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Sunday / March 7.
  • Chris Mullin returns to Duke for first time since breaking Coach K’s heart during recruitment

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    DURHAM, N.C. –– As Chris Mullin walked out of Cameron Indoor Stadium following St. John’s practice on Friday afternoon, a woman approached him for a series of autographs.

    Making his first appearance on the Duke campus in nearly four decades, Mullin was glad to oblige and signed several pictures of himself in a Pacers jersey.

    “It was only 40 years ago,” Mullin told me with a laugh when I asked how it felt to be back on the Duke campus. “My recollection is Coach K. I don’t remember everything else but meeting him and what a class guy he was then and his whole career he’s been fun to watch.”

    Mullin certainly respected Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, but he also broke his heart in recruiting.

    Krzyzewski first saw Mullin play basketball at the Five Star Basketball Camp at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1980.

    “He fell in love with him,” recalled longtime New York basketball expert Tom Konchalski, who worked the Five Star Camp. “And he recruited him personally.”

    Krzyzewski, who had yet to morph into the great “Coach K,” had just taken the Duke job that March after five seasons at Army and figured Mullin, the sweet-shooting guard out of Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, would be a great get for one of his first recruiting classes.

    In early 1981, Krzyzewski, thinking he still had a chance to land Mullin, flew into New York City to meet with him at the Wheelchair Classic at Mater Christi High School in Astoria, N.Y. Mullin had just led Xaverian to the New York State championship in Glens Falls.

    “And he found out that day that he had committed to St. John’s,” Konchalski recalled. “That day. As soon as the season was over he committed.”

    Konchalski sat with Krzyzewski at the game and to this day recalls the coach’s emotions.

    “He was heartbroken,” Konchalski recalled. “He was really disappointed terribly.”

    Mullin ultimately chose to stay home and play at St. John’s for Lou Carnesecca instead of venturing South to play for at Duke. Mullin had grown up attending Carnesecca’s camp.

    “Coach K recruited me out of high school but you can only pick one school,” Mullin recalled a year ago.

    “It would’ve been very difficult for him not to go to St. John’s,” Konchalski said. “[Krzyzewski] was heartbroken when he lost him.”

    Nearly 40 years later, Mullin is the coach of St. John’s and he’s making his first trip to Duke since those recruiting days. Zion Williamson, the object of Knicks’ fans desires, and No. 2 Duke host Shamorie Ponds and St. John’s at noon on Saturday (ESPN).

    “Obviously playing in a historic building, a historic basketball team is awesome, but when the game starts it gets back to playing the game,” Mullin said Friday.

    A year ago, Mullin and St. John’s shocked No. 4 Duke, 81-77, at Madison Square Garden.

    Still, Mullin has wondered what it might have been like had he selected Duke over St. John’s.

    “I think St. John’s, playing in the city, was who I am,” Mullin told Sports Illustrated for a story in 2014. “But there are times that I wonder what would’ve happened to me if I had gone there instead of St. John’s. I don’t know, but it would’ve been something different. Maybe I would’ve been a better … ”

    “A better what?” he was asked.

    “Maybe, a student, I don’t know,” Mullin said. “A better something. But not a better basketball player. I’m pretty sure of that.”

    Konchalski recalls an article during that time in Inside Sports magazine howing all the top recruits for which Duke and Coach K came in second. That list included Mullin, Bill Wennington from Long Island Lutheran who went to St. John’s and on Uwe Blab, the German player who went to Indiana.

    “They came in second on like five or six kids, but Mullin was the one he wanted desperately,” Konchalski said. “And he recruited him and he loved his mother, Eileen, and had a great relationship with his mother.”

    Coach K, of course, went on to do pretty well in recruiting.

    The next year he had a breakthrough recruiting class that featured Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas. That group led Duke to Coach K’s first Final Four in 1986.

    This current freshman class made history be including the Nos 1, 2 and 3 recruits in the Class of 2018 in R.J. Barrett, Williamson and Cam Reddish.

    “That was the class [’86] that set the template, the model was established,” Krzyzewski told ESPN in 2014. “Not just the caliber of player, but the caliber of person, and that’s what we’ve tried to do over the years is try to replicate that.”

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.