Playing the "should've" or "could've" game with one's life is perilous, as it will inevitably lead to a longing for things unrealized and bring on a pervasive ennui and melancholy that simply does no good.
But sports are different. One of the true pleasures of reviewing recent sports history is examining how things could have been just slightly different if so-and-so had thrown a different pitch or had decided to play it safe or had played for a different team.
I couldn't help myself thinking about this Friday with the induction of Chris Mullin into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The Brooklyn-born and -raised Mullin was New York to the core, having been a city standout at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's alma mater, Power Memorial, before transferring to Xaverian High School. Then, of course, Mullin went on to become one of the all-time great Big East stars at St. John's, where he lead the Redmen to the 1985 Final Four.
Mullin was selected in the first round of the historic 1985 draft, the first to use the lottery system that's still in use today. He was chosen seventh by the Golden State Warriors, joining Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and Joe Dumars as future Hall of Famers taken in that first round.
It was obvious to all, especially as it was referred to at the time as the "Patrick Ewing draft," that the Georgetown center would be the player chosen by whichever team was lucky enough to select first. And it was the correct choice. Ewing, imbued with talents on both the offensive and defensive side, was a player a franchise could build around. Ewing nearly led the Knicks to glory (talk about "what if" ... any team can cry that song if it played in the Michael Jordan era).
But to so many passionate New York basketball fans, Mullin was the embodiment of "if only." If only the Knicks had found a way to acquire him, the hometown hero would have provided the much-needed contrast and accompaniment to the physically and at times thuggish Knicks of the early 1990s. With Mullin's Larry Bird-like prowess with the outside shot, the Knicks may have triumphed over the Bulls during their fierce and decidedly unfriendly rivalry.
It's easy to dream about how electric and pulsating Madison Square Garden might have been had Mullin drilled 3-pointers in the final minutes to steal a victory for the Knicks in a playoff game. When one looks back, seeing how natural a fit Mullin would have been for the Knicks and New York itself, it's hard to fathom that the Knicks didn't make a more aggressive push to bring him back to his home state and court. It would have been fitting, as his teammate at St. John's and fellow Brooklyn native, Mark Jackson, had several solid years with the Knicks in the late 1980s.
Sometimes it seems that teams discount the emotional impact, in the sense of the emotions having a positive carryover effect to his teammates and fans, increasing the home-court advantage. There's no doubt that Mullin, though his career declined significantly after turning 30, would have been an asset for the Knicks. After all, so many speak of the Knicks' last golden years as the early 1970s. But also, New York's last special time in terms of college basketball was with Mullin's St. John's teams in the '80s.
The player who received the most attention during the induction ceremony was Dennis Rodman. Some argue that he shouldn't have been enshrined over other stars, and it's true that there were some glaring omissions this year, especially Reggie Miller. And though Rodman was as odd an on-court and off-court presence as the league has ever seen, his effectiveness in his role as rebounder is undeniable. Adding a key ingredient to the Pistons' championship squads in 1989 and '90 as well as the second half of Jordan's Bulls trifecta in the late 1990s, Rodman relished his exceedingly singular role.
But the role most non-serious fans of the sport recall Rodman playing was that of the out-of-control athlete whose personal demons and foibles were on full and embarrassing display for nearly 20 years.
So it was with some mild surprise that Rodman delivered one of the more truthful, heartfelt and dignified acceptance speeches in recent memory. Full of redemption, thanks and pleas of forgiveness, both for his own failings and for those who failed him, Rodman's tearful address lies in stark contrast to that given by his onetime foe and teammate, Jordan. Jordan's acceptance speech two years ago was noticeable for its absence of humility. In fact, it's hard to think of a more disappointing, spiteful and classless speech by a Hall of Famer - in any sport.
Obviously, Jordan's legacy as the man many consider the finest player to compete in the NBA is forever intact. And Rodman's presence in Springfield will be eternally questioned by some. But Rodman's successful attempt at grace may prove far more enduring.