<h3>Overshadowed by Magic, Jordan, Barkley and Bird, Chris Mullin Was Among My Favorite Members of the Dream Team</h3>
Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time meditating on the greatest basketball team ever assembled, the 1992 Dream Team that captivated the world’s attention at the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
With this summer being the 20th anniversary of that team, accompanied by the brilliant play of LeBron, Kobe, KD and Melo for the current incarnation of Team USA, the fascinating documentary film chronicling the experience of the ’92 squad and Jack McCallum’s terrific book, Dream Team: How Magic, Michael, Larry, Charles and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever, it’s been a wonderful time to reminisce on what we know to be the crescendo of hoops excellence.
It’s also allowed me to re-visit the underappreciated career of one of my favorite members of that Dream Team, who also happened to hail from my hometown in New York City.
Like everyone else, I was tickled with watching some of favorite players like Magic, Barkley, Pat Ewing and Air Jordan on the same team. Although I was not a fan of Larry Bird’s due to my unhealthy obsession with Bernard King, and the pent up animosity aimed at his Celtics teams for always getting the best of my beloved Knicks, I could always appreciate how special and talented he was. The 1992 Olympics was the only time I ever rooted for Larry Legend and was thrilled, despite the debilitating back injuries that conspired against his greatness, to see him on the court with those other guys.
But to me, there was another guy on that team who I enjoyed watching just as much as his more celebrated brethren, a guy by the name of Christopher Paul Mullin.
He was a simple, neighborhood guy from Troy Avenue in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn and his love affair with hoops was a multi-generational phenomenon that began in the driveway of the family’s small row house.
His father Rod played street ball with the great Doug Moe, before Moe would go on to star at the University of North Carolina in the late 1950’s. His older brother Roddy played at Siena College, where he captained the team during his senior year. Younger brothers John and Terence would later play basketball at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and St. John’s University.
Known to his family and around the neighborhood by his nickname, “Mo”, Mullin was the ultimate playground fixture and gym rat. Showing up on the asphalt courts to play from sunup to sundown was only part of his childhood mission. The other component was self-imposed fundamental and practice sessions, hours of repetitive work on movement, dribbling and shooting the ball from every angle imaginable.
In the fourth grade, he’d earned an all-expense-paid trip to Kansas City for a national foul shooting contest. He calmly won by sinking 23 out of 25 free throws.
Feeling like he needed more motivation to stoke his inner embers, Mullin soon began venturing outside of his own community, winding up in some of the city’s more notoriously dangerous neighborhoods in The Bronx, Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant, in search of more intense competition.
As a 12-year-old playing at St. John’s University’s coach Louie Carnesecca’s summer camp, the counselors and other campers took to calling him “Mookie” because, when prodded, he could augment his textbook jumper with a handle, boogie and assist game that he’d inhaled from his African-American playground brethren.
Yet it wasn’t forced or unnatural. He could play in a way that was understated or hyperbolic, spectacular or inconspicuous, and he was just as deadly with both arsenals.
“He was the only white boy I ever met who understood street ball,” his college teammate Billy Goodwin once said.
At the age of 14, Mullin followed in his older brother’s footsteps and – with a daily round trip commute of two buses and four train rides – enrolled in high school at Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan.
The venerable institution was known around the globe for producing the incomparable Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Power Memorial also boasted other distinguished alumni like University of Maryland legend Len Elmore.
At that time, he also joined the powerhouse Riverside Church AAU program, where he linked up with other burgeoning phenoms during his high school years like “Easy” Ed Pinckney, Jerry “Ice” Reynolds, Walter “The Truth” Berry, Kenny “The Jet” Smith, Mark “Action” Jackson, Bruce Dalrymple and Ed Davender, among others.
“I was a freshman in high school when I heard about Riverside,” Mullin told Sports Illustrated’s Sam Toperoff. “I figured if I could play with the guys down there, I could play with anybody.”
Mullin played on the same high school freshman and J.V. squads with future NBA champion Mario Elie. But on the varsity team, he soon became disenchanted with his head coach, a man who’d also clashed with his older brother a few years prior.
At the Monsignor King Tournament during his junior year, which was held at his old grade school, right around the corner from his home in Brooklyn and in front of a lathered bunch that was bursting at the seams with members of the extensive Mullin clan, he scored nine straight points in the opening quarter. The animated crowd was awash with raucous applause and supportive shouts.
But Mullin was subsequently yanked off the floor as his coach glared at him and yelled, “No Superstars!”
