What might have been: Family wanted Chris Mullin at Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

A few leftover news, notes and quotes that didn’t quite fit in Sunday’s capsule look at incoming Notre Dame hoops freshmen Elijah Burns, Rex Pflueger and Matt Ryan:

•Chris Mullin carved a storybook collegiate career at St. John’s where he was a three-time winner of Big East player of the year.

Might have he had a similar career at Notre Dame?

“If Notre Dame had put the fullcourt press on him, that’s where he would have gone,” said Xaverian Brothers (N.Y.) High School coach Jack Alesi, who coached Mullin in grade school and high school. “His family always hoped he would go to Notre Dame.”

Irish coach Digger Phelps remembers meeting with Mullin after a high school game at Madison Square Garden. Recruiting an Irish-Catholic kid from Brooklyn to Notre Dame would have been a no-brainer. Except….

“Word was that he was all set to go to St. John’s,” Phelps recalled last week. “We never heard anything about Chris wanting to go to Notre Dame. He was going to St. John’s.”

At St. John’s, Mullin became the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,440 points. He won the 1985 John R. Wooden Award and United States Basketball Writers Association player of the year honors. A member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Mullin was hired March 30 as St. John’s head coach.

•Alesi at one time thought he would coach eventual Irish guard Kyle McAlarney at Xaverian, which sits in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, a short drive over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from McAlarney’s home in Staten Island.

McAlarney chose to stay closer to home and attend Moore Catholic High School, where he became the all-time leading scorer in Staten Island high school history with 2,566 points.

Had McAlarney attended Xaverian, he would have teamed with future Big East foe Levance Fields, who went to Pittsburgh. During a year-end awards program at Madison Square Garden following McAlarney’s senior year, a photographer snapped a picture backstage of McAlarney and Alesi and Fields.

“I remember saying, ‘What a backcourt this might have been,’” Alesi said. “They would have been great. Of course, the coach would have found a way to screw it up.”

•Alesi also is a big Notre Dame football fan, and has been back to the Irish days of quarterback John Huarte. But the next time the long-time prep basketball coach gets to South Bend for a football game will be the first.

“It’s on my Bucket List,” Alesi said. “One year, we were scheduled to go to a Penn State-Notre Dame game around Thanksgiving, but there was a death in the family and we never made it. The closest I’ve ever been to South Bend is Bloomington.”

•The relationship between veteran Mater Dei (Calif.) High School coach Gary McKnight and Irish coach Mike Brey dates back nearly 30 years.

McKnight was in his second season with the Monarchs in 1984 when they played DeMatha (Md.) Catholic. Legendary high school coach Morgan Wootten coached the Stags. Brey was one of his assistants.

“Mike and I go back a long way,” McKnight said. “He’s a good friend of mine.”

McKnight recently completed his 33rd season in Southern California.

•One of McKnight’s key seniors, Rex Pflueger, is the second Mater Dei player to sign with Notre Dame. Former Irish guard Matt Beeuwsaert, spent one season (1985-86) in South Bend before transferring to California.

•Blair Academy coach Joe Mantenga tries to coordinate his team’s New Jersey prep league schedule with getting out to see his former students/players during the college season, and he’ll do the same this coming winter to see Irish forward Elijah Burns.

Notre Dame’s visit to Virginia during the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule would allow Mantenga to see three of his former players – Burns and fellow Blair graduates Marial Shayok and Mike Tobey, who are key rotation cogs for the Cavaliers.

Mantenga insists that Burns will go down as one of the top five players in the history of Blair Academy, which also produced future college standouts and NBA players Royal Ivey and Charlie Villanueva.