By Jason Keidel
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A great thing happened to basketball yesterday.
No, not UConn’s sloppy win over Butler, perhaps the ugliest game since the shot clock was introduced. Quite the contrary, we honor one man who recalls the most regal time in college basketball, renowned for his offense, and another man who left us shrugging our shoulders while marveling at his magical defense.
Chris Mullin, a member of those divine St. John’s teams in the 1980s, is entering the Naismith Hall of Fame this summer. Mullin played during the Big East’s singular reign over the sport, before the PC Police usurped his team’s nickname (Redmen), before the one-and-done prodigies used college campuses as glorified basketball camps, when we knew all the teams, coaches and players. Now the Big East is a saturated, corporate behemoth with nearly 20 squads and 10 yearly entrants into the NCAA tournament.
Without scouring the Internet, the names roll off the tongue – Mullin, Bill Wennington, Shelton Jones, Willie Glass, Mark Jackson, etc. And you knew when they went to Syracuse they’d play Pearl Washington and Rony Seikaly. In Georgetown they played a rancorous roster led by Ewing and Martin and Graham.
There was a time when great NYC players actually played in NYC colleges. Back in 1984, Kemba Walker goes to St. John’s. No way a stud from the Bronx leaves Queens. Born in Brooklyn, Mullin played at Power Memorial (yes, that Power, the high school home of Lew Alcindor), and kept it local with Lou Carnesecca.
Mullin represents a time when kids learned more than basket weaving in college. They sharpened their considerable court skills and didn’t use the NBA as a pseudo-development league. In the NBA, Mullin played on those sublime “Run TMC” squads in Golden State, teaming with Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond, never winning a title but always entertaining us. Mullin respected the game, part of the final generation before the Nike generation, the groin-grabbing, sneaker-sponsored chumps whose me-first mantras never included a stated desire to win.
He’s one of ours, from the five boroughs, speaks with the thick accent – “Yonkis” instead of “Yonkers” – and played a righteous, royal street game in Queens, with an “in the gym” jumper and an endless quiver of shots.
He retired from the NBA with nearly 18,000 points, 4,000 rebounds, and 3,500 assists. I was in high school when he was in college. Trying to replicate his skills, I found the only things I had in common with Mullin were freckles and fair hair.
Mullin is joined in the Hall of Fame by his polar opposite: Dennis Rodman. Dennis was indeed a menace off the court, with his cross-dressing, crotch-kicking, and salacious storytelling, including his bedroom encounters with Madonna – another victim of vanity.
But you can’t paint Rodman into a cultural corner, because he left the histrionics on the runway. On the hardwood, Rodman was a cage fighter whose tireless rebounding, floor-diving, defensive tactics filled the gaps in an increasingly ego-driven game. He helped Detroit win two titles, and was an essential member of the dynastic Bulls in the 1990s. Rodman allowed Michael Jordan to gallop across the court without impediment. It is a remarkable contrast in the man, who was selfish and shameless after work while his court countenance was selfless and blameless.
He was the quintessential irritant to the enemy, a coach’s dream, and a nightmare to your team’s best scorer. You often saw the glee in his high-knee trot after a blocked shot or a leap three-rows deep to save a loose ball. His frenetic pace and pierced face left an indelible stamp on the NBA. He was an entertainer in its truest form.
Though many of us were appalled by his penchant for endless self-reflection and self-destruction, Rodman was little more than a kid crying for help, as evidenced by his stay in Dr. Drew Pinsky’s “Celebrity Rehab, ” and his very public pondering over his demise. Any sport needs characters, and Rodman was an original. We hope he sticks around long enough to tell his grandkids about it.
Rodman leaves the game with an astonishing 12,000 rebounds (13.1 per game), five NBA championships, lots of laughs, and ample memories. He belongs in Springfield. As does Mullin. Two contrasting characters, joined by history, a will to win, and a proud populous applauding them for being brilliantly different.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com