By Joseph Staszewski
It was an emotional debut from start to finish for Chris Mullin.
As the St. John’s legend and Brooklyn native left for his first regular-season game as the school’s men’s basketball coach, he turned to his wife Liz and said he had some jitters. What he didn’t get was sympathy
“I told my wife, ‘Can you believe I’m nervous to coach this game,’” Mullin said. “She was like, you dragged us into this. Now go do your thing. She said, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’”
Instead, what Mullin heard was the cheers of the early arrivals in what would be a crowd of 4,677 at Carnesecca Arena by the time he was introduced before the game last Friday. The cheers became roars at the final buzzer of the Red Storm’s 66-57 victory over Wagner in its season opener, the first real game of the Mullin era.
“It was an emotional and anxious day,” said Mullin, a former star at Xaverian.
The thrill of victory quickly transitioned to immense pride and reflection as he walked into the stands behind the bench to greet his “Coach,” legendary St. John’s headman Lou Carnesecca, who he had been looking at throughout the game. It was 30 years ago that Mullin had been sitting on the very same bench, as Carnescca coached him.
There were cracks in Mullin’s voice postgame when talking about what that brief moment meant to him. He mentioned that in typical Carnesecca fashion, his former coach had made light of the situation, joking that Mullin still looked sharp, but to be prepared for nights when your shirt is hanging out and your tie is undone. Carnesecca gave him a thumbs-up, and Mullin kissed his former coach’s ring in reverence before heading back to the locker room.
“The guy has had such an influence on my life,” Mullin said. “It’s just a blessing to have him there. He is still guiding me.”
The start of Mullin’s tenure guiding the Red Storm program hasn’t been a complete fairy tale. Star freshman guard Marcus LoVett was ruled a partial academic qualifier by the NCAA and unable to play this season. Just an hour before the game, it was announced that senior guard Felix Balamou is sidelined indefinitely for an unspecified NCAA rule violation. And in its preseason opener, St. John’s lost by 32 points to Division II St. Thomas Aquinas.
None of that could spoil the first night that truly mattered. The coming season could be a struggle for a St. John’s team that has just two returning players in uniform, but for one night they were a winner and so was Mullin.
“It feels good to get coach’s first win,” senior guard Durand Johnson said. “We talk about every day coming in and getting better and we are a family and we laid one brick today.”
The belief is that it is the first of many for Mullin as he rebuilds the program. That process had a fitting first night from start to finish.