In a sport where the level of media coverage is directly proportional to the apparent degree of difficulty of the feats one pulls off, Chris Mullin, 59 this weekend, punished the NCAA, NBA and FIBA defenses without ever making an unnecessary move.
Why make it complicated when it can be simple ?
Who is this slow white GI cut who drives the counters crazy on the flashiest team of the 90s? This is the question that many young people must have asked themselves when they stumbled upon a match of the Warriors du Run TMC, a team without a credible interior, coached by a visionary experimentalist (or crazy, depending on what you think). by Don Nelson), propelled by the “killer crossovers” of an absolutely impossible to contain Tim Hardaway, feared for the metronomic scoring of a young Mitch Richmond as powerful as he is skilful, but made uncontrollable by the genius of Chris Mullin.
The Run TMC is those three, Tim, Mitch and Chris, the most exciting outside trio in league history, bolstered by the unpredictable Sarunas Marciulionis, the Lithuanian Ginobili and one of the European pioneers in the NBA.
Of this incredible collection of raw talent, Chris Mullin is both the easiest to underestimate and the most impressive. Tim is arrogant and elusive. He turned his fearsome crossover into a spectacular weapon that no one was able to find a counter before he got hurt. Mitch is discreet, but he’s a racy and athletic scorer, adroit from distance and able to finish strong in the circle. Sarunas has maddening support and arms to return Schwarzenegger to politics.
Chris? At first glance, it doesn’t do anything particularly remarkable. He shoots, of course. But it seems excruciatingly slow. However, if you look closely, you quickly realize that he is still on the right track. We see him on the offensive rebound, we surprise him stealing balls, we find him on the counter-attack in front of players who would put him 80 meters in a 100 m. And we quickly understand that the number 17 has an innate ability to anticipate everything that could happen between the four lines of a basketball court.
” He was a real pro, who just worked and worked. » LARRY BIRDS
” Chris Mullin is a guy I would have loved to play with says Larry Bird in his second book, Birdwatching, written precisely when he was coaching the former Warrior at the Pacers. ” He’s one of those players who understands the game. It shows in the way he passes the ball, his knack for always being in the right place for the rebound, and the way he investigates his shots. I remember being impressed by the way he behaved in the Dream Team. We never really had serious practice, but Chris was always working on something. He was a real pro, who just worked and worked. »
Bird knows what he is talking about, since he has also built his legend on individual fundamentals of rare perfection and on an impressive ability to compensate for his athletic handicap by always having a good time ahead of his opponents. But to see the game in such a global and simple way that you can have no physical advantage over the opposition and still systematically find a way to gain the upper hand is a stroke of genius that very few players can. boast of having possessed.
New York, born and raised
” I liked being alone in the gym Mullin tells Jack McCallum in his Dream Team book. Nope, I loved that. Put a cassette player or a radio near the floor, put on some Springsteen, really hard, then shoot, take your own rebound, shoot, take your rebound. I loved that. Or maybe I was off-roading thirty minutes on my own. It was no problem for me. “Reading these kinds of statements, it is easy to imagine the classic course of the white player from Indiana or Kansas who fought boredom in his lost hole by taking shots alone on a field. It is exactly the opposite.
Mullin was born and raised in Brooklyn. He’s a die-hard New Yorker, who began his high-school career at Power Memorial, where Lew Alcindor started making a name for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, before ending it at a Catholic school in Brooklyn. . Nor did he leave the mecca of basketball when it came time to choose his university, joining the ranks of St John’s (in the Queen’s), a stronghold of the Big East when the conference, now in ruins, reigned over NCAA basketball, notably placing three teams, including the Redmen, in the 1985 Final Four.
In St John’s, coached by an NCAA basketball legend (Lou Carnesecca) and surrounded by other pure local asphalt products like Mark Jackson (the current Warriors coach) and Walter Berry, Mullin will mark the history of the Big East and write the last beautiful pages of New York college basketball. MVP or co-MVP of the conference three years in a row, NCAA player of the year in 85, Chris offers his coach the only Final Four of his career and memorable battles against the terrifying Georgetown defense of Patrick Ewing.
