By Jason Keidel
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When you make the switch from peripheral to pundit, slide into the more structured role media, you tend to stuff the pom poms in storage, and swap an obdurate for an objective eye for sports.
So when I bash Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks, when I say the MLB playoff needle has nudged toward the Mets, when I point out that the Jets have an abject tendency for implosion, it doesn’t mean I have declared a Fatwa on the franchise.
It means my job is to wipe the rosy hue from my windshield, the pull the scented Yankee baseball from my rearview mirror, peel off the A-Rod Snuggie, and remove the Melo welcome mat. It’s time to get real.
Thus when I wrote, almost a year ago, that St. John’s was woefully misguided by hiring Chris Mullin to be their head basketball coach, I was branded, yet again, a hater and all manner of moron.
All the way back on April 2, I asserted that the hiring of Mullin was way more PR than prudence, a misguided stroll down the down the old days. And Memory Lane rarely intersects with Broadway, much less the Canyon of Heroes.
But St. John’s hired the best player in school history under the guise of progress, when, in fact, it was a cinematic move that never transcends the movies. There was no “Hoosiers” moment here, and there won’t be one with Mullin anytime soon. And if you need proof, it’s right in your face — on TV, online, on the record, and in their record.
The Red Storm just lost to Creighton — hardly the 1968 UCLA Bruins — by 41. A game during which Mullin was ejected, like a shot swatted by Walter Berry. Over their last 20 games, the Red Storm have won one. I repeat, they are 1-19 over the last two months. One of them included a loss to a school named Incarnate Word. Is that a college or vocational school? Or a Penny Dreadful?
All athletic powers book cream-puffs on their schedule, but Incarnate Word plays titans like Houston Baptist, Abilene Christian, Schreiner, Dallas Christian, and, seriously, Our Lady of the Lake University. Raise you’re hand if you heard of that basketball colossus.
Mullin was a great basketball player. Not only the best player in St. John’s history, not only a no-brainer All-American, but also an Olympian and NBA star who molded his modest talent into a Hall of Fame NBA career as a player.
As a player.
Not as a coach, which is why his hiring was so baffling. When he was hired, Mullin was flanked by smiling suits, brass, and boosters. But no well-heeled alum can change the abject history of Hall of Famers who bomb as coaches.
Magic Johnson. Jerry West. Bill Russell (post-Celtics). Elgin Baylor. Bart Starr. Mike Singletary. Ted Williams. Frank Robinson. All of them flailed and failed on the sideline and in the dugout.
Lenny Wilkens is just about the only bona fide baller to lead a team to a title, and that was back in 1979.
If St. John’s just had to go the famous former player route, it did have one reasonable option. In fact, he was Mullin’s teammate during the Big East reign over America. Mark Jackson played point guard and won 50 games in an NBA season while pacing the sideline. But Mullin was better, evidently.
St. John’s is fighting two impulses. The political correctness that forced the school to change the team’s nickname. (They weren’t always the Red Storm.) And the troubling notion that you can go home again.
May as well throw the dirt over the botched Cosby-Era reunion. Lou Carnesecca can still wear the wretched, Huxtable sweaters, but Mullin can’t recapture the magic. St. John’s is a miserable 8-22 overall, but an abomination in the Big East, at 1-16. Let him finish the season, but not his contract.
Millennials can’t dwell in the better days, because they occurred 30 years ago. In 1985, the Big East was the beacon of college basketball. And MSG was the main nerve of the sport. The Big East Tournament was a de facto NCAA playoff. Teams jousted for top seeds in March Madness. And in the enchanted year of ’85, they had their mail forwarded to the Final Four, with Georgetown (the defending NCAA champs) losing to Villanova in the championship game.
But to get there, the Hoyas had to beat Mullin and St. John’s. Indeed, if not for the Hoyas, the kids from Queens may have cut down the nets. More than a few players and pundits thought then-Redmen would have whipped the Wildcats, who shot a surreal 70 percent from the field against Georgetown, a team loaded on the perimeter with monolith Patrick Ewing guarding the rim.
Mullin was the co-Big East Player of the Year (shared with Ewing) and won the Wooden Award for national player of the year, and was on the verge of a sprawling, successful NBA career, one that would lead him to Springfield and Naismith. He came this close to winning a title at his alma mater 30 years ago, but he’s finding it’s hard to make your alma mater matter more than once.
There’s a storm brewing at St. John’s. And it’s hardly a Red Storm.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel