Mounted on the wall behind the desk of St. John’s basketball coach Chris Mullin is a framed poster that reads: “Life is full of setbacks. Success is determined by how you handle setbacks.”
That adage perfectly sums up the daunting challenge facing the Hall of Famer who returned to his alma mater last April as the conquering hero, only to see the tears of joy shed the day his hiring was announced give way to the grim reality of a season in which his woefully inexperienced team suffered a school-record 16-game losing streak while going 1-17 in Big East play and 8-23 overall.
It was a torturous maiden voyage that mercifully ends with the Big East Tournament starting Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, but through it all, Mullin has remained remarkably even-keeled and confident in his vision for the future while showing a positive face to his players and reinforcing every sign of progress.
“To me, it’s important how you conduct yourself and what you do,” Mullin said in a wide-ranging interview with Newsday. “When I address them, I just try to be really forthright and to the point, not making things up. What happened, and what’s the solution. That’s worked for me.”
Several times this season as the losses mounted and the media questioned how Mullin, 52, was weathering the storm, he cited his experience with failure both on and off the court in the NBA with Golden State, which lost 52 games in 1985-86, his rookie year, and 62 in his third season, when he was suspended by coach Don Nelson before entering an alcohol rehabilitation program.
Rather than gloss over that part of his experience with failure, Mullin includes it with unflinching honesty. The strategies governing his personal recovery ever since are part of the disciplined approach he’s taking toward the resurrection of St. John’s basketball.
“They are the same,” Mullin said. “Success on the court is about discipline, work ethic, being unselfish, having a plan and sticking to it despite what goes on around you. When you don’t do that, you’re going to struggle until you get back to the most fundamental things. It’s the same in life . . . Being able to stick to those principles when things go off the track a little bit.
“I’ve experienced it on and off the court somewhat simultaneously, really. They were connected to each other. You’re talking about rebuilding or resetting. The most successful people and the most successful businesses in the world, at some point, reorganized.
“My career, at one point, was not very successful. But I went from being very unsuccessful to being pretty successful [because of] the change I made. So I’ve seen it happen, and there are millions of examples. The point being that if you are forthright and you have persistence and the right plan, it will work out.”
Mullin credits 91-year-old St. John’s patriarch Lou Carnesecca for his enduring belief in the basics of basketball and how they apply to life in general.
“There is a correlation between how you conduct yourself on the court and off the court, how you handle winning and losing,” Mullin said. “How you come back the next day after a tough loss, practice habits, all those things that are going to make you successful.”
When Mullin was hired, some worried it might be a mistake to believe he could succeed without previous coaching experience, that he was relying on the laurels he earned as a player. Never mind that he became a successful NBA general manager and executive.
In fact, Mullin’s approach has been to remove his own ego from the equation. He obliges fans, alums and media members who ask about his history, but he doesn’t spend time telling stories about his playing career to his players.
“That’s a turnoff to me,” Mullin said. “We’re trying to do something today. It has no bearing. This is all new, a new chapter and new adventure, new everything.”
Those who live in the past are condemned to repeat it, in Mullin’s view. Referring to recent putdowns of Warriors star Steph Curry by retired NBA stars, including Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, Mullin said: “There’s old guys trying to not give Steph Curry credit. C’mon, he’s great. Say it. He’s the greatest shooter of all time. I don’t think it’s close. And he’s more than just a shooter, too. He’s absurd. Give the guy his credit.”
Mullin, too, has become the target of some snark as St. John’s losses mounted this season. ESPN commentator Jeff Goodman isn’t the first to comment on how animated 26-year-old assistant Greg St. Jean is on the sideline and in huddles, but he has made a point of calling the Red Storm St. Jean’s team.
It’s true Mullin has given significant responsibility to St. Jean, who is the son of Garry St. Jean, who coached Mullin at Golden State and preceded him there as general manager. Mullin regards the young St. Jean as a rising coaching prodigy, but there’s no question about who is running St. John’s program.
Mullin cites the great Larry Bird, his former coach with the Indiana Pacers and his teammate on the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team, as the model for his collaborative approach. “The thing I loved about Larry — obviously, I looked up to him and his great playing career — is that he had [assistants] Rick Carlisle and Dick Harter, an offensive guy and a defensive guy,” Mullin said. “Larry oversaw both.”
The media would give him flak, Mullin said. “ ‘Rick’s doing that.’ The more successful we got, he didn’t waver. He wasn’t going to go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to run it.’ Larry was confident in himself. He was comfortable in his own skin.”
At times, Mullin sits in the huddle and directs his players, but he also has given St. Jean a prominent role in running practice and providing sideline instruction during games. That sometimes includes diagramming plays.
“Whatever we do, I tell him what I want written up, and he writes it up,” Mullin said.
“You do most of your preparation in practice. You can’t give these kids too much in a timeout. If you give them one thing and they remember it, you’re a genius.”
Mullin described the notion that Bird — and by extension himself — doesn’t know how to diagram a play as “comical,” and added that basketball really comes down to finding a way to put the ball in the basket.
“Larry would say, ‘Are you going to make a shot or what?’ That’s what it was. Period. Now, getting good looks, moving the ball, that’s the details you work on.
“To me, it’s like, Wow, they [media] really don’t know what happens in a basketball setting, do they? They think that a 30-second timeout is coaching. If you don’t know what you’re running and you’ve got to diagram it, you’re screwed.”
Putting a roster together
In the end, it all comes down to recruiting the right players and teaching them how to play unselfishly together. When Mullin replaced Steve Lavin, he essentially inherited a patch of scorched earth. Only three lightly used reserves returned, and a new team had to be thrown together virtually overnight without the benefit of a true offseason in which to develop.
Mullin has been pleased with the effort shown by all his players and heartened by the progress of freshmen Kassoum Yakwe, Yankuba Sima, Malik Ellison and Federico Mussini. Tennessee transfer forward Tariq Owens had to redshirt under transfer rules but has made “tremendous strides,” Mullin said.
Freshman guard Marcus LoVett was ruled ineligible by the NCAA, but Mullin said he is doing well in the classroom and will be an important addition next season. “Marcus is an elite guard,” Mullin said. “To me, he’s a difference-maker, big-time.”
Over the past year, St. John’s has signed Shamorie Ponds of Brooklyn’s Thomas Jefferson High to and has received commitments from German forward Richard Freudenberg and junior-college forward Bashir Ahmed from the Bronx. Mullin’s recruiting staff, headed by Barry Rohrssen and Matt Abdelmassih, also is in the mix for five-star recruits Rawle Alkins of Brooklyn and 7-foot Thon Maker, a Sudanese native playing in Canada.
All the losing hasn’t scared off any recruits. On the contrary, Mullin said, “It’s really more of an opportunity to come be a part of this new regime and new chapter and the rebirth of St. John’s. I think kids look at style of play more than anything. Quite frankly, I’ve gotten good feedback on how we’ve handled this in general.”
As difficult as it might be to see beyond the losing record, Mullin remains confident in his vision for St. John’s because he understands what it takes to overcome personal and professional failure.
“For me personally, it’s been a good test, a validation of what I do,” Mullin said. “Getting up each day and wiping the slate clean is what I do. If you look at how the players have responded, they’ve actually done it. I think it will be a good thing for them long-term.
“You know you’re working toward something better. That’s also setting the culture for the future. That’s how you succeed. No excuses, no blaming, no looking backward. Today is the day to get better. You put several days and weeks and months and years of that together, and you’ll succeed. People have mentored me along the way, and it’s worked out pretty good. I’m trying to pass it on to our guys.”