Steinmetz: Mully, Mario and N.Y. playground mojo

August 9, 2011, 6:25 pm
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Aug. 9, 2011


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Editor's note: NBA Insider Matt Steinmetz is traveling to Springfield, Mass. this week to cover Chris Mullin's induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Following his exclusive coverage up to and through Friday's ceremony.

Matt Steinmetz

There are plenty of current NBA players who have never played a game of basketball on asphalt. Most of today's pros have only played basketball indoors. They played in organized games and leagues from a very young age, and they've never taken a shot on a basket that didn't have a net on it.Kids just don't play outdoors like they used to, and there just aren't as many pickup games as there used to be.Which may make Warriors great Chris Mullin the last-ever playground legend. That's not the reason Mullin will be enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday in Springfield, Mass., but it might as well be added to the list of reasons.
Mullin grew up in Brooklyn and honed his game all over the city of New York -- in Harlem, in Queens, in Manhattan, wherever there was a game. And Mullin realized one thing very early: The best games were often in the toughest parts of town."Growing up in New York, and playing in Harlem and all those neighborhoods -- it was like a rite of passage, actually," Mullin said recently. "Some people it doesn't happen to, and you stop. You stop going. When I first went it was really uncomfortable. I knew a few guys from school. Mario. Was the guy I played with. Mario Elie."So he would meet me at the train station, walk me to the game and get me right back. It was like that. You didn't want to hang around after the game. Little by little, as I started having good games, it did go hand in hand. And I went from going there and getting out to staying, hanging out playing another game. Then someone says 'You want to play with us?' It took a little time but it gave you great confidence, acceptance and respect. That's what it did."Elie and Mullin knew each other from Power Memorial, where Mullin first started high school."He just knew that the way to get respect was to go to the tough neighborhoods," Elie said. "And Chris got respect there. He was all right, but in some different neighborhoods there were some sore losers. But he was respected and everybody wanted Chris on their team, the only white guy with a bunch of brothers. But he was a great player. A great player."Said Mullin: "We played everywhere. Went to Rucker (Park) and played tournaments it was more like word of mouth. Everywhere. In Queens, we had Elmcor, Elmhurst and Corona. Brooklyn had their tournaments. Basically, all over the city. Yeah, I got beat up a few times. Not literally. But out of sorts a little bit. CYO wasn't playing that brand of basketball. It's a little different style."That style included a little more flash and flair than Mullin was used to. But like most aspects of the game, Mullin picked that up quickly, too. Like many of the greats, Mullin was not only fundamentally sound, but he also had pizzazz to his game."The creativity stuff, I learned from them," Mullin said. "Be a little creative, intuitive below the rim. If that stuff doesn't work, it's showboating and you're an idiot. I was taught that, too. Coach (Lou) Carnesecca said you don't go behind your back unless you have to. You don't go between your legs unless you're avoiding something. Again, the balance."It would be easy to get off kilter, and I probably would have, basketball-wise. But over time, I came back to the guys who coached me and they would always balance me out."Mullin didn't stop playing pickup once he got to St. John's or even after he got to the NBA, either. Elie said he remembers Mullin playing a game in "Uptown," during the summer of 1992 -- which was the summer Mullin was a member of the Dream Team."He had 50-something," Elie said. "He was phenomenal. His confidence was high, he was a guy on the Olympic Dream Team playing tourney games. He didn't worry about getting hurt. He just wanted to play."