Friday, August 12, 2011

When God Made Basketball, He Carved Out Chris Mullin

I don’t remember the date or the opponent, but I remember what I was wearing: a red St. John’s University sweatshirt. It even featured the politically incorrect red man mascot in the middle. I was sitting with my dad in good seats watching the Warriors warm-up. Chris Mullin saw me in it and gave me a “thumbs up.” I was wearing it for him, #17 who will be enshrined in the basketball hall of fame in Springfield, MA today.

Talk to any fundamentalist of the game and they will tell you precisely why Chris Mullin was a great player. Bruce Jenkin’s article Chris Mullin's game demanded respect will add to that. He writes “Mullin wasn't just anyone, as it turned out. He was one in a million.” He was revered by the African American basketball community, he was a revolutionary passer and for a man of ordinary speed and jumping ability, he was an unstoppable one-on-one player.

A "three-time Player of the Year in the loaded Big East - he was doing things seldom seen at any level, in any era." Jenkins’ identifies his accomplishments as a Warrior, but I believe his single greatest accomplishment is one that is critical to his success as an athlete and a human being: he is a recovering alcoholic.In his 1992 article “In a Golden State” Rick Reilly chronicles Mullin’s daily commitment to not drink—just for today. At the time, Mullin was four years sober; today he has gone without a drink for 23 years. The unofficial statistics reveal that about one-third of alcoholics fully recover, one-third go in and out of sobriety and one-third never do. What individual, family or work place doesn’t know the sad and detrimental affects of this disease? A person can lose everything because of alcoholism. For Mullin, it was a basketball career and his relationship with the woman who is his wife for 15 plus years and the mother of his four children, Liz. Fortunately, he listened to his coach Don Nelson.

Reilly's article reports how he became sober.
"I want you to take care of this problem right now," Nelson said. "I want you to call your parents and your agent." Mullin was the fifth player Nellie had suspended for drug-or alcohol-related infractions. None of the players ever made it back to the league. Nelson wasn't leaving any lights on for Mullin.

Mullin checked into the clinic, but he wouldn't buy into it. He was denying all the way. The night before, he called Liz, crying. "You may not want to go out with me after this," he said, "but I'm checking into an alcohol rehab clinic tomorrow."

"Are you kidding?" she said, crying too. "This is the best Christmas present you could have given us."

But that's not how it felt. Mullin went to Centinela with a jam box, CDs and pictures and had them all taken from him. His room was done in Early Leavenworth: a cot, a desk and a closet. Here was a millionaire NBA player thrown in with heroin addicts, street winos, career drunks and crack heads. Still, the door out was unlocked, and Mullin almost used it. A lot of guys left and never came back. You're in there on Christmas Day, and on New Year's Eve the urge gets pretty ripe. Back home the New York Post pasted a picture of Mullin's face over a Heineken bottle. Happy holidays.

A.A. is a 12-step program, and that first step is a doozy: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. What? Me, like these bums? Have I lost my job? Have I lost my family? "It was easy to say, 'Hey, you're messed up, not me,' " says Mullin. Still, something kept him there. "I remembered my dad always said, 'You can always take the easy way out. But the easy way is usually the wrong way.' I guess I just felt if I did the right thing, I'd get rewarded in the end."

What he almost got was dead. Part of his Centinela program was an A.A. group that met at night in a dicey section of Inglewood. One time the members were standing around in front of a church during a break. Some kids were fistfighting next door. After a while they disappeared. There was calm. Then, suddenly, a van pulled up, and somebody inside started strafing the church with an automatic. The rehabs dove for it. As the bullets flew, Mullin thought, Damn, I'm trying to get sober here, not get killed.

Maybe there's something about nearly dying with 10 addicts and bums in a gang shoot-out in a Ripple section of a town you don't even live in that gives your recovery efforts a certain urgency. Mullin came to realize something about the winos and the horse heads in his group. "Their stories were the same as mine," he says. "I just hadn't gotten to their degree yet." He stopped blaming himself for his alcoholism. He looked at it like a disease: If I were allergic to pizza, he thought, I'd stop eating it.

After he got out, he gave full credit to Nelson. "He might have saved my life," Mullin said. As soon as he was home, he and Grabow went to a gym on the University of California campus for a little workout. Shoot a few free throws, Grabow said. Mullin hadn't touched a basketball in 30 days. He made 91 straight. Are those great hands or what?
We love those hands—especially that left shooting hand. Basketball is as fundamental to Chris Mullin as his shots are to the game. I am grateful for his example as a player and a person who has struggled and triumphed. "When God made basketball," Magic Johnson says, "He just carved Chris Mullin out and said, This is a player.' " Knick coach Pat Riley calls Mullin "the consummate pro," and Mullin's consistency can be amazing.

When asked about his career, Mullin said “I loved making All-Star teams, stuff like that, but it was the respect part that meant more than anything else," he said. "Respect from your peers, coaches, in the street - that's what it's all about to me."

Chris, you have earned so much more than respect from your fans; thank you for sharing your gifts and talents as a player and a person.

Photo Credits
Mullin and Nelson
Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame Plaque--in the United terminal at SFO!
NBA Hall of Fame

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