The courtship had been a 24-hour whirlwind and finally was over. An agreement had been reached and handshakes exchanged. Mike Anderson had been selected to replace Chris Mullin as St. John’s coach. He needed to make a phone call.
The 59-year-old who had coached 17 seasons of Division I basketball and never finished with a losing record did not dial up family or friends. He did not reach out to bring on a trusted assistant.
He called Mustapha Heron, who had just finished his junior season as the second-leading scorer on a Red Storm team that went 21-13 and reached its first NCAA Tournament since 2015.
“First phone call,” Anderson said. “I wanted him to hear it from me, that I would be the coach. I wanted to explain how I wanted to see him continue to flourish. . . . I have always been about relationships and communication and I saw him as the potential leader.”
The 6-5 Heron played his first two years at Auburn in the SEC against Anderson’s Arkansas teams and admired how hard the Razorbacks played. And the respect that Anderson showed him in that phone call was returned. “I told him I would be there [the next day] at his press conference,” Heron said.
As St. John’s heads into its season opener Wednesday against Mercer at Carnesecca Arena, that connection has grown. Anderson has worked the Storm hard to get the players into the best shape of their lives. And the players have followed Heron’s passion for the work because he has seen what Anderson’s teams can do first-hand – “his teams work hard,” he said.
Heron explained that the players had to tap their inner toughness to “get through just two weeks under Coach A” because he said everything about their workouts was physically and mentally draining. But he said each player has become a better, harder version of themselves.
“He says all the time ‘I don’t want pretty guys. I want guys with scars on their faces, blue-collar guys,’” Heron said.
This toughness is what the Storm is going to need if it is to rise above the low bar set for it when Big East coaches tabbed it ninth of 10 in a preseason poll. The team has talent but is light on experience and is not deep. Heron’s 14.6-point average was second to Shamorie Ponds — who left to go pro — and 6-7 forward LJ Figueroa averaged 14.4 points and 6.4 rebound. St. John’s will rely heavily on two sophomores — 6-9 Josh Roberts and 6-3 Greg Williams Jr. — though Mullin played them an average of just 6.3 and 8.4 minutes as freshmen.
“[Roberts] just does the stuff that nobody else wants to do. He gets offensive rebounds, he blocks shots, he wants to run the floor harder than everybody else and he just brings a different type of energy when he plays,” Heron said.
St. John’s should be deeper after the first semester when gifted 6-9 North Carolina State transfer Ian Steere becomes eligible; the Storm awaits a verdict on an appeal for 6-2 Cleveland State transfer Rasheem Dunn to become eligible.
As Heron is hoping for a shot at the NBA after this season he has, in his own words, “gotten much more serious” in terms of his workouts, habits and nutrition. Anderson said Figueroa has joined him in that effort.
“I'm in better shape than I was last year [and] I think I've grown in pretty much every area,” Heron said. “LJ is certainly a better player than he was last year.”
Anderson’s style is quite different than Mullin’s. Heron describes a more hands-on approach, a greater emphasis on accountability to teammates and greater measure of teaching.
“I like where we could be because I have seen everyone buy in to what we are doing and because they are willing to work,” Anderson said. “It helps when your best players — like Mustapha and LJ — are the hardest workers.”
All that started with just a phone call.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Athletic director Mike Cragg and coach Mike Anderson have ended the recent trend of beefing up on a steady diet of cupcakes before entering Big East play. The Storm has scheduled games against Arizona, West Virginia, Arizona State and either defending national champion Virginia or UMass.
- Ian Steere, a 6-9 transfer from N.C. State, becomes eligible after the fall semester. He was a highly sought recruit who picked the Wolfpack over Creighton. The 260-pounder acknowledged he is potentially a difference-maker on the inside but added “I have to be more consistent.”
- St. John’s is hoping to win its appeal to get Cleveland State transfer and potential starting point guard Rasheem Dunn eligible. After averaging 15.4 points as a sophomore at St. Francis Brooklyn, he transferred and sat out last season. The school fired coach Dennis Felton in the summer prompting the Brooklyn product’s move home. If the appeal is denied, Dunn would be sitting out a second straight year.
- -- ROGER RUBIN