Soon thereafter, Mullin transferred to Xaverian High School in Brooklyn. And by rule, he was forced sit out for a full calendar year, ineligible to play until midway through his senior season.
“It was a risky move,” Mullin told Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick in 1986. “I was afraid that nobody (from the colleges) would see me. It hurt me not to play ball.”
Although he couldn’t play high school ball for a year, he lived in the gym, practicing every drill imaginable and getting thousands of jump shots up daily. Xaverian assistant coach Jack Alesi said that he “trained like a prizefighter” for the portion of his senior year that he wasn’t allowed to compete.
In his Tuesday afternoon debut against Queens’ Christ the King High School, with over a thousand fans crammed into the gymnasium, Mullin scored 17 of his team’s first 21 points and tallied 38 overall.
Xaverian went on to capture the prestigious New York State title and the legend of Chris Mullin was at the beginning of being firmly established. He was named a McDonald’s All-American at season’s end and recognized as one of the most prominent prep players in the country.
As a freshman at St. John’s University, which he chose to attend over countless offers from major national powers, he looked like he’d been playing college ball his whole life.
“The first game Mo played here, it was as if he’d been at St. John’s for 100 years,” Carnesecca told Sports Illustrated.
In his first college tournament, the Lapchick Memorial and the Holiday Festival in the sports’ Mecca, Madison Square Garden, Mullin was voted the event’s Most Valuable Player. He averaged 17 points per game as a freshman, while connecting on 53% of his shots, many of which were launched from beyond 15 feet.
As a college sophomore, he upped his scoring average to 19 points per game while shooting 58% from the floor. He was deemed a breathing coach’s clinic, exalted for his intense work ethic and highly-tuned fundamentals.
With nagging thoughts about the extreme level of talent that he competing against, he was inspired to improve his skills while others were out partying or home sleeping.
After practice and a quick trip back to Brooklyn for dinner, Mullin would be back at Alumni Hall, working on crossovers, jab steps, screens and back cuts. He’d have loud music pumping from his nearby boom-box while launching shot after shot, the sweet stroke melting into the music, the snapping of the nets creating complimentary snares to the bass that echoed through the empty arena.
On one occasion, while the city was buried underneath a winter blizzard, he stayed in the gym for the better part of two days. Rumors circulated among the student body that he actually slept there during the entire year.
One of his closest friends at St. John’s was asked how he got to be so tight with Mullin. “I was the guy who had the key to the gym,” he said.
In 1983, during one intense game against their heated rivals, Georgetown University, a few players began exchanging punches under the basket, halting the action. While the fracas was being sorted out, Mullin could be seen calmly shooting baskets at the other end of the floor until the game resumed.
In February of 1984, the Redmen (as they were then known) were in Washington, D.C., again playing the Hoyas, one of the greatest defensive teams of all time. They’d already destroyed St. John’s by an embarrassing 22 points earlier in the season.
Mullin proceeded to connect on 13 of his 18 field goal attempts en route to 33 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals, stripping Georgetown center Patrick Ewing twice as the big fella grabbed the entry pass and spun for his patented turnaround jumper.
His prolific scoring output in college was even more incredible when you consider that he only took an average of 12 shots per game. Let that one marinate for a second.
In the summer of 1984, Mullin was among the greatest Olympic team of collegians ever assembled, along with Michael Jordan, Ewing, Wayman Tisdale, Alvin Robertson, Vern Fleming and Sam Perkins that smashed the world (minus the Soviets, who boycotted) and won the Gold Medal in the Los Angeles Games.
Mullin was the second-leading scorer on that team behind the inimitable Michael Jordan. He also accumulated 14 steals and 24 assists in the eight-game tournament, despite the fact that he only started one game and was fifth on the squad in minutes played. He scorched while scoring 20 points against Canada, and with Air Jordan nursing an injury against Spain, Mullin came off the bench to drop 16 second-half points to complement his six steals and four assists.
As a senior, along with “The Truth” aka Walter Berry and Atlantic City playground legend Willie Glass, Mullin led St. John’s to the schools’ first Final Four appearance since 1952. Big John Thompson’s vaunted Hoyas locked him up in the Final Four, but the sad ending to his college career could not diminish his amazing overall accomplishments.
Mullin was a three-time Big East Player of the Year, a three time All-American and was honored as the country’s best player with the 1985 Wooden Award. He finished as St. John’s all-time leading scorer before the late, great Malik Sealy came along to break his record.
