When St. John’s hired Chris Mullin as its basketball coach, it intended to recapture the excitement from his playing days in the 1980s to bring back fans to the men’s basketball games. Four years later, New York has the matchups circled on its calendar again.
During Mullin’s tenure, the average attendance to Red Storm games at Madison Square Garden rose from 10,750 to 16,498, its highest level since the end of Lou Carnesecca’s coaching career in the early 1990s. The school announced that Thursday’s home finale against Xavier would be Carnesecca Arena’s seventh sellout of the season.
“I think they’ve helped us win games, and I also think it helps the players feel good,” Mullin said of the increased support.
Celebrities have been spotted along the Garden’s sidelines — actors, professional athletes and music artists. Some even make the trip to Queens on weeknights. Mullin’s Hall of Fame resume as a player and link to the city is certainly a factor, but so is the fact that New Yorkers like a winner. The Johnnies are on the cusp of their first NCAA Tournament appearance of Mullin’s tenure, having achieved their first 20-win season since 2014-15.
“As they’ve done better, they’ve garnered more support,” said Mullin, a Brooklyn native. “That’s always a nice feeling. I think it’s more a feeling of appreciation.”
It helps on a recruiting level, too. Playing at the Garden has always been a draw for players looking to join St. John’s (20-8, 8-7 Big East). A year like this one, playing in front of New York’s biggest names, reinforces the pitch.
“It’s been a crowd like no other,” forward L.J. Figueroa said. “I’ve never played in front of fans like at Carnesecca out here in New York. Madison Square Garden has been unbelievable.”
Wins propelled the numbers higher, and success on the court will be the only sustainable driver to reach new heights. But energetic crowds can only help the on-court product and create a cycle.
“I knew it was going to be like this,” Figueroa said. “I knew the crowd was going to be crazy.”
After facing Xavier (15-13, 7-8) on Thursday, St. John’s has two road games before diving into the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Mullin, while considering how far the program has come since his arrival in March 2015, remained focus on moving forward, more than looking back.
“I think we’ve made steady progress,” Mullin said. “As far as reaching a certain point, we always each day try to be better.”