Chris Mullin, all-time great and first-time coach, made a rousing return to St. John's Wednesday and vowed that St. John's will do exactly what he did: return to New York City roots.
During a barn burner of a news conference that was interrupted repeatedly by applause from hundreds of alumni and fans, Mullin said his lack of experience at the head of a bench will not hinder him. Nor will the fact recruits might know him only as a figure in video games.
He will depend on the basketball knowledge he gleaned from coach Lou Carnesecca, who sat beside him on the dais (before and after standing ovations). And he will rely on knowledge of his old stamping ground.
"I guarantee you, you'll see me at public school gyms and Catholic school gyms and AAU gyms, all over New York City,'' said the 51-year-old Hall of Famer from Brooklyn, who has lived in California for the past 30 years. "You don't have to tell me where they are. I've been in all of them. I know how to get in the back doors, and if not, I know the janitor, so I'm going to get there.
"I think it's really important that we dominate New York,'' the school's career scoring leader said to sustained cheers. To more applause, he added, "If there's a good player in New York City, he needs to come to St. John's -- if he wants to play the best basketball.''
Mullin called his decision to become the school's 20th coach "an obligation.'' None of his predecessors ever had a welcome like his. It was not held in a conference room, but on the floor of Carnesecca Arena, which was called Alumni Hall when Mullin spent countless hours in it, winning Big East games, perfecting his jump shot and absorbing wisdom from the only man he calls simply "Coach.''
Carnesecca said Gen. Dwight Eisenhower didn't get as much publicity for winning World War II as Mullin did for accepting this job. But the 90-year-old was thrilled. "Words can't describe it,'' he said.
Looie still attends home games and keeps in touch with his former players, particularly Mullin. He handed his protégé a weathered, plastic-encased card he had been carrying since 1968, when he received it from his mentor Joe Lapchick. "At Danny's Hideaway,'' Carnesecca said, recalling the occasion.
Mullin later revealed that the card says, "Peacock today, feather duster tomorrow'' as a call to humility. He also remembered having been in that very gym as a high school freshman and hearing Carnesecca tell him, "You're going to play for me someday.''
Most of all, Mullin reflected on how Carnesecca taught more lessons after losses than after victories and promised that his St. John's team -- which right now has very few players -- will inspire pride, "Win, lose or draw.''
Walter Berry believes his teammate on the 1985 Final Four team will have no problem relating to teenage recruits. "Chris only got old in age, he didn't get old in spirit,'' Berry said.
Mullin spoke of having conferred this past weekend with another former teammate, Mark Jackson, as well as Larry Bird and Steve Kerr about leaping into coaching's deep water. They all told him to assemble a strong staff, which he intends to do. His most serious discussions came with his wife, Liz, a St. John's alumna, and their four children. All gave their blessing.
So he was on a plane Tuesday night and at a podium yesterday, saying, "I understand the landscape has changed a little bit . . . But I still think St. John's needs to be first and foremost a New York City team.''
That brought more cheers and a smile from the coach whom Mullin credits with helping form his character. The lingering question for Carnesecca was, what did he teach Mullin after those defeats?
That was an easy one. Carnesecca remembered it this way: "Don't lose.''