From Harlem to Hong Kong, Mullin remains ultimate gym rat
Draining jump shot after jump shot, Chris Mullin looked as though he were back home in Brooklyn.
Standing under the makeshift basket, Mullin’s friend and colleague Pete D’Alessandro marveled at the scene taking place in a random alleyway in Hong Kong.
“I always felt like the basketball court was home to Chris, no matter what country he was in,” D’Alessandro said. “But when we went on that trip to China, that’s when it really became clearest to me.”
D’Alessandro, advisor to Denver Nuggets executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri, will be in Springfield, Mass., on Friday when Mullin is inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
As a St. John’s fan, D’Alessandro followed Mullin’s college career closely and later worked for the sports agency that represented Mullin as an NBA player. Mullin was the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Golden State Warriors when he hired D’Alessandro to work in the team’s front office in 2004.
Their professional and personal friendship blossomed in the Bay Area. Living up to his reputation as a gym rat, Mullin often held personnel meetings while running on a treadmill as D’Alessandro took notes while sitting on a stationary bike.
“We had some of our best meetings with him on the treadmill,” D’Alessandro said. “The meetings were really productive. That was part of his process because he loved the gym.”
Never was Mullin’s passion and love for the game more evident to D’Alessandro than when they traveled to Hong Kong for a scouting trip in advance of the 2007 NBA Draft.
After taking a cab to dinner, the two men decided to walk back to the hotel. They didn’t know the exact route in an unfamiliar city, but they figured their New York street smarts would get them back safely.
A few minutes into the walk, Mullin darted into the street without warning, hopped over a center-lane divider and headed toward a destination known only to him.
“I have no idea what he’s doing,” D’Alessandro recalls. “I’m a little bit freaked out because we’re separating in a place we don’t know. I’m trying to keep up with him weaving through traffic.”
“I get into the alley and he’s got a ball in his hands,” D’Alessandro said. “There’s about 40 teenage Chinese kids playing ball. Chris hits his first shot, and this kid grabs the ball and looks at him like, ‘Who are you?’ and starts dribbling away.”
From Brooklyn to Compton, receiving “change” or “courtesy” is commonplace while shooting around on American courts, so Mullin called for the ball. The boy – still perplexed by the foreign visitor – complied, and Mullin proceeded to hit about 10 shots in a row.
“I clearly remember that night,” Mullin said. “It was just a natural reaction for me to do that. It reminded me of being in Spanish Harlem. I’ve done that hundreds of times in New York. If I was driving by or walking by, I’d jump in a game. Instead of being 12, 18 or 24, I was 44."
As Mullin put on a shooting clinic, D’Alessandro was practically invisible as he observed the scene from under the hoop. He noticed that many of the kids were wearing NBA jerseys and a group of five or six of them were suddenly engaged in an animated conversation.
“They’re looking at Chris and I realize they’re starting to get it,” he said. “Finally, one of the kids walked over and said, ‘Are you Chris Mullin?’ ”
With his identity revealed, Mullin shook hands with the kids, posed for pictures and engaged in shooting contests – all while wearing his dress shoes, slacks and golf shirt. The goodwill session lasted about 45 minutes, and the size of the group had nearly tripled by the time it was over.
“I know it’s something those kids will keep with them for the rest of their life,” D’Alessandro said. “It was a great message for the NBA. I was always proud to be part of that moment with Chris.”
As he and Mullin resumed their walk back to the hotel, D’Alessandro inquired about his friend’s innate ability to sniff out a basketball game.
“How he knew there was a court and a game going on, I have no idea,” D’Alessandro said. “Chris said, ‘The ball bouncing, you didn’t hear it?’ I said, ‘No. I just heard cars zipping by at 100 mph.’
“Even for someone who always knew Chris as well as I did, to see him go to that court because he genuinely wanted to play, it was pretty incredible.”
Four years after that memorable trip to the Far East, D’Alessandro will be on hand to see Mullin inducted into the Hall of Fame with a 2011 class that includes former NBA greats Artis Gilmore, Dennis Rodman and Arvydas Sabonis.
“To me, Chris is such a regular person and a real person, it feels like all the people who know him are being inducted as well,” D’Alessandro said. “He represents all the various people in his life that have meant so much to him. As his friends, we feel like part of the Mullin family. To be part of that group is pretty special.”