The T-shirt. When he was playing college ball in the early 1980s, Chris Mullin always wore that T-shirt underneath his St. John's tank top. Jay Wright had never seen anyone do that before. It was one of the first things Wright thought of when he learned this week that St. John's would hire Mullin as its new head coach, that a former Big East power had reached into its past to try to revitalize its present.
Wright, Villanova's head coach, was still a student at Bucknell University then, often making the 150-mile drive from Lewisburg, Pa., to 'Nova's campus to see his girlfriend, Patty Reilly, who is now his wife. Patty was a Villanova cheerleader, too, and Wright particularly enjoyed those weekends when the Wildcats had games against St. John's, when he might get a seat at the Spectrum or at Madison Square Garden, when Villanova had Ed Pinckney and John Pinone and Stewart Granger and St. John's had Mullin and David Russell and Bill Wennington, and every game was a happening.
"Great memories," Wright said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "That was the heyday of the Big East."
The nostalgia for the conference's glory days has been thick over the last few days, since Mullin's name surfaced as a possible replacement for Steve Lavin, and if you're of a certain generation, as Wright is, you understand and embrace that nostalgia.
"The strength and allure of our league is the tradition," he said. "It's a basketball-rich tradition, and there are probably very few names that could return and stir up as many thoughts of greatness."
For that reason, Mullin's hiring is in no way bad for the present iteration of the Big East, and in no way is it bad for the program that has dominated the conference these last two seasons. The league gets to reconnect with one of the best players in college basketball history - Mullin was a three-time Big East player of the year and scored 2,440 career points - and Villanova finds itself in a no-lose situation vis-a-vis St. John's.
If Mullin flops as a head coach, then Wright and the Wildcats maintain their superiority over the Red Storm. And if Mullin does indeed turn around a program that has reached the NCAA tournament just twice in the last 13 years, then a long-dormant rivalry is rekindled, and both Villanova and the Big East will be made better for the challenge to the Wildcats' supremacy.
Really, the only entity that could suffer for hiring Mullin is St. John's itself. No one disputes the beauty of his basketball mind, and the connections he formed over his 15 years as an NBA player and his more than five years as an NBA executive could help him in the same way that Larry Brown's pro connections have helped him at SMU.
But Mullin has never been a head coach before, at any level of the sport, and remember: He's not recruiting those middle-aged men who watched him play on TV and whose mouths would fall open at the thought of meeting him. He's recruiting their sons, and most of their sons don't know who Chris Mullin is or was.
Nevertheless, he is a New Yorker, and that background, Wright said, is an advantage that can't be overstated. When Hofstra University hired Wright as its head coach in 1994, the first assistant coach he hired was Tom Pecora, who was from Queens Village and was plugged into New York's recruiting culture.
"Much like Philadelphia, New Yorkers want a New York guy," said Wright, who reportedly turned down an overture from the University of Texas for its vacant head coaching position Tuesday. "When the head coach is a New York guy, you're golden in New York, especially when you're Chris Mullin.
"One thing that's unique about it: In New York, St. John's is king. There's no Big Five. All the other colleges are below St. John's. In Philly, all the teams are equal. So it's different in New York in that St. John's is so far above everybody else. St. John's basketball in New York is huge. It's always been that way, and it remains that way."
It's been an awful long time since the program's performance justified that status, though. Wednesday marks the 30th anniversary of Villanova's upset of Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA title game, and the old Wildcats from that era still tell Wright that there was another team in that year's Final Four that they feared more than Patrick Ewing's Hoyas.
St. John's had beaten Villanova three times that season, and if the Wildcats had met the Redmen in the national semifinal instead of Memphis, they might never have had the chance to play for a national championship at all. Chris Mullin might have sent them home losers in a big game again.
Starting next season, we'll find out just how much has changed.