OAKLAND, CALIF. -- Chris Mullin's world caved in like a crushed beer can.
He was a young man who seemed to have everything. He led St. John's to the NCAA Final Four his senior year. Several publications named him college basketball player of the year in 1985. He helped the United States to an Olympic gold medal in 1984.
He was the top pick of the Golden State Warriors and signed a lucrative contract. Fortune and fame -- the seductive dreams of everyone growing up -- touched Mullin on the shoulder.
"That's one of the problems," said Dr. Thomas Tutko, a sports psychologist. "On the surface everything looks fine. The athlete is seen on the playing field as a confident individual, but when the lights go off he often finds he's very much alone."
Mullin, the man with everything, came forward Dec. 12 and admitted to an alcohol problem. The Warriors immediately had the third-year guard admitted to the LifeStarts program in Inglewood, Calif.
"He was hiding his problem, so we made a deal at the time," said the Warriors executive vice president and general manager, Don Nelson. "I said, 'If you don't believe you have a problem, let's make a pact right here, that you don't have a beer for six months.' He gave me his word and he was unable to do it."
Nelson said rumors floated around the league the last few years concerning Mullin's beer-drinking bouts.
"We'd heard reports for a long time that he had problems with the consumption of beer, and I confronted him the first day I arrived here," he said. "Like so many people who have problems, he didn't feel he had one."
Tutko, who has worked with athletes and sports teams for more than 20 years, says Mullin's denial of a problem is a classic symptom.
"When you are young, your tendency toward massive denial is at its peak," he said. "It's hard to realize you have a problem. Your whole social environment may center around going out to clubs and socializing."
But the seed of Mullin's problem may be as complex as the most difficult jigsaw puzzle.
"Several things are worrisome when it comes to the way we treat our young athletes," Tutko said. "We really never prepare them for the world of professional sports. They just find themselves thrust into it. Many of these kids have been living hand-to-mouth all their lives. Now they suddenly have thousands of dollars and don't really know how to handle money."
Stirred into this caldron are the pressures athletes feel: the subconscious fear a career can end any time, the psychological games played by coaches, the desire for fan adulation.
"Most athletes actually are very insecure people," Tutko said. "They have been set up by society. People pamper them, but at the same time the athlete knows it could all end tomorrow. It's very difficult for the athlete to realize there is life after jockdom."
Mullin fits this mold. A hometown hero who chose to attend college in New York, Mullin was a self-described "gym rat" who never seemed comfortable on the West Coast.
To further complicate Mullin's problem was his drug of choice -- alcohol. The marriage between America's sports establishment and alcohol is an uneasy one. Former athletes hawk beer on television. Sports biographies recount humorous stories about loaded athletes. Beer manufacturers line owners' pockets with millions in advertising dollars.
"Drinking and sports are closely associated with each other," Tutko said. "It's tough on an athlete. He feels he has to go out and have a few beers to be one of the boys. If he doesn't, he often is ridiculed. That also makes it hard on an athlete coming back from an alcohol problem."
Tragically, the gutters of the sports world are littered with stars who could not handle alcohol. This year alone, six members of the Minnesota Vikings have been arrested for drunken driving and star quarterback Tommy Kramer underwent treatment a second time.
While the NFL, NBA and major league baseball have strict policies dealing with drug abuse, they do not carry over those measures to alcohol. In pro basketball and baseball, athletes can drink themselves into a stupor in the locker room after a game.
"The problem is alcohol is legal," Tutko said. "That makes it a very deadly drug. I can't understand the attitude of many owners. If I was an owner and had so much money tied up in an athlete, I'd certainly make sure he wasn't abusing alcohol."
Tutko and Nelson agree Mullin has taken the initial step by asking for help.
"We feel very good about Chris correcting his problem because there's one thing that's more important than basketball," Nelson said. "It's your life and he's going to save his life first."