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SportsColumnistsGreg Logan

Chris Mullin preaches with a passion, and St. John's flock hear the call

NBA Hall of Famer and alumni Chris Mullin

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

Chris Mullin had the crowd in Carnesecca Arena Wednesday at: "It's great to be home."

As the celebration of his return to the spot that gave birth to his Hall of Fame playing career proceeded, it often was interrupted by applause and bursts of laughter as Mullin regaled his audience with tales about 90-year-old coach Lou Carnesecca, who was seated next to him on the dais, stories of his playing days and shoutouts to past St. John's players seated in the audience.

Carnesecca called it a "glorious day," and it was every bit of that. The old coach, whose "526" banner hung high on the wall behind him, signifying the number of wins in his Hall of Fame career, said he wasn't going to talk of Mullin's past because that's self-evident.

"But one thing I do have to say," Carnesecca said, "is I know he'll make us proud."

That is the leap of faith everyone who cares about St. John's basketball must take with the return of a great player, who hopes to become a great coach despite never coaching for a day in 51 years. The person taking the biggest leap is school president Conrado "Bobby" Gempesaw, who spent his first year evaluating the job done by Steve Lavin before making the decision to replace him.

Gempesaw said he met Mullin for the first time only three months ago. "One thing I noticed was his love of the university and his commitment for the university," Gempesaw said. "I would like to surround myself with people like that."

The president was perceptive enough to understand that Mullin's passion wasn't cosmetic. It was passion bred in bones, not only for the school but for New York City basketball.

The audience in Carnesecca heard it from Mullin and delighted in the unmistakable air of authenticity when he answered a question about recruiting by saying it would start the moment the news conference ended.

"Traditionally at St. John's, we've always been strong in New York City," Mullin said. "I guarantee you that you'll see me at the public school gyms, the Catholic school gyms, in the AAU gyms, all over New York City.

"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, I know the janitors. I'm going to get there. I think it's really important that we dominate New York."

New York might not be the recruiting hotbed it was in Mullin's day, but his commitment to reclaiming home turf sold Gempesaw.

It raised a red flag a year ago when Lavin jumped the gun by claiming he was in discussions for an extension, according to a variety of sources who discussed the process with Newsday. When Mullin was at St. John's for his induction into the school's Hall of Fame at midseason, he didn't campaign but simply let officials know he was interested in coaching if the opportunity arose.

When the season ended with an opening loss in the NCAA Tournament, Mullin's name was at the top of the list. There were no negotiations with Lavin about an extension despite extensive media reports to the contrary. Lavin was informed of Gempesaw's decision at 10 a.m. last Friday, and Mullin was contacted that night.

It never was about money for Mullin, whose starting salary is believed to be about $300,000 less than the $1.8 million Lavin reportedly was making. Mullin's main concern was making sure resources were in place for a top-flight staff. He was assured those resources were available, and his instant hiring of recruiter Matt Abdelmassih away from Iowa State is said to be just the start.

Winning the news conference was the easy part for Mullin. But the conviction in Mullin's voice when he promised to deliver a team that will make the fans proud told the crowd he meant it.

The passion for St. John's basketball is back where it belongs in Mullin's sure hands once again.

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