Looie Carnesecca often says that the saddest thing about losing in the NCAA tournament isn't the end of that one game, but the end of the whole season. All things being equal, he'd prefer to win than lose, of course. But if it comes to this, he'd rather play and lose than not play at all.
"I never want to put the balls away," he says.
After Saturday's St. John's-Georgetown game, the fourth and final episode in their "CYO on CBS" miniseries, one team will have to put the balls away.
If it's St. John's, then Chris Mullin's college career is over.
If it's Georgetown, then Patrick Ewing's college career is over.
Either way, it's the last, long note of a memorable song.
On the court, these have been guys with great, big voices. And when you get a guy with a great, big voice, you don't fool with it. You let him sing.
Think of how the Big East has dominated this season and this tournament, by placing three teams in the Final Four. Then think of what Mullin and Ewing have meant to the Big East -- not just for this season, but the last four. They are the jewels in the crown. They are the two best players on the two best teams in the country, and it is fitting that they should get this last chance at each other.
A match-up like this doesn't come along often. This is only the fifth time in the last 20 years that the two undisputably best college players have met in the Final Four: in 1965, Bill Bradley and Cazzie Russell; in 1968, Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes; in 1974, Bill Walton and David Thompson; in 1979, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the one time that the championship game was the setting.
During the four years Mullin and Ewing have played, the 11 games between St. John's and Georgetown have been highly competitive, intensely played and acutely savored by fans and participants. But it would be a mistake to cast Mullin and Ewing, who were U.S. Olympic teammates last summer, in positions of direct, personal conflict, as if their presumed rivalry is somehow microcosmic of the larger, institutional one. In truth, it's unfair to compare Mullin and Ewing as players, since they act such different roles.
But because there are banquets to throw, chickens to eat and awards to hand out, people have compared and judged them. And each time someone else names a "Player of the Year," if it isn't Ewing, it's Mullin. You have to go back to 1978 for the last time there was similar indecision. That year two guards, Phil Ford and Butch Lee, split the major awards. Since then, however, Larry Bird (1979), Mark Aguirre (1980), Ralph Sampson (1981-83) and Michael Jordan (1984) have collected most of the true value hardware. Had Jordan remained at North Carolina for this, his senior season, he surely would have altered the Mullin-Ewing equation.
But he's not here.
And they are.
John Thompson calls Ewing "the period that ends all sentences at Georgetown."
Carnesecca calls Mullin a "once-in-a-lifetime player," and said today, "whatever Pat was to Georgetown, certainly Chris was to us."
You could start stacking up each player's rave reviews on the carpet, and when you got to the chandelier, the size of the piles and the tone of the words would be the same.
Who do you like more?
Let's stay on the same page now: we're not talking about a personality contest; I do not wish to discuss who'd win that. And we're not talking about pro potential. It shouldn't matter that Ewing might become greater than Bill Russell, since defensively Ewing can be his peer, and offensively his better; Russell's career scoring average was 15.1, and he never averaged more than 18.9 in a season. Nor should it matter that Mullin, whose game is more fairly equated with Bradley's than Bird's, might be very good and not very great in the NBA. We are talking about them as college players. Here, and now.
Who do you like more?
Give me Ewing.
Because it is now, was then, and is likely to be for quite some time a big man's game, and while a smaller man, like 6-foot-6 Mullin, sometimes can control the action, only a big man can truly dominate it. And Ewing is the best college big man since Walton. Such is his impact on a game that even when he's on the bench, opposing players are looking around for him. He is by far the most influential player in college.
Having said that, let me emphatically add that it wasn't an easy call. The arguments for Mullin are persuasive: Mullin is asked to do more things on a basketball court than Ewing, and he does. He dribbles better, passes better and shoots better. His skills are more sharply honed than Ewing's; he is more versatile, more accomplished. The only reason it appears as if Ewing is better is because he is bigger, and that is an accident of genetics, the residue of design.
Friends of mine insist that if you took Ewing off Georgetown, then took Mullin off St. John's, that Georgetown would have an easier time compensating its loss; they offer this as evidence that Mullin is more valuable. If that's true -- and I'm not convinced -- then it's evidence more of depth and associative talent. A person's value to a particular team is not the yardstick for his greatness as a player. People who pick Mullin over Ewing would have picked Oscar Robertson over Wilt Chamberlain in their prime, or Michael Jordan over Moses Malone.
I think you start in the middle and build out.
Mullin is the moon and the stars.
But Ewing is the sun.
They have this one more court appearance together, one last forum for each to plead his case.
The winner survives to play another day. The loser has to put the balls away.