By Eric Gilmore, CONTRA COSTA TIMES
OAKLAND - It was December 1987, and Chris Mullin's preparation to become Warriors executive vice president of basketball operations was under way.
Of course, Mullin didn't realize that at the time.
How could he? He was a 24-year-old kid, going through alcohol rehabilitation at a Los Angeles clinic, his off-court struggles fodder for the tabloids and his Warriors playing career careening out of control.
The New York Post published a picture of Mullin's face over a Heineken bottle, mocking the Brooklyn native and former St. John's star.
Mullin didn't fully appreciate the long-term benefits of his oh-so-public ordeal at the time. But now he understands.
After going through rehab, Mullin said then-Warriors general manager Don Nelson probably saved his life by forcing him into the program. Nelson undoubtedly saved Mullin's NBA career -- he went on to become a five-time All-Star.
Mullin emerged from that nightmare a changed man. He was disciplined. He was focused. He was a workout warrior. He was resilient, with skin as thick as redwood bark. Some 17 years later, Mullin still relies on those qualities in his rookie season as the Warriors' new front-office basketball boss.
"Sometimes if you go through hard times, while you're going through them you feel like the earth is caving in on you when in reality it's going to be the best thing you can go back on. Know what I mean?" Mullin said.
"So Nellie played an integral part in helping to get my life straightened out and really just being honest with me. A lot of times when that happens, your initial reaction is denial, blaming someone else. You have to get through all of that."
Mullin's thick skin served him well when the Warriors stumbled out of the gate this season and critics skewered him for many of his decisions. For firing coach Eric Musselman and hiring Mike Montgomery. For handing Jason Richardson and Troy Murphy lucrative contract extensions. For giving Adonal Foyle and Derek Fisher big-money deals.
What's a little criticism after what Mullin endured during his third season with the Warriors?
"I've been through that side of it," Mullin said. "Everything was public knowledge. I think to a degree it helped me lift a lot from myself. There were no secrets.
"People's questions, I'm kind of used to that. It's probably easier now, compared to that. I was in a different situation. I wasn't asked about missing a shot or missing a free throw. There was a lot more at stake than that.
"That experience, which I thought way back then was a brutal experience, is really valuable to me now. Being able to focus in and being able to not get off-center about what people say."
What are a few barbs to Mullin? One time during a rehab session in a rough section of Inglewood, he had to dive for cover when gunfire erupted in a drive-by shooting.
"I was like, 'They tell me I'm going to save my life here. I might get shot,'" Mullin said, laughing. "Another life experience, though, people shooting at you. A few words ain't going to hurt."
Mullin heard and read plenty of harsh words when the Warriors started this season 0-6. They were 12-32 through January and 16-38 through Feb. 23.
The next day, Mullin pulled off the biggest trade of his young VP career, landing point guard Baron Davis from the New Orleans Hornets. All it cost the Warriors was Speedy Claxton and Dale Davis.
Since Davis arrived, the Warriors have gone 15-9. Their list of victims in that span includes the Seattle SuperSonics, Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings.
"That's a big-time deal," said Indianapolis Pacers CEO and president Donnie Walsh, a mentor of sorts to Mullin. "Baron Davis talent-wise is probably the most talented package for a point guard I've seen. He's a legit star.
"I was pleased to see that Chris has made the big decisions, smart decisions every one of them. He's made those decisions. To me, that's a gigantic step to be able to do that."
Mullin, indeed, has proved he's not afraid to make a tough call and to take the heat. Hiring Montgomery away from Stanford was controversial in light of the historical struggles college coaches have had in the NBA.
Shelling out millions of dollars for Richardson, Murphy, Fisher and Foyle raised eyebrows, too. Even trading for Davis came with some risks because of his history of injuries and his feud with Hornets coach Byron Scott.
Warriors general manager Rod Higgins said Mullin has a "gunslinger mentality" when it comes to making decisions.
"As a player, if you are down two on the road and have a 3-pointer, you shoot the 3-pointer if you're open," said Higgins, Mullin's former Warriors teammate. "You're going for the win.
"Being in this sport, you almost have to have that mentality, to take and make the tough shot, make the tough call. You don't go back and say, 'What if.' If it doesn't work, you do another one. You make another decision. You attempt another shot."
