On Tuesday, I was able to do something I’ve wanted to do since I was 10 years old: meet my favorite basketball player, Chris Mullin, shake his hand, and get his autograph. If you are like most Americans, Mullin’s name may not be familiar to you. Chris Mullin was many things in his career, but he was not exactly a household name. Even many Americans who profess illiteracy of professional sports knows at least something about Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Shaq, Kobe Bryant. Chris Mullin, who played between 1985 and 2001 in the NBA, was less dynamic a star than any of these, but he was still a player who was great fun to watch, and moreover, I found his life story, his trajectory, his character arc, to be fascinating. In his first-two seasons, Mullin floundered, squandering his collegiate promise with heavy drinking brought on by homesickness. Soon after, he went into rehab, rededicated himself to training and practice, and despite a lack of the physical gifts that mark many top NBA players, he became one of the best players in the league during the early 1990s, when professional basketball arguably reached its peak in talent. Having spent most of his career playing with the bargain-basement Golden State Warriors, he eked out a career where he consistently was one of the best 3-point shooters and field-goal shooters in the league. An iron-man, he led the NBA in minutes one season, averaging around 42 minutes per game– and this was high-octane “Nellie Ball,” which was fast-paced, exhausting, and emphasized scoring and playmaking– closer to long-distance running than anything. This was a drastic contrast to the slow-paced, run-the-clock, physical games that dominated the NBA in recent years. An effective player in such situations, he was given a berth in the famous 1992 Dream Team, the first Olympic basketball squad to use professional players. Although the Warriors rarely went far in the playoffs, due to injuries and the lack of a solid big-man to complement the team’s fast-paced offense, they were immensely fun to watch. If Hubert Humphrey elicited the politics of joy, the early-90s Warriors seemed like the athletics of joy.
I was an obsessive Chris Mullin fan from about 4th grade to 7th grade. Even when injuries subdued what could have been his best years, I was a proud fan, even though I only saw one game. (It was an away game against the celtics during Thanksgiving weekend in 1996. The Warriors won and Mullin had over 20 points.) Even for Odyssey of the Mind, the skit-writing and problem-solving competition I was in as a boy, I convinced my team to include a cameo by Mullin (played by yours truly) into a skit on The Old Man and the Sea (A non-sequitor if ever one existed!) So, when i heard that he was going to do a Q&A and autograph session at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, a short 2.5 hour drive away, I eagerly hopped into my car and drove off to pay homage to the man.
The trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame was great fun;I had been there before, way back in 1994 or 1995, and virtually everything had changed since then. But it was well-designed, well-displayed and balanced the game’s pantheon with it’s social and cultural significance– a key facet any sports museum ought to have. I enjoyed browsing the exhibits, until Mullin’s q&a session began at 1 p.m. The hall had an in-house specialist who asked Mullin questions about his boyhood, his high-school career, his time with St. John’s University, and finally his NBA career. He then opened the floor to questions, and I was picked as the first one– I asked a somewhat superfluous question about how he decided to get his distinctive short-cropped flat-top hair cut. Mullin’s answer springs from the rudderless quality of his early years playing on the West Coast with Golden State; acquiring new friends, one of them dared Mullin to get a buzz cut and rid himself of his shoulder-length hair. He did so, and kept with it once he started liking the look. After a few more questions, the crew set up a queue for autographs. When it was my turn, he complimented me on my Warriors #17 jersey (I received it as a Christmas gift in 1994 and it fits me to this day, which goes to show what a heavy kid I was.)– and he asked me where I was from, Mullin fans being scarce in Celtics-dominated Springfield. (They are also scarce in my home town, and basketball loyalties gravitate between the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics- both about a 3.5 hour drive away. And he shook my hand. It was a short, but classy and meaningful encounter with someone I had admired for a long time. It is nice when the course of events give us these neat moments.
-Even when meeting a childhood hero, I am still prone to overanalysis, and overthinking its significance. Here’s a few thoughts that came to me while I was waiting in line and pondering my long-standing admiration of this former Golden State Warrior.
- In the early 1990s NBA, about one out of every five or so players in the league was white. Yet, both my brother (an avid Larry Bird fan) and myself gravitated to white players as our favorites. I do wonder a bit about that– most of our sports affiliations are forged by what cities we live near, but in case one doesn’t live close to any– do we pick other solidarities? Race does, after all, shape our biases and preferences in athletics to a degree that we often do not recognize. As late as 18 months ago, studies showed that black Americans were consistently more likely to root for the New Orleans Saints, rooted in a city with an especially rich black culture, while white Americans preferred the staunchly Middle American feelings that the Indianapolis Colts evoked.
- sports and commercialization. the first time I ever heard of Chris Mullin was through a McDonald’s promotional giveaway. He had just been chosen to join the 1992 Dream Team, and as part of the advertising blitz, McDonald’s offered collectible U.S.A. Basketball soft drink cups. The week my parents got the supersize Coke was Mullin’s week. When you think about the revenue generated: posters, trading cards, jerseys, video games, Panini sticker books, and so on– to say nothing of the sundry endorsements made by Michael Jordan, Shaq, Kobe Bryant, and others on items that have little to do with basketball directly- it is truly staggering. Some of our earliest sports memories rely not on games we have seen in person– we’ve moved away from cities as a society, and at any rate, the games are now prohibitively expensive– but on the things that we buy. Walter LaFeber observed these tendencies in Michael Jordan and the New American Capitalism— finding a world where children in subsaharan Africa have discarded Jordan t-shirts and the Chicago Bulls were cultural icons as easily identified as Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus.
- In just a few weeks’ time, Mullin will be inducted into the James A. Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. In his peak years, the Warriors never advanced past the semi-finals. He never won a championship, and only played in the NBA finals as a reserve shooting guard on the Indiana Pacers, during the years when Larry Bird coached them. While his stats were impressive, they lagged behind Jordan and Karl Malone and others. Does consistency– being reliably good but never spectacular- deserve commemoration, laud, and a ticket into a hall of fame? I think that it does (the Hall is biased toward championship-winners, which often hinge on a number of contingencies).