[I grew up in 1970s Sacramento on a steady diet of Jeff Mullins and the Golden State Warriors. Sacramento’s Channel 40 broadcast the Warriors games live and in color with the phenomenal Bill King on the call. Fond memories, which make me happy to add this brief article about Mullins, pulled from the magazine Pro Basketball Almanac, 1970. There is no byline for this one.]
The clock showed three seconds left to play and San Francisco was trailing the New York Knicks by one point. Warrior coach George Lee called a timeout and gathered his team for a final bit of inspiration. The inspiration took this form: “Get the ball to Jeff.”
Rookie Ron Williams inbounded from the midcourt stripe and fired a pass to Jeff Mullins, who was standing about five feet behind the top of the key. The Knicks’ Walt Frazier, one of the best defenders in the league, immediately picked up Mullins. At best, it is difficult to score on Frazier, but how do you do it with only one second left?
Here’s how Mullins did it. He made a head fake left and took a jump shot right with Frazier hanging all over him. As the buzzer sounded, the ball hit the rim of the basket and fell through, giving San Francisco a 94-93 victory.
Jeff Mullins was playing that Hairbreadth Harry kind of game all last season for the Warriors. In fact, 1968-69 was the season that Mullins, a five-year man in the NBA, finally established himself as a pro. He led the Warriors in scoring with a 22.9 average and was second in league scoring from the free-throw line. But before that, the genial Kentuckian had all sorts of trouble getting untracked as a pro.
Drafted No. 1 by the St. Louis Hawks in 1964, the former Duke star joined the Hawks late after going to Japan with the U.S. Olympic team. Unfortunately, he injured his knee in Japan and saw only limited action in the Olympics. When Mullins returned, the injury persisted, and he averaged only 4.9 points in 44 games for the Hawks.
It was a disastrous debut for the highly acclaimed All-America who had hoped to make it big right away in the pro ranks. And the problem was more than the knee.
“At Duke,” he said, “I had played forward, and it was obvious that in the NBA I was going to have to play guard. I had an adjustment to make from forward to guard, as a lot of pro guards do, but I just didn’t have the chance to do it. That summer, I spent five months in the Army and never got to work on things that needed working on. I wasn’t sure of myself yet.
“Besides, St. Louis had two excellent guards in Lenny Wilkens and player-coach Richie Guerin, and they could do so many things I couldn’t. Like setting a team up, running a team, helping the big men do the things they could do best.
“I can’t really blame Guerin for not giving me much of a chance,” says the 6-foot-4 Mullins. “The Hawks were always in contention for first place, and they couldn’t afford to take out a couple of All-Star guards to teach a young player the game. The only misunderstanding I had with Guerin is over my shooting. I was a jump shooter, but he wanted me to drive more (maybe because he was a driver). So, I became a driver. And that helped make me a more-complete player.”
Mullins’ second season wasn’t much better than his first. He averaged only 5.8 points a game and became so disgusted with himself that he even considered quitting pro basketball. At the end of the season, he asked the Hawks not to protect him in the expansion draft [to stock the expansion Chicago Bulls roster], and they said that was fine with them. Which gives you an idea of what the Hawks thought of Mullins.
Jeff took an offseason job with IBM and waited for the expansion draft. Lucky for him, he was selected by the Bulls and decided to give pro ball one more chance. But before he could play a regular-season game for Chicago, he was traded to San Francisco for Guy Rodgers.
That was the turning point. In 1966-67, he played in 77 games for the Warriors and averaged almost 13 points a game. When Rick Barry defected to the Oakland Oaks of the ABA at the end of the season, Mullins really came into his own as a scorer. His 18.9 average the following year was second only to Rudy LaRusso on the Warriors.
But how did the transformation come about? Jeff gives much of the credit to Bill Sharman, his coach at San Francisco for two years. Sharman encouraged Mullins to cut loose and shoot. “He really made the difference for me,” Mullins says. “My first year at San Francisco—and it was my third year in pro ball—I really became involved, and pro basketball became fun for the first time.”
For Mullins, the biggest kick in basketball is running and moving the ball. He says, “There’s no thrill like moving well, coming down the court five or six times in a row and getting the ball to the man with the easy shot. That’s the fun.”
And when Mullins is having fun, so are the Warriors. Last spring, he led an injury-riddled team into the playoffs against Los Angeles, where they were in contention until Jeff hurt his left knee in the third game. As he sat on the bench, an ice-pack on the damaged knee, he thought about the disappointments he had overcome in the past and the challenges he would face in the future. That future looked good to him, and he was now ready for the challenges.
[Bonus Coverage: Here is the San Francisco Examiner’s coverage of Jeff Mullins’ game-winner against the New York Knicks, which is highlighted in the article above. The game took place in San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium on November 6, 1968. The byline belongs to the fantastic Bucky Walter, who writes a really nice story, bringing some attention Clyde Lee, a real-solid rebounder back in the day.]
Someone asked Nate Thurmond whether Clyde Lee had helped. Thurmond looked at the guy as if he was daft. “You were watching, weren’t you?” he asked, astounded by the question.
The Warriors won it from the New York Knicks last night at Civic Auditorium. Just a breeze. Jeff Mullins popped in a running lag at the basket with three seconds to play to wrap it up, 94-93.
“It was a tough game physically,” said Thurmond. “But with Clyde back, I’m not as tired as I am usually.”
Lee played on legs of rubber. It was only his second outing in 25 days. “If it had gone into overtime, I would have fainted,” he said. He was kidding on the square.
“It felt,” said Clyde, “that I was playing in slow motion, just pushing.
The statistics tell another story. Lee played all but two of the 48 minutes. He scored 25 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, only two fewer than Thurmond. He was tough as gristle on defense. He put all 6-foot-10 into the savage battle against the Knicks.
With 32 seconds to play, Clyde grabbed a missed shot by Mullins and put it back into the iron. That carried the Warriors—who had trailed from mid-first quarter almost to the very finish—to command at 92-91. The crowd was small, just 2,982, probably because the game was televised, but all 2,982 yelped the roof off the arena.
But then the Knicks streaked downcourt. A pass found Dick Barnett alone in the corner. Richard wafted the ball through, and it was 93-92 New York with seven seconds left on the clock. “We set up to get the ball to Mullins,” said George Lee. (Jeff is the S.F.ers’ most-reliable shooter.)
When he grabbed the ball, Mullens drove to the left of the hoop and let fly with his right hand, an awkward shot but it nestled in the cording for the winning goal. “Smart play,” quipped Coach Lee, “running out the clock.”
The rugged Knicks are a physically brutal team to play. It’s like sparring with Marciano. They harried the Warriors in the backcourt and then chop them up in their defensive zone. The New Yorkers were whistled for 35 fouls. That should have cost them dearly. But the Warriors missed 22 free throws, and that’s why they always were playing from behind, down 13 points in mid-third period.