On the 2015-16 St. John's men's basketball team media guide, players Ron Mvouika and Durand Johnson stand, unsmiling, holding basketballs. They are identified in red type against a red background, and you have to look really hard to see either name. Between them, in a suit and red-striped tie, is a smiling figure who is central to St. John's basketball identity, now and forever: Chris Mullin, the school's all-time leading scorer, three-time Big East Player of the Year, and a NBA Hall of Famer.
Mullin's name is in white and easy to read, although nobody picking up a guide needs such a reminder. No one really knows exactly what this program can or even should be, in 2016, and in a broader sense. But the coach is at least easy to recognize. As St. John's looks to figure out the program's future, they're starting with that.
Mullin's predecessor, Steve Lavin, led the team to three 20-win seasons and two NCAA tournaments in his five years at the helm. That seems about right for a men's basketball program with a budget of just over $10 million—respectable to be sure, but about half of what Kentucky or North Carolina spend on men's hoops. All the familiar arguments as to why St. John's should be a dominant national program don't hold up to close scrutiny: players haven't typically wanted to come play in New York, at least not enough to spurn the Kansas or Dukes of the world, and New York itself isn't the primary pipeline of high school basketball talent that it once was, and still likes to pretend it is, at least relative to the country as a whole.
So just what does St. John's aim to be under Mullin? Why, in the graphic detailing the history of the St. John's program that plays on the Jumbotron at Madison Square Garden, does the moment detailing "Chris Mullin Returns" appear close to Lavin's 2015 NCAA tournament appearance? As someone close to the program once told me, and this was before Mullin came on board: "They want it to be 1985, every year, nothing more, nothing less."
That is an unfair standard, and particularly to Mullin. His record-breaking time at St. John's, all sold-out Gardens and feathery jumpers in the memory, climaxed with a Final Four appearance in 1985; Mullin won the Wooden Award playing under Lou Carnesecca, the legendary coach whose name is emblazoned on the campus arena where the Red Storm play. But even though Louie and Chris reached that Final Four once, they also lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament two other times. As a No. 9 seed in Mullin's junior year, they lost to Temple in the first round.
What's followed since Carnesecca retired in 1992 hasn't been particularly inspired, but it's hardly been a basketball famine—the school has made seven NCAA tournament trips in 24 years, including an Elite Eight berth in 1998-99. Former players Malik Sealy, Ron Artest, Maurice Harkless, and many others have reached the NBA. St. John's hasn't been in the wilderness in those two and a half decades. They just haven't been what they were in 1985.
To his credit, Mullin has tempered expectations while making the rounds in a seemingly months-long media tour. Many of Lavin's best players either graduated or left town once Lavin left, and this St. John's team is simply overmatched in the Big East. They play extremely hard for Mullin, but the team's limits appeared early on: an exhibition loss to St. Thomas Aquinas, a Division II school, by a lopsided 90-58 score, or a pair of ugly wins over Niagara and a cratered Rutgers team in which both offenses seemed to stand still. There was a spirit-building win over Syracuse at The Garden, a chance for the crowd to feel as if time had reversed itself. But now, in the midst of a nine-game losing streak, reality has set in.
"Well, it's Year One for Chris," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said after his Hoyas routed St. John's last Wednesday, 93-73. "And within that year, they've had some bad breaks. Now, we're not even at the halfway point of conference play, so there's still a lot of year ahead of him. I don't think it's time to make grandiose diagnoses about what's gone wrong. They've had some bad breaks—they play hard for him. That's one thing I told our guys. They play together, they play for each other, they play for 40 minutes."
It's a start, but to win regularly in a high-major league, that simply isn't enough. The Red Storm had one player, Yankuba Sima, with a Player Efficiency Rating of above 14 (15 is average). And Sima suffered a broken bone in his left hand, so he won't be back until the tail end of conference play, if at all this season. That left St. John's with zero players that grade out as even close to average.
"We knew this was going to be a tough year—if you look at our roster, that's what it's going to be," Mullin said. "But I respect the game, I respect the players. I expect them to come out and compete and try to win. They deserve that. And we'll get more experience, and these things will come back and be valuable to us. We'll look back and say 'You know what? It was worth it.'"
The crowd of just over 8,000 at The Garden seemed perfectly willing to accept those losses. During lineup introductions, they clapped politely for each St. John's player. Mullin, for his part, drew long and loud cheers, and the PA announcer lingered on Mullin's name, instead of giving it the usual coach-during-announcements treatment. The Red Storm gave the crowd little to cheer about, but the crowd was happy to cheer when it could. As the Georgetown lead grew, the only point at which the crowd came close to matching the cheer for Mullin was when it was announced that Wednesday was Louie Carnesecca's birthday.
No miracles are coming this year, it would seem; the Syracuse win may well wind up as the season's high point. Looking to the future isn't much more reassuring, as there is the question of whether it is even possible to approximate 1985. St. John's success matters a great deal to a Big East that has yet to replicate the success of the glory days of Patrick Ewing and, yes, Chris Mullin. Considering how much of the conference's finances rely upon its massive television deal with Fox Sports, a contending team in New York would be helpful for everybody concerned.
Mullin signed a pair of excellent recruits for next season in Shamorie Ponds, a 6'1" combo guard out of Brooklyn, and JUCO transfer Bashir Ahmed, also a native New Yorker. It's precisely the sort of intracity talent that's supposed to make St. John's St. John's again. It's hard, though, to see those two alone, added to what Mullin has already, equaling a team that can challenge for the upper half of the Big East next season, let alone for a title.
So I asked Mullin: how long do you think the St. John's administration, adoring fans and media who remember the glory of his past would focus on that before he needed to show results on the court?
"I never really thought about it," he replied, and seemed somewhat taken aback at the idea that he'd ever be anything other than Chris Mullin, St. John's icon, a reasonable position for someone who's had that adoration since his teens and was now in his fifties. "I wish it was now. I don't know, that's a good question, I don't know—I don't look for the past—like I said, if it's today, it's today. That's not intimidating to me, that's not fair or unfair. I do think we'll get there. When I played, I didn't really pay attention to someone else's expectations or timeline. I'm really focused on getting these players better individually and collectively. Keep doing a hard day's work. You keep doing that, and even a slow guy who can't jump can do okay. So I don't really look at it with an expiration date, it's not going to make me work harder. I'm going to do what I do." Failing, in Mullin's mind, was not a possibility. He believes he'll be coaching at St. John's for as long as he wants.
"I'm 52, so I'm past halftime," Mullin said. "I'm not going to keep going forever. I'm going to retire and go do nothing at some point. So I definitely have an expiration date, I can tell you that." In the meantime, Mullin hasn't fallen back on the past any more than he's allowed himself to worry about the future. Maybe St. John's-Georgetown will be St. John's-Georgetown again, all coaches in amusing sweaters and hard fouls in the lane before packed gyms. Until then, no matter how much his own glory days led to this opportunity, Mullin only wants to think about moving forward.
"It's been so long ago, I'd probably have to be shown it on tape or something," Mullin said with a smile about his own games in the rivalry. "I don't know if they even have tape of it. But I think it will develop into that. Not only Georgetown-St. John's, but the Big East Conference itself.
"There's nothing more I would love to see, when we play here or at Georgetown, than a packed house, both teams' pride—then maybe I'll remember some of it," Mullin said. "Not today, though."