When Chris Mullin took over as head coach of the St. John's men's basketball team before this season, he wasn't merely a new face coming in to preside over a rebuilding process; he was a conquering hero returning home.
For the uninitiated: Mullin is one of the greatest basketball players to ever come out of New York City—a Brooklyn kid who became a two-time college All-American at St. John's, starred for the Golden State Warriors in the NBA, played with Michael Jordan on the Dream Team and is now in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
On the occasion of the NCAA Tournament coming to New York—first- and second-round games in Brooklyn at Barclays Center this year followed by the East Regionals at Madison Square Garden in 2017—Mullin took a few minutes to talk about his, and the City's, love of basketball.
How is basketball different in New York City than anywhere else?
Chris Mullin: It's played everywhere all the time, and a lot of kids have that dream of climbing the ladder and playing at the highest level. It's also a social thing. Even the people that don't play seem to love to follow the local kids' progress—and with the Garden here and the tremendous history of great players and coaches, it's really just part of our culture.
You won the Big East Tournament—and its MVP award—at Madison Square Garden in 1983. This year (March 9–12) will be your first tournament as a coach. How will it be different?
CM: It's night and day, you know? I'm aware that the greatest part of my life was when I played. You're never going to have that back—just cherish those moments. And I let the kids who are playing now know that this is the best time of your life. Everything else…you can find something that's good, but playing is great. And I realize that. I always have. I tried to do it as long as I could. Getting old is not the most fun thing in the world, but if you do it with some grace, you can still enjoy it.
How did playing on NYC's public courts shape you as a player?
CM: Growing up in Brooklyn, I played a lot of CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] basketball and had incredible coaches teaching me fundamentals. When I went to high school in Manhattan, I started playing in the parks and in AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] basketball throughout every borough. And that's where I picked up more freelance street basketball and combined it with my fundamentals.
Probably the biggest thing was confidence; I was going into unfamiliar territory against unfamiliar players in different neighborhoods. When you do that, you have to prove yourself or you're not welcome back—or you get ridiculed and you don't want to come back.
Where can visitors go to see players trying to prove themselves today, once the weather warms up?
CM: I'd say the two places that stick out to me would be Rucker Park, and I always love walking past West 4th Street. What's better than watching some park basketball and then going to John's Pizzeria on Bleecker Street? What else could you ask for?
Growing up in Brooklyn, did you ever imagine there'd be an NBA team or NCAA tournament games in your home borough?
CM: Very rarely do you experience miracles, but to me it's actually a miracle that there's a beautiful Barclays Center arena on Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue. I grew up in that neighborhood—even when I heard [plans about the arena], I thought it was impossible. When I think back to taking the train to high school and driving through that neighborhood when I was a kid—to see that place there is really remarkable.
What makes New York City home for you?
CM: I spent all my formative years here—growing up in Brooklyn, going to high school in Manhattan and Brooklyn, going to college in Queens and playing all over the city. That's the biggest influence on the rest of your life.
It gives you an education beyond anything you can learn in a classroom. If you just plop yourself in any neighborhood in New York, the most beautiful thing is to see the wide variety of people from different backgrounds, different cultures, all over the world—everyone comes through, lives in, does business and socializes in New York City. When you bump into people from all over, it gives you not only an education of what they've been through but also an appreciation that there's more out there than just your little world. It gives you a perspective of life—how you're just one person, and everyone has their trials and tribulations.
For tickets to St. John's home games, visit redstormsports.com.