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Chris Mullin and Lou Carnesecca have a strong connection

St. John's former head coach Lou Carnesecca welcomes

St. John's former head coach Lou Carnesecca welcomes NBA Hall of Famer and alumni Chris Mullin at Mullin's head coach introductory press conference at Carnesecca Arena on April 1, 2015. Credit: Andrew Theodorakis

The list of contacts in Chris Mullin's cellphone reads like a who's who from the basketball coaching fraternity. Many have "coach" next to their name, but Mullin is quick to point out that there's only one man he input simply as "Coach."

In Mullin's world, there's only one guy deserving of the title.

"And that," he said, "is coach Carnesecca."

When Mullin was introduced as the 20th basketball coach in St. John's history last week, he spoke about turning back the clock to the days when it was expected that Carnesecca's teams would be built around city kids, win games and be relevant on the New York sports scene.

It's a tall task considering the drastically different sports landscape compared with when Mullin was an undergrad in the early 1980s.

No doubt Mullin knows that. But to understand why the school's leading scorer felt such a strong emotional tug to come home, look no further than the bond that exists between him and his college coach -- the guy he chose to be by his side when he was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in 2011.

"You know," Carnesecca said this past week by phone, "we go way, way back."

But it's much more than time that connects Mullin and Carnesecca. People say the bond has much more to do with who they are and what they value. They insist these two men, born nearly 40 years apart, are a lot more alike than appears on the surface.

"To this day, when people ask me about what is Chris' greatest trait, I say it's his loyalty, his undying loyalty," said Jack Alesi, who coached Mullin in CYO and high school and remains close to him. "I think that's what connected Chris with coach Carnesecca. He was a type of kid who was very impressed by the sincerity and the genuineness of coach Carnesecca."

Carnesecca, of course, is bubbly and charismatic by nature. Even today, at 90, he has that uncanny ability to make a stranger feel as if the two of you were childhood buddies who used to rule the neighborhood stickball games.

Mullin comes across as a tad more reserved, at least to strangers. But the thing about Mullin is that there's very little pretense there. People close to him say that's just as true today as it was 34 years ago when he was a high school senior at Xaverian.

"People like to be around him," Carnesecca said. "He doesn't big-time you. That's a big thing."

Mullin, 51, believes he was about 10 years old when he first met Carnesecca. Then a CYO player at Brooklyn's St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, young Chris attended Carnesecca's basketball camp at St. John's, a chance meeting that wound up meaning so much to both down the road.

Never a superb athlete, Mullin stood out on the court because of his instincts, confidence and shooting ability. In high school, he starred at Manhattan's Power Memorial Academy, the basketball powerhouse that produced Lew Alcindor years earlier, before transferring to Xaverian midway through his junior year.

Transfer rules stipulated that he had to sit out for a year. He made his debut at Xaverian in January of his senior year, and two months later, his new school won a state title.

By then, Mullin's skills were no secret.

Carnesecca often has told the story about how he told Mullin at the end of his freshman year of high school that he was saving a St. John's roster spot for him. But Mullin did his due diligence and looked around, considering schools such as Duke, Virginia and Notre Dame.

Longtime New York City basketball scout Tom Konchalski still remembers the day when Mullin informed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski that he was headed to St. John's. Konchalski said he bumped into coach K at a charity game at Madison Square Garden and described him as "despondent."

"He made it a personal project to recruit him," Konchalski said. "Of all the players he recruited and didn't get, he says he regrets not getting to coach Chris Mullin the most."

Mullin's decision to "pack a bag and go 12 miles down the Belt" to school -- as he said during his Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech -- had more to do with choosing the coach he wanted to play for than choosing a school or a locale.

In 1982, during his sophomore season, Mullin told The New York Times: "My main reason for coming to St. John's was the coach. I kind of grew up with him.''

Said Alesi, "In the end, he felt he had a connection with coach Carnesecca. More than playing for St. John's and being in New York, he wanted to play for coach Carnesecca. I think he respected him that much."

Then Mullin's career "exploded," as Carnesecca puts it. St. John's went to the NCAA Tournament all four years he was there, advancing to the Final Four in 1985. It's also when Mullin's reputation for being a tireless gym rat took shape.

Bill Wennington, who went on to play 13 NBA seasons and won three NBA championship rings with the Bulls, said he and Mullin spent their first night as St. John's freshmen talking about their goals -- winning an NCAA title, playing in the NBA. Wennington said he came away from that chat convinced that Mullin "was a winner, and he would do whatever it takes to win."

When a blizzard snowed them in at school one year, trainer Ron Linfonte remembers awakening to the sound of a lone bouncing ball in the gym. There was Mullin passing the time taking shots. And even when the snow subsided, Mullin saw no reason to leave the gym. "He figured if he went home, he'd just put up balls at Xaverian," Linfonte said. "So might as well stay here."

Life after St. John's wasn't easy at first.

Mullin was drafted by the Golden State Warriors -- "where's that?" a friend asked him on draft night -- and during his third year as a pro, he was scolded by coach Don Nelson for falling out of shape. Mullin then left the team for a month to undergo alcohol rehab.

"That's the thing that changed his career," Nelson, 74, said from his home in Maui. "He came back as just a totally different person and was the player we all thought he would be in college."

And throughout it all, Carnesecca was never far away.

Tim Hardaway, 48, Mullin's longtime teammate with the Warriors, said he remembers seeing Carnesecca whenever the Warriors played games along the East Coast, be it in Philadelphia, Boston, New York or New Jersey.

Former Warriors general manager Al Attles, 78, said whenever he bumped into Mullin's old coach on a scouting trip, Carnesecca always asked, "How's Chris?"

Mullin attended a handful of St. John's games during the last decade, and of course he always sat next to the guy he calls Coach.

"Their relationship is genuine, it's for real," Hardaway said. "It's a father-son relationship."

That's evident every time they're together. In 2011, when Mullin was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, Hardaway said the way Mullin and Carnesecca acted that weekend, "it was like a family reunion."

Mullin began his induction speech by addressing Carnesecca, saying, "Coach, it's hard to believe we've made it this far. I've got to say, without you in my life, I wouldn't be standing here tonight . . . The thing I cherish the most is our relationship."

When St. John's inducted Mullin into the school's athletics Hall of Fame three months ago, he began his speech by pointing out that his graduation date wasn't a misprint, that he did in fact graduate in the 1990s. But, he joked, "I wasn't here for 13 years."

Although he stayed at St. John's the full four years, as was typical in those days, he left for the NBA without a degree. Carnesecca wouldn't let him forget it.

"Coach was on me about graduating," he said. "Thanks for making that happen."

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