The plane was about halfway home from Denver Sunday night and, like everyone else on board, Chris Mullin was having a good time. He and St. John's point guard Mike Moses drifted into the first-class cabin, carrying the team's victory party with them.
The stewardess in first class, apparently not a basketball fan and someone accustomed to a more staid customer, put up with the Mullin-Moses noise for a few minutes, then decided she had taken enough.
Pointing a finger at Mullin, she demanded to know his name. "Chris," he answered. The stewardess wrote his name down on a piece of paper, apparently intending to tell Coach Lou Carnesecca that one of his players, some kid named Chris, was misbehaving among the gentry of first class.
In mock horror, Mullin said, "Are you going to tell my coach?"
"I certainly am," she said.
"Well, you know something," Mullin said, flashing the boyish grin that now owns New York, "I'm a senior. I really don't think he's going to kick me off the team."
The whole first-class cabin, which had been watching the developing drama, broke up. The stewardess retreated and another chapter was added to the Mullin legend: on the basketball court or on an airplane, if you give him any room at all, he's going to get you.
Georgetown Coach John Thompson, whose team faces St. John's for the fourth time this season in the second NCAA semifinal Saturday, said it best this week: "What else can be said about Chris Mullin?"
Nothing, really. He is, quite simply, one of the great mid-sized (nearly 6 feet 7) college basketball players of this or any other time. He has been compared to such players as Bill Bradley and Larry Bird because of his ability to see the court, to see the game developing more quickly than others.
Mullin has averaged 20.2 points per game this season, shooting 52 percent from the field. He also is the No. 3 rebounder for the 31-3 Redmen (4.8 per game) and leads them in assists (4.4 per game). One other statistic is more telling: during the regular season, Mullin scored almost 30 percent of St. John's points. During NCAA play, he has scored more than 40 percent of their points.
When the lights are brightest, Mullin usually is at his toughest.
"I hate him," N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano said with a laugh earlier this week. "He cost me a second trip to the Final Four. He finds a way to beat you. In the regional final (St. John's defeated N.C. State, 69-60, Sunday), we've got a 43-42 lead and Moses misses a shot. We have Cozell McQueen and Lorenzo Charles in position to get the rebound. If we get the ball, I'm spreading the court and make Looie (Carnesecca) chase.
"Mullin goes up between them, gets the ball somehow and sticks it back in. We never lead again. But that's a typical Mullin play. He's like that TV commercial; sooner or later, he's gonna get you."
When Mullin came out of Brooklyn's Xaverian High School, he was not highly recruited. There were some who saw his brilliance then. "I saw him in ninth grade," Carnesecca said. "He was only about 5-11 and he played point guard. I think if he'd been 6-7, then he might have played inside and he wouldn't have developed the vision he has today. He's always faced the basket, his view of the court has always been the same."
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who finished second to Carnesecca in the recruiting fight for Mullin, also saw something special early on.
"Of all the players I've recruited and lost, Mullin is the one who hurt most and I don't mean now, I mean then," Krzyzewski said. "He just sees the game differently than other people. People say he's slow, but he's so much quicker mentally than other players that he makes up for it easily.
"If you give a player like that freedom, he will do great things for you. Looie did a great job giving him freedom right away to develop those skills."
The traditional view of Mullin is this: a slow kid who can't run or jump but gets it done with smarts. Valvano, for one, thinks that stereotype is exaggerated.
"First of all, because he's such a great shooter, he's three steps faster because you have to play in his face," Valvano said. "Second, for a kid almost 6-7, he's not slow, I'm telling you. We had Nate McMillan on him and Nate's not slow. What'd Mullin get, 40?" No, just 25.
Boston College Coach Gary Williams, who has spent three years trying to figure out how to stop Mullin, agrees. "He never takes a wrong step, a wasted step," Williams said. "He's also unusual in that he makes other players better. Most scorers need to be set up. Mullin is a scorer who sets up other guys."
Mullin has grown used to these accolades. He was a starter at St. John's from day one as a freshman and was Big East player of the year as a sophomore. He was the team last year when center Bill Wennington was hurt most of the season and three other starters had graduated.
This season, Wennington is back and playing better and 6-8 junior-college transfer Walter Berry makes it tougher to double-team Mullin by averaging 17.2 points per game. The Redmen have been superb since late December after a rocky start that included a shocking loss at Niagara. Since then, they have lost only to Georgetown.
Mullin won an Olympic gold medal last summer. He has been his league's player of the year, won several national player of the year awards, become the darling of a city that had given up on college basketball 10 years ago and should be one of the first five players chosen in the NBA draft in June.
One last dream remains. "To win the national championship," he said recently, his face breaking into a huge smile. "Every player dreams of playing in the Final Four, of cutting that net down. If I could do that, I would have everything I ever wanted in college ball."
No one has worked harder to achieve the ultimate. The stories of Mullin's endless hours in the gym are legendary. Carnesecca said, "Every time he goes out and puts on a great performance, there have been 1,000 rehearsals in preparation."
Carnesecca already has called Saturday's game "graduation day" for his team. But for Mullin, it is more than that. He has played Broadway to smash reviews; his panache and verve on the court and his easy, often subtle humor, have won over most doubters.
For Mullin, this weekend is a farewell tour, a last chance for all who have adored his play to watch him in red and white one more time as a collegian. Whether Mullin's finale comes Saturday in the semifinals or Monday in the championship game, there is little doubt that anyone who loves college basketball will feel a little empty when Chris Mullin leaves the building one last time.