Already, Mullin is a player apart, fabulously simple and amazingly skilled (55% in shots and 84.8% in throws in four years). But its greatest strength is elsewhere. Asked by The Sporting News during the quiet phenomenon’s senior season, Gary Williams, then a coach at Boston College, was an admirer: ” It’s obvious that he understood that the way to become a great player is to be a great passer. Put two guys on him and he’ll just serve the open player for a layup “.
” Putting a cassette player near the floor, putting on some Springsteen, then shooting, getting your own bounce, I loved that. »
Mullin is not the prototype of the “white player good shooter, strong technically, disciplined and intelligent in the game”. He is the perfect mix of two cultures which, like a couple in crisis, have trouble getting along despite speaking the same language: that of organized basketball and that of street basketball, omnipresent in New York. ” I was going to town to play in the street “recalls Mullin in Dream Team, “ and that helped me a lot. But then my coach told me “Nah, nan” and made me go back to basics. My game thus became a combination of the two. »
When the Warriors make him the 7th choice of a draft placed under the sign of questionable interiors (Benoit Benjamin, Jon Koncak and Joe Kleine are drafted before him, Keith Lee and Uwe Blab follow closely…), he seems ready to show the pros that the rough defenses of the Big East have prepared him well for a higher level of which he does not however really pass the physical tests… and even less the breathalyzers.
Bud Wiser (one last for the road…)
In the mid-1980s, when the NBA thought it had done the hardest part to shed its image as a league of drug addicts, cocaine was all the rage and wreaked havoc on the younger generation, notably depriving four of the first seven picks of the 1986 draft (including the 3th by Golden State, Chris Washburn, who only holds 2 seasons and 72 games in the NBA) of all or part of their pro career. Mullin, he has suffered in silence for some time another addiction, less risky in the short term but just as dramatic.
” I always wanted to beat her he tells McCallum 25 years later. ” I wanted to become a great player and the beer prevented me from becoming one. Now ? Being sober is a blessing that I would like to share. I would like to tell everyone how good I feel. It was in December 1987, when he had lost his basketball for a few matches, that Chris was overtaken by his old demons. He misses several training sessions, gets suspended, goes to rehab, and comes back changed, determined to forbid himself any drop of alcohol for as long as his playing career lasts.
When he returns at the end of January, it is a new player that the Warriors discover, even more brilliant than the one they drafted two and a half years earlier and who has just offered them two perfectly acceptable seasons. Mullin needs just three games to get back into the rhythm, takes control of depressing Warriors, and shows his managers they can build around him by averaging nearly 25 points in the last 21 games of the season.
” I wanted to become a great player and the beer prevented me from becoming one. »
The major cleaning carried out that season by Golden State, whether in the lifestyle of the best player in the franchise or in the workforce (Sleepy Floyd and Joe Barry Carroll, who is anything but an example to follow, are traded for Ralph Sampson, already shot at 28 and who does not last long in Oakland), allows the Warriors to get their hands on Mitch Richmond with the 5th pick of the 88 draft, then on Hardaway the following season. Of this fantastic trio that has dynamited the league for too little time, it is Mullin who remains the emblematic figure of the franchise.
He left her only at 34, worn down by the turbulent passages of a new generation of divas led by Chris Webber and Latrell Sprewell. His three seasons at the Pacers allow him, in a much more limited role, to finally taste the conference finals and the NBA final. But his heart is in California, in his franchise of always, of which he postpones the jersey for a last lap of honor (20 matches in 2000-01). A jersey that the Warriors obviously end up hanging from the ceiling, alongside those of Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Nate Thurmond, Al Attles and Tom Meschery.
Olympic champion with Jordan and Ewing in 1984, the last American team made up of NCAA players to win (and outrageously dominate) the Games, Mullin is one of the least publicized members of the Dream Team of 92, of which he was nevertheless the one of the best scorers with a maddening skill. His apparent slowness and the impressive economy of movement with which he has always known how to move, dig in from afar, serve his teammates on a set and find himself strangely alone on the counterattack have led generations of fans to unconsciously underestimate his fabulous instinct for basketball. It’s probably the price to pay for getting sober. And it’s very good like that.
Article originally published in REVERSE #41