Chris Mullin is an alcoholic white man who can't jump. Or blaze. Or leave you and your hightops stuck in cement. He is the most unlikely superstar in the league. If you didn't know him and he was standing against the fence at the playground, you might take him last. All right, who gets Bristlehead? But Mullin's game has never been about speed or jumping or moves that are going to make a chiropractor rich.
Mullin's game is about hands. It's about the best fingertips in the NBA. It's about scoring (fourth in the league, at 25.7 points per game) on impossible spin shots born of a gym-rat childhood spent flipping the ball into the basket from underneath, then left, then right, then backward. It's about a jumper as smooth as left-out butter. Of the 13 players who rank above Mullin in field goal percentage—Buck Williams, Horace Grant, Otis Thorpe, Brad Daugherty, David Robinson, Charles Barkley, Detlef Schrempf, Larry Nance, Robert Parish, Dennis Rodman, Billy Owens, Frank Brickowski and Danny Manning—only one gets fewer dunks than Mullin: Daugherty. "You pass Mully the ball," says the Warriors' All-Star point guard, Tim Hardaway, "and it's an assist."
Mullin's game is about never missing a layup, no matter how contorted it has to be. It's ironic: Mullin's jumpers are so pure that when he sets up in the open, guys on his bench sing out, "Layyyyy-up!" Yet layups in the NBA are actually harder than open jumpers. Mullin is the best layup artist since Dennis Johnson.
Mullin's game is about steals (fourth in the league, at 2.31 per game) from behind and underneath and out of nowhere. It's about slapping the ball away at just the right time. It's about pesky blocked shots (at 6'7", he leads the Warriors), most of them no-see-'ims. It's about perpetual motion, the kind his numbersake, John Havlicek, used to practice. Mullin is a dryland Wayne Gretzky, drifting, drifting, drifting, suddenly cutting open and hitting the shot in the tiny window of time he gets, whether the shot is a runner, a fader, a drive, a move to the hole, a leaner, a spot-up, whatever. "He's one of the best I've ever seen at taking the hit and still finishing the shot," says teammate Rod Higgins. Indeed, Mullin has physical conditioning coach Mark Grabow spend extra hours pushing and shoving him during their shooting workouts. If somebody isn't hitting Mullin on a shot, he's lonely.
Last night against the Washington Bullets, Mullin got 33 the hard way: five open jumpers of 15 feet or longer, one leaner and the accompanying free throw, a three-pointer from a yard behind the line, a layup off Mullin's own steal, two baskets from just busting his gluteus maximus to get down on the fast break, two more foul shots, a driving switched-hands bucket and the free throw, a junk layin from keeping a rebound alive and the awarded FT, and an impossible backward over-the-head CNN-play-of-the-day 10-footer after getting LAPD'd in the lane—"Hey, I practice those," he insists—and the free throw. For the night that's 13 baskets in 16 shots, four steals, six of six free throws, four three-point plays, nearly 40 minutes, no dunks and another 12-point win for the Warriors, who are running a close second, behind the Portland Trail Blazers, in the Pacific Division.
"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. This season he went 21 straight games scoring 20 points or more. Last season he went 20 straight and 29 out of 30. Only Michael Jordan has a longer streak of 10-point-or-more games—487 to Mullin's 240.
All of which is pretty good for a guy even his own coach figured would end up as a statistic.
Chris Mullin is a very sweaty alcoholic small forward who would like nothing more than shower number two of the day. But it's High and Middle School Journalism Day at the Warriors' practice, and every kid with a Betacam and a Big Chief notebook wants to talk Chalk. A four-foot anchorman nervously approaches with his one-man, 65-pound camera crew.