As a rookie with the Golden State Warriors, he made 89.6 % of his free throws, the league’s best rookie mark since Ernie Degregorio hit 90.2 % in 1973. But the dysfunctional team lost 52 games and Mullin struggled to find his footing while averaging 14 points. The Warriors made the playoffs the next year as Mullin started all 82 games and his play improved. But he admitted to having a drinking problem and, with the support of his new head coach Don Nelson, committed himself to rehab.
He missed 22 games in ‘87-’88 while getting his life in order, then came back to average 20 points, five assists and resumed his journey towards stardom. In his third season, Mullin separated himself as an elite NBA talent while averaging 27 points, six rebounds and five assists per game, becoming only the third Warrior – along with Hall-of-Famers Wilt Chamberlain and Rick Barry – to compile 2,000 points, 400 rebounds and 400 assists in a season.
Mullin and Mitch Richmond, who combined to score almost 50 points a game on a nightly basis, formed one of the most dynamic and highest scoring, two-punch combos in the league. During the ‘90-’91 season, with the maturation of point guard extraordinaire Tim Hardaway, the perimeter threesome known as “Run TMC” (Tim, Mitch and Chris) proceeded to run defenses ragged.
After capturing the Gold Medal with the Dream Team in 1992, Mullin averaged 26 points per game, but struggled with injuries over the next several years. He continued to prepare with his notorious work ethic and fought through the multiple physical setbacks to become a valuable role player for the Indiana Pacers team that advanced to the 2000 NBA Finals.
Throughout his 16-year pro career, the 6-foot-7 marksman could hold his own with any of the game’s greatest offensive talents. Despite being a natural lefty, he could shoot with both hands and attack with his dribble in either direction.
It’s ironic that, in the NBA, he chose to wear the jersey #17 in honor of his childhood idol John Havlicek, because like Hondo, Mullin’s brilliance has been diluted and vastly underappreciated through the filter of time.
He played the textbook style, yet could sizzle with some razzle-dazzle. His game was simple yet complicated, plain yet colorful, basic yet complex.
Chris Mullin loved everything about basketball. For him, practice was an exercise in chasing perfection. He was the human anti-thesis of Allen Iverson’s famous, “Practice? We’re talking about practice, man,” rant.
There was only one aspect of the game that annoyed him. Halftime.
“Halftimes are the worst,” Mullin told Sports Illustrated in 1986. “I just wanna play through.”
“He has a monastic devotion to rehearsal,” Carnessecca told Sports Illustrated’s Kirkpatrick. “Mo makes everything look easy but it’s all happened before, over and over. He sees plays before they develop. He photoflashes them and then creates. I learn from Mo.”
His game was smooth and simultaneously efficient. And he compensated for his lack of exceptional speed and leaping ability by intelligently using every crevice of the court.
He’s earned his spot, along with the likes of Connie Hawkins, Mel Brooks, Pearl Washington, Howard Cosell, Lenny Wilkens, Bernard King, Sandy Koufax, Barry Manilow, Stephanie Mills, Eddie Murphy, Larry David, Easy Mo Be, Jimmy Fallon, George Gershwin, Lena Horne, Big Daddy Kane, Talib Kweli, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay-Z, Biggie, Barbara Streisand, Joe Torre, Mike Tyson, Chris Rock and Spike Lee as a card carrying member of the crew known as Brooklyn’s Finest.
A few years back, during a conversation with one of the greatest Georgetown Hoyas ever, ten-year NBA veteran Reggie Williams and I were talking about the heyday of the Big East and the phenomenal conference tournament games he’d played in at Madison Square Garden.
When I asked him to talk about the greatest players he’d ever played against, the first thing to come out of his mouth was, “Chris Mullin was the best shooter I’ve ever seen. He didn’t have to take one dribble and you knew what was coming. He’d just come off a screen and you couldn’t stop him.”
And when Head Coach Chuck Daly was discussing who he wanted on the ’92 Dream Team during the selection process, after the no-brainers of Jordan, Barkley, Ewing, Magic and Bird, rumor has it that the first name he supposedly mentioned was Chris Mullin.
In comparing him to players like Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird, coaching legend Hubie Brown once said, “Those guys couldn’t jump, weren’t quick. But after every game all their columns were full. That’s Mullin.”
Today’s game places such a high premium on athletes with blazing speed, unreal athleticism and ridiculous leaping ability. But even in the current climate, Chris Mullin, in his prime, would still dominate today. Because not only was his jump shot as close to unstoppable of any we’ve ever seen, but like the aforementioned legends, he also played the game on a higher level, a level that most could never even fathom getting to.
And, I might add, he looked damned pretty in the process of doing it.