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Chris Mullin ready for challenge of rebuilding St. John’s

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Saturday, November 7, 2015, 1:53 PM

Chris Mullin surrounds himself with fellow Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond (l.), assistant Barry Rohrsson and slew of new players under watchful eye of mentor Lou Carnesseca (below).Ken Goldfield/Ken Goldfield

Chris Mullin surrounds himself with fellow Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond (l.), assistant Barry Rohrsson and slew of new players under watchful eye of mentor Lou Carnesseca (below).

There are mementos from Lou Carnesecca’s coaching career spread throughout the brick building that bears his name on the St. John’s campus. A “King Looie!” headline greets all who enter his court and one of his brown sweaters with red and blue patterns qualifies as a family jewel kept behind glass. He is present in the flesh tonight, the stones in his Hall of Fame ring sparkling on his finger. Fans pay homage. He is 90 now, a cane at his side and plaid newsboy cap set on his right knee. He leans back in the aisle seat of Row FF as he takes in the public unveiling of Chris Mullin, a former pupil, as the new coach. Carnesecca signs photos of him and Mullin with a marker, and likens the activity around him to 42nd Street. Mullin, dressed in a suit and collared shirt, huddles his players together. Carnesecca observes his old acolyte.

“He’s directing it all down there now!” Carnesecca says.

Confusion reigns on court. There is little execution on the part of the new Johnnies in the exhibition game below. Mullin’s millennials average more than a turnover per minute through the first half against St. Thomas Aquinas College, a Division II program down from Rockland County. The Spartans are an aggressive unit and St. John’s is running sans point guard Marcus LoVett, a freshman from Fort Wayne, Ind. He goes by “Bright Lights,” but the team’s prospects look dim with him sidelined due to a knee ailment. His eligibility remains in limbo, too, as he is yet to be cleared by the NCAA. The Johnnies play on as Mullin, seated between fellow Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond and associate coach Barry Rohrssen, watches it all unravel. There are loose strings all over; an inbounds pass gets picked off and Aquinas’ full-court, 40-minute press proves difficult to break. St. John’s point guard Federico Mussini, an import from Italy, manages to knock down a few spot-up 3-pointers. He finds forward Darien Williams for a layup off a pick and roll, but he grows frustrated when Williams, a junior transfer, fails to set a proper screen later. After another basket, Aquinas point guard James Mitchell starts clapping in Mussini’s face. Mullin stretches his legs, rubs the side of his head and pats his buzz cut. He crosses his arms and folds his fingers. He is adjusting to life so close to the action again. They take a 90-58 shellacking. Mullin refers to it as “embarrassing.”

“A lot of it is just being careless,” he says. “We were being very, very careless, lackadaisical.”

Mullin is not looking for a mulligan. He commends Aquinas for its effort, adding that the game was their Super Bowl, “probably the biggest win those guys will have, maybe ever,” and, “God bless them.” His task is now to turn it around before this Friday’s opener. Recruited back to campus in April — 30 years after leading his alma mater to a Final Four — he button hooked back East, leaving the Bay Area for Utopia Parkway once again. Billed as a savior, he is rebuilding a program depleted since last season’s NCAA tournament appearance and subsequent departure of Steve Lavin as coach. Mullin’s hands are full while the cupboard is bare. There are 10 new players on his roster. Three returnees combined for less than 4% of the scoring a year ago, and Rysheed Jordan, the underclassman with the most potential, now competes for time with the Delaware 87ers in the NBA’s D-League. In turn, Mullin can sell minutes to prospects near and far. Supporters insist he can turn back the clock.

“I’m not really one to live in the past,” he says.

Chris Mullin poses with Lou Carnesecca when he was named St. John's head coach in April.Robert Sabo/New York Daily News

Chris Mullin poses with Lou Carnesecca when he was named St. John’s head coach in April.

Others do it for him. Seated at midcourt, opposite Carnesecca’s perch in the stands, is a man chewing a La Aroma De Cuba cigar. His name is Will Pleva, and he does not smoke. He only chews the Cuban so he need not wait for victory to enjoy the flavor. He is 61 and wears a St. John’s shirt zippered down to allow his chest hair to puff out. His day job is to work as a headhunter, and he approves of the Mullin hiring, both as a fan and professional. He looks out at the home bench, allowing himself a lament of the staff that he considers spectacular: “If only they could play.”

