For most rookie head coaches, losing is a constant companion. But when the losses begin to pile up and weeks pass without a single victory, a rough introduction to coaching can quickly turn into an early trip to the unemployment line.
New York City hoops’ legend, former NBA All-Star, and current St. John’s bench-boss Chris Mullin is not most rookie head coaches.
Hired exactly 30 years after leading St. John’s to the 1985 Final Four as one of the nation’s top collegiate talents, Mullin was the program’s first choice to replace former head coach Steve Lavin last spring, and has been tasked with trying to recapture the Red Storm’s former glory as a member of a new-look Big East that’s hoping to do the same.
But so far, Mullin’s talent-starved Johnnies have done nothing but struggle to gain a foothold in the increasingly tough conference, dropping their 13th straight game on Wednesday at sixth-ranked Xavier to fall to 7-16 overall and a miserable 0-10 in the Big East.
With no previous coaching experience to speak of, and all of his post-playing experience earned in the front offices of the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, it’d be easy for St. John’s supporters to blame the team’s disaster of a season on Mullin. But in reality, the Red Storm’s current struggles have almost nothing to do with his arrival.
Along with losing lead guard Rysheed Jordan to professional aspirations, defensive standout Chris Obekpa to a transfer, and four seniors, St. John’s returned a total of just three players from last year’s 21-win NCAA Tournament team.
To make matters worse, the Red Storm are also currently playing without injured freshman center Yankuba Sima, while academically-ineligible freshman point guard and projected starter Marcus Lovett has been forced to postpone his collegiate debut until next season, and top-50 high school talent Brandon Sampson abandoned the program in favor of LSU the minute Lavin left town.
”I think the lesson is that we’re building this [program] one brick at a time,” said Mullin following November’s season-opening win over Wagner. ”Despite setbacks or good times, we have work to do. What’s going to keep us grounded is that we’re building something, so the diligence and the attention to details will not waiver on outcomes.”
As a player, Mullin was a fearless, on-court leader willing to sacrifice himself for his team every time he took the floor, earning Big East Player of The Year honors on three separate occasions before finishing his four-year collegiate career as the program’s all-time leading scorer.
When added to his New York City roots, NBA career, front office experience, and personal connection to the school, those collegiate accomplishments helped to make Mullin the perfect candidate to steer St. John’s in the right direction other than the great Lou Carnesecca himself.
”I’m just delighted [by Mullin’s hiring], and I think a lot of people feel the same way,” Carnesecca told ESPN last spring. ”I think this is the most popular choice ever at St. John’s.”
To outsiders unfamiliar with what Mullin’s return truly means to the program and its fan-base, the present situation at St. John’s may seem unmanageable, and the team’s overall performance a depressing sign of things to come with the hall of famer at the helm.
But despite becoming the team’s head coach and renewing his former reputation as the face of St. John’s basketball less a year ago, Mullin and his staff have ensured that the program’s future will be much brighter by locking-down the conference’s top incoming class of talent.
On top of Lovett, the Red Storm will begin next season with a roster that includes junior college star transfer and Bronx native Bashir Ahmed, Tennessee transfer Tariq Owens, top-50 guard Shamorie Ponds out of Brooklyn, and recently-added import Richard Freudenberg from Germany.
But as a New Yorker, and former high school star who was recruited nationally but chose to stay home, Mullin knows that long-term success at St. John’s will remain elusive until the program can establish a pipeline between itself and the city’s top high school talent.
And in the same way that North Carolina Tar Heels’ head coach Roy Williams bleeds Carolina blue, Mullin is St. John’s basketball, and it’s going to take a lot more than one horrible season to stop the Brooklyn-born head coach from doing everything possible to restore the Red Storm’s once-legendary reputation.