As a player, Mullin spent countless hours in the gym, honing his shot and conditioning his body. Preparation was the key to his success.
As an NBA executive, Mullin does countless hours of homework before making decisions.
"He's methodical in his thought process, probably more methodical than most people," Warriors president Robert Rowell said. "Once he's weighed all the options, he's not afraid to take a position on an issue and, more importantly, when it deals with players and talent.
"He's not afraid to put his stamp on something, which is important in this business. We have 100 percent confidence in his ability."
Mullin, a sharpshooter in his playing days, began firing away soon after he started his new job. He's made some shots and missed some others.
"I feel OK," Mullin said about his rookie season. "Again, I'd probably do some things differently. I know from Feb. 24th to now I feel a lot better than I did before.
"I feel pretty good now. ... We've got to make sure the trades we've made and the somewhat good feeling we've got turns into a winning team, legitimately. ... We have some young talent. We've got a leader now. I think it's starting to become a little more obvious, not just to us but in general, which is important for people to start seeing that."
Mullin played for the Warriors' last playoff team, a squad that went 50-32 in 1994.
In 1991, Mullin, Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond -- aka Run TMC -- all averaged over 22 points per game, running and gunning their way into the playoffs. The Warriors went 44-38, playing a breakneck style that their fans loved.
"His vision is to bring excitement back to the Bay Area," said Richmond, now a Warriors special assistant, of Mullin. "We want a high-power team. ... He remembers how that was."
During Mullin's playing days, the Warriors made the playoffs five times but never advanced farther than the second round.
"When we were playing, it was pretty good," Mullin said. "And it was exciting and all that. We want that, but in the back of my head, I want more than that, too."
As his NBA playing career wound down, Mullin considered becoming a coach. Once he retired in 2001 after returning to the Warriors for a final, injury-plagued season, he switched gears and decided working in an NBA front office would be a better fit for him.
Mullin said he wanted the "cerebral" challenge of building and running a team rather than the "emotional" roller-coaster of coaching. As a husband and father of four kids, ages 4 to 12, Mullin also wanted the flexibility to spend more time with his family in Danville.
"I always kind of figured he'd go back and try to run the front office or he would coach," said Walsh, who had Mullin on his Pacers teams for three seasons after acquiring him from the Warriors in an August 1997 trade. "I think he made a good choice in running the front office. He certainly knows the game. He knows what you have to do to put a team out there that can win.
"He puts a face to the franchise. There's a face there that everybody knows. That's helpful, especially when you're trying to rebuild a team, not just to the public, but to other people in the league. Free agents will sit down and talk to him because they know who he is."
Mullin spent two years in the Warriors front office as a special assistant before landing the top job on April 22 last year.
And, yes, he feels like a rookie. When he talks trade with veteran general managers, he keeps his "guard up" just in case they're trying to con the newcomer.
"I don't really take it personal because really it's going to come down to a yes or a no," Mullin said.
Mullin said he took the job knowing he didn't know it all, despite having played 16 seasons in the league.
"There's a lot more you have to acquire, be willing to learn," Mullin said.
Mullin's rookie season running the team has coincided with Montgomery's rookie season as an NBA coach.
Montgomery said he and Mullin have talked about the adjustments they've had to make and lessons they've had to learn in their first seasons in new NBA jobs.
"He's not so arrogant that he thinks he has all the answers," Montgomery said. "He knows that this has been an adjustment for all of us. ... He's watched and listened, and he's seen me make some mistakes.
"I think the thing that's been impressive with him is he's been real steady. He's just kind of held the course. He's not panicked."
Mullin was always ice cold on the court as a player. Guys from Brooklyn who learned the game of basketball on the playgrounds and in the neighborhood gyms of New York aren't prone to panic.
"He came out of a tough Catholic high school league," said Lou Carnesecca, Mullin's coach at St. John's. "It was tough. It was blood and guts. You have to survive.
"He was probably playing the club games up at Harlem. He played all over. ... When I think of him, I think of him in the gym bouncing a ball and shooting. His whole life is basketball."
Mullin's basketball life nearly crumbled in 1987 because of alcohol. He was overweight and missing practices. Then Nelson stepped in.
"I think there were some mitigating circumstances, being away from home. He was always a homebody," Carnesecca said. "You take him away from home, who does he turn to? Those things happen.
Discuss anything related to Golden State Warriors basketball here