He considers the blowout a blip. There are five fans in the crowd wearing Mullin’s old No. 20 jerseys back from the Carnesecca Era. Pleva recalls vintage performances against Georgetown with Mullin “getting smacked in the mouth and moving on.” He holds Mullin up in the highest regard.

“He has a halo,” he says, “and a serious honeymoon period.”

* * *

Joseph Oliva, the university’s general counsel, doubles as the interim athletics director these days. He is also an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, and those around campus credit him, in part, for bringing their prodigal son back home. On a recent evening, he sits inside his office. The space features a row of bobble heads — one is of former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese — standing on a windowsill, and a life-size cardboard cutout of Carnesecca is in a corner. Oliva speaks about the fourth day of his talks with Mullin. March 30 stands out because it was the day Mullin promised that he would decide about the offer. Patience proved difficult.

“I’m pacing, pacing, pacing. I can’t do any work,” Oliva says. “Waiting for the phone call, waiting for the phone call, waiting for the phone call.”

Oliva’s phone buzzed around 3:30 p.m. The number was familiar. It belonged to Mullin. He was in the Bay Area and his wife, Liz, was in the car with him. Mullin, who was serving as a senior adviser with the Sacramento Kings at the time, spoke.

“Joe,” Mullin said. “It’s Coach Mullin.”

Mullin asked for the phone number to reach Dr. Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, the university president, and informed him personally. He then flew cross-country shortly after. There were family decisions to be made, ones that would affect his three sons — Sean, Christopher and Liam; daughter Kiera and dog Kuma, an Akita. He stayed in the New York Athletic Club with his family, and made his way out to campus for a coronation, replete with a rose in his suit pocket. Former Red Storm players, ranging from teammate Walter Berry to Felipe Lopez, attended. Carnesecca passed on a card that he inherited from former coach Joe Lapchick. It read, “Peacock today, feather duster tomorrow,” a reminder that once the pageantry and parading were complete that Mullin’s every coaching move would be made in Macy’s window.

“It’s not like I’ve been sitting at home and watching ‘King of Queens’ all day,” Mullin says. “I’ve had a few jobs that have had a lot of responsibility.”

The Oliva and Mullin families dined at Acquista Trattoria across Union Turnpike that first evening. Several basketball alumni also ate there. New assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih, a former student manager at St. John’s and most recently an assistant at Iowa State, worked the phones to gain traction quickly. His whirling manner earned the title “Cyclone” from Oliva. Mullin eventually needed a ride back to Manhattan, and Oliva volunteered, taking his wife’s GMC Acadia to chauffeur Mullin there. When Mullin looked at the dashboard, he noticed a feather duster.

“He goes, ‘Really? What should I make of this?’” Oliva says. “He put it down and we enjoyed a quiet ride into the city.”

Mullin moved quickly to collect talent in and outside the five boroughs. He added Rohrssen, a fellow alumnus of Xaverian High in Bay Ridge. Rohrssen, once the coach at Manhattan, carried an impressive recruiting Rolodex, a street-wise knowledge of the city’s bandbox gyms and a Zagat’s-level knowledge of its restaurants. (Consider Bamonte’s on Withers St. in Williamsburg, he says.) He was part of rebuilding projects at UNLV in the mid-90s and Pitt with Ben Howland. Recruiting up from a razed level was nothing new. Mullin leaned on assistants as guides along the trail while he caught up to speed on restrictions and evaluation periods. Mullin, a former general manager with the Warriors, allowed that prospecting for talent was different in the NBA, but he also noted similarities.

“Believe it or not, even when you sign a guy to a $ 100 million contract, you still recruit him,” Mullin says.

