did not (head coaching experience, and at a much higher level than what passes today for the Big East).
Yes, this might be an epic fail. No, I wouldn't bet a lot of money on that possibility, and no, I sure wouldn't root for Mullin to replicate the disastrous Clyde Drexler homecoming at the University of Houston when the encouraging Fred Hoiberg homecoming at Iowa State makes for a much better story.
"I guarantee you you'll see me in the public school gyms, the Catholic school gyms, the AAU gyms, all over New York City," Mullin said at a news conference held inside the arena named for the 90-year-old mentor sitting to his right, Carnesecca. "You don't have to tell me where they are, I've been in all of them. I know how to get in the back doors, and if not I know the janitor in the gym. So I'm going to get in there."
How, exactly, do you root against that?
"I think it's really important that we dominate New York," he added about his short recruiting trips to come.
Mullin is good people, really good people, so he probably didn't intend the I-know-these-gyms portion of his introduction as a jab at his predecessor, Steve Lavin, the real West Coast guy who always seemed as if he belonged on one of those double-decker sightseeing buses in Times Square. But again, Mullin is a New Yorker. If Lavin wanted to take it as a slight, hey, tough spit.
Mullin promised to play up-tempo basketball, to field "the fittest team in the country," and to pass down the same life lessons to his team that Coach Carnesecca passed down to him. In fact, Mullin used the word "guarantee" enough to fill up three Rex Ryan pressers.
He drew waves of applause from some of the students in the crowd and some of the old-timers who watched him play when the Big East was the Big East, and when Carnesecca Arena was Alumni Hall. Someone asked Mullin if he believes he can restore the glory days of St. John's basketball, if he can build a roster to match the 1985 team he led to the Final Four, and the original Dream Teamer attacked that question as if he were coming off a tight screen.
"No doubt about it," he said. "That's why I'm here."
Another rousing cheer from an audience that included Walter Berry, The Truth, and so many other familiar St. John's faces past and present who had been willing this thing to happen since St. John's asked its greatest all-time player to replace Lavin last week. Mullin had been an executive with the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, a scout, an ESPN analyst. He'd been everything but a coach, and here was his school asking him to fill that one vacant corner of his charmed basketball life.
Mullin discussed the move with his wife, Liz, a St. John's grad, and their kids. He talked about it with Jackson, Larry Bird and Steve Kerr, friends who had no coaching experience before taking their NBA jobs. He talked about it with Carnesecca, of course, and the man who first met an 11-year-old Mullin 40 years ago advised him to follow his heart.
"But I don't want you to be one of those guys who said, 'I should have taken it when I had the chance,' " Looie told him.
So Carnesecca's preference was clear, and when Mullin explained Wednesday why he accepted St. John's offer, he said, "I looked at it as an obligation, first and foremost."
An obligation to Carnesecca. An obligation to the St. John's family. An obligation to New York, a great basketball town starving for a great basketball team, college or pro.
In large part because of the dismantling of the Big East, St. John's has felt like something of a mid-major in recent years (ditto for the Knicks, by the way). There's nothing mid-major about Chris Mullin.
"I think kids probably know me from video games," he said. "I hear a lot, just walking around town. 'I played you on this game; you scored 35 points.' Well, I wasn't that good, but it makes me feel good."
Yes, he was that good. When Mullin played his first game at Alumni Hall, he was a freshman at Power Memorial (before later transferring to Xaverian) who thought the place was as grand as Madison Square Garden. Power beat Archbishop Molloy for the city title that day, and as Mullin was walking across the Alumni Hall bridge on his way out of the building, Carnesecca approached and said, "You're going to play for me someday."
Mullin's older brother Rod recalled the day Carnesecca showed up at their Brooklyn home, pushing for the signature that would keep his recruit away from young Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and the rest. "It was like your favorite uncle coming over," Rod said Wednesday.
"You're a performer," Uncle Looie told young Chris. "And what better place to play than Broadway?"
Years later, Mullin said: "I packed a bag and went 12 miles down the Belt Parkway."
He never left, really, because Mullin has always been as much of a New Yorker as Spike Lee and the late Ed Koch. This news conference was actually called to announce that Mullin had returned from an extended vacation.
Carnesecca, God bless him, hobbled up to the mike to say that Mullin's homecoming had generated more newspaper coverage than President Eisenhower did after winning World War II. Carnesecca handed to Mullin a frayed and weary-looking card that Joe Lapchick had given him in the '60s, a card that read, "Peacock today, feather duster tomorrow." Mullin spoke of how his old coach was a wiser voice after defeats, not victories, yet when asked what profound messages he'd delivered to his star player following those losses, Carnesecca paused for a minute.
"Don't lose!" he finally shrieked.
And that's the message now for Mullin. Don't lose. Mullin said that he already has books and books and more books on basketball strategy in his office, and that even if he fails at coaching (not that he plans on it), it won't tarnish his enduring legacy as a player.
I don't think it's that simple, but either way, I admire Mullin's decision to take whatever risks he's taking. No matter how often he knocks his lack of athleticism, the guy was a remarkable athlete in so many ways. Remember what Magic Johnson once said about his friend. "When God made a basketball player," Magic said, "he just carved Chris Mullin out and said, 'This is a player.' "
So he didn't need to take this on, obligation or no obligation, not when Carnesecca reviewed the depleted St. John's roster and declared "the barn is empty." But as a recovering alcoholic who subscribes to a one-day-at-a-time existence, and as the kind of scarred survivor New Yorkers adore, Mullin is a rookie coach worth rooting for.
In the end, nobody should be surprised he took this job. When's the last time Chris Mullin was ever afraid to take a shot?