Legwork is nothing new to Mullin. Teammates recount his conditioning sessions with gusto, telling about heart rate monitors and full-court games of two-on-two. Former St. John’s teammate Mark Jackson mentions Mullin’s lessons to him on becoming a “gym technician,” to utilizing each moment properly. Mario Elie, an old teammate at Power Memorial, played two seasons with Mullin in the NBA, and was so taken with his ethic that he wore No. 17 in his honor thereon throughout his 11-year NBA career. UCLA coach Steve Alford played against Mullin in practice sessions while both helped Team USA win gold during the 1984 Olympics, and he considers Mullin “a brilliant mind.” He also later enjoyed a brief stint with the Warriors and met Mullin each day to commute from their Alameda, Calif., neighborhood. If practice was at 9:30 a.m. or so, Alford walked to Mullin’s place at 8 a.m. to meet up. Often, he found Mullin, his shirt soaked in sweat, having ridden a stationary bike the past 40-50 minutes. A similar image stuck in the mind of Šarunas Marciulionis, a lefty from Lithuania. He once arrived at Mullin’s front door, and a maid let him in. Mullin was running on the treadmill while holding his child.

“I thought this was very unusual,” Marciulionis says. “He’s still in shape! We get jealous! He’s addicted to working out. Good, positive addiction.”

The new St. John’s staff hustled to horde enough talent to piece together a team. They picked up commitments from the likes of LoVett, a lightning quick guard. They brought in two fifth-year seniors — Durand Johnson and Ron Mvouika — to offer competitiveness and energy. By the time the patchwork was complete, the roster was filled with six players from overseas. Italy, France, Spain, Mali, Guinea and Serbia were represented. Mullin, the son of a JFK Airport customs inspector, trekked 12 miles down the Belt Parkway from his family’s place on Troy Ave. in the Flatbush Section of Brooklyn when he signed as a recruit at the commuter school. Now, he gained a commitment from Mussini when the Italian visited during a layover from JFK en route home from the Hoop Summit in Oregon. Carnesecca stopped by for a meeting, and Mussini, familiar with Americanization abroad, listed Stephen Curry, Jason Williams and Allen Iverson as his influences.

“I love those skinny players,” Mussini says. “They don’t care about their body.”

They will take their lumps on an uncertain path hereon. There are home games before the Maui Invitational over Thanksgiving and they will try their luck at a game inside the Mohegan Sun Arena come December. Mullin is fixing for fights already. When he walked back to the Garden for the first time as coach, he noted the old rivals in the room at the Big East’s media day. There were Wildcats and Friars, Pirates and Hoyas. He remembered what drew him to the Big East as a player. He reflected on the authenticity of his unholy feelings toward Georgetown.

“It was a legitimate rivalry, not one of those made-up ones,” he says. “It did take about 20 years to bury the hatchet to become friends.”

* * *

There is a future member of Mullin’s program warming up inside Tony Jackson Gym, home of the Thomas Jefferson High team. The bandbox stands on Pennsylvania Avenue in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, eight miles from St. John’s. His name is Shamorie Ponds and he is a southpaw like Mullin. Practice does not start for another hour, but he works on bankers before stepping back behind the arc. He is the best player in the Public School Athletic League, and committed to St. John’s in late September. He syncs his hips and arms to find a rhythm from fingertips to toes.

“Get there! Get there! Get there!” coach Lawrence Pollard says as he leads Ponds to open spots marked with yellow mats.

He cannot spot up for St. John’s soon enough. Mullin checked in on him during the first day of school and they took a photo together. His father, Sean, was in attendance at the Aquinas game, across from the bench, the previous night. He notes that the team needs time. Ponds was in an SAT tutoring session during the defeat.

“I was shocked,” he says. “I didn’t expect them to lose like that, but they’ll build from there.”

Pollard remembers Mullin’s blueprint plans from the recruiting pitch. The first-time coach relayed his experience of visiting Duke and Virginia before realizing St. John’s was his destination. Mullin shot around with Ponds, beating him twice in contests: once at St. John’s and another time at Jefferson.

“He got me in the corners,” Ponds says. “He want to show me the ropes.”

Mullin works with the players he has for now, and accepts all challenges. Just as Aquinas blitzed his players, he knows that his reputation as a marksman doubles as a bull’s eye for every coach and team on his schedule now. He also knows internal challengers are lurking. Prior to a recent practice, Mullin, typically easygoing, turns earnest when told that Mussini wants to take the measure of him in a shootout.

“He’s waiting?” Mullin says. “Alright, well, he knows where to find me.”


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