CARBONDALE, Ill. (KMOV.com) -- As I drove south on 127 to meet Bryan Mullins, I thought back to the first time I had seen him play. Opening night, 2005-2006, exhibition game against UMSL. Had it really been been more than 13 years ago? I knew the basics when we recruited Mullins. Coaches kid, Illinois Wolves, point guard, honor student.
I had spoken to a friend during that time who had seen Mullins play often at Downers Grove South. He was pretty firm in his analysis then.
"He's not very big, barely six feet. He's an okay shooter, but might struggle getting his own shot. They'll post him up on defense. Really, he's a little on the slow side. And he might be as good now as he ever gets."
I couldn't believe it. "So why would we want him?" I asked.
"Because Bob," he said, "if you had five Bryan Mullins, you'd never lose a game."
Where to start.
The all-time Saluki assist leader
Second in steals, despite missing much of his senior season
Four-time MVC All Defensive Team
Two time MVC Defensive Player of the Year
Three time MVC Conference Scholar
Two time ESPN Magazine Academic All-American
MVC Scholar Athlete of the Year
MVC Presidents Council Academic Award
Two MVC titles
Two NCAA trips
One Sweet 16
Graduated with a 4.0 GPA in finance
Here's my favorite: In a year where Mullins had a stress fracture and limped around the court, he was voted the Valley's Defensive Player of the Year. We can argue all you want, but at my age, from my eyes, Bryan Mullins is the best point guard in Saluki history. He's also the man you'd like your daughter to bring home for dinner. Did I mention he's a Cubs fan?
We shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, and headed toward the Arena floor. I looked at Mullins and remembered the player I saw 13 years ago. He wore black shoes and black socks. He was smart, tough, and competitive. He played with a fist in the air and a fire in his belly. He played the way we all would have played if we could.
He ran morning practices in the summer heat that turned into evening wins when the snow hit the ground. No out of bounds. No whistles. No fouls. It was called Floorburn U in Carbondale, and Bryan Mullins was the ringleader.
He laughed at where I wanted to start the conversation.
"Oh man. Wow. We fought for balls into the seats. We chased balls into the restrooms. That's how I was raised to play. We were going to wear you down. We knew that what we did in practice, what we did during the summer and the fall prepared us to win those games throughout the season. That when it came down to the end of the game, we weren't going to be the ones to break. We weren't going to be the ones tired. We were going to be able to make the plays to win the game."
And did he.
After that first UMSL game, Southern, with big expectations, went to the Alaska shootout. It did not go well. The Salukis were upset by both Monmouth and Division Two Anchorage. Southern wound up playing for seventh place, and Chris Lowery and his staff had seen enough. On the plane ride home, they decided to give the keys to Mullins. "It's your team," he was told. "Run the show."
The Salukis won 12 of their next 13.
I told Mullins that pretty 4.0 was probably double mine, but my memory was still good. So we strolled down memory lane. I asked him about the night Missouri State came to town that freshman year. Could he pull that memory out of thin air?
"Falker, right?" he asked.
Right on cue.
Jamal Tatum was sick, and couldn't play. The Salukis were down a point, 15 seconds left, and Chris Lowery calls time out. Mullins will have the ballgame in his hands. The clock goes to 10, then 5. Bryan Mullins, the slow one who might struggle to get his own shot, beats his man, drives the lane, waits for the defensive help, and then calmly dumps the ball to a bad mother Falker who dunks it for the win.
The Arena explodes. And the Lord could have taken me right there.
At the Valley tournament that year, the injury bug would begin to appear. Mullins sprained his ankle in the semifinal game against Northern Iowa. Still, he played 39 minutes and made the clutch shot with 30 seconds left to send the game into overtime, which the Salukis eventually won. He was listed as questionable for the title game against Bradley. And he tried, limping around for four minutes in the first half before sitting down. The Salukis went into the locker room trailing with an NCAA appearance on the line. And then.........
"Well, I remember I could barely walk. Limped into the locker room. Not much was said about it. The coaches and players knew I was going back out there. Hey, our season was on the line."
Mullins played nearly the entire second half, and Southern won by 13.
By the time his sophomore season rolled around, Southern, Mullins, Floorburn, The Arena, Carbondale and Southern Illinois was ready.
And as always, it was Creighton. When we went to Omaha, it was the largest crowd for a basketball game in Nebraska history. Seconds left, we're once again down by a point with the ball. And the basketball game is once again in Bryan Mullins hands.
Back then, the only way to find a Saluki game was on the radio. And there I was, In my car, two hours from radio range, frantically driving around trying to find a spot where Mike Reis could come in loud and clear. I drove and drove that day, certain that the Salukis could not possibly win unless I was listening. Somewhere around Red Bud, I found Mike Reis at just the right time.
"......Southern down by 1.......Now less than 10 seconds.....Mullins working his man.......nothing open........Mullins with an off balance jumper........count it!!!!!........count it!!!!!!!.........count it!!!!!........creighton throws it to half court.........shot at the buzzer.........off the backboard.........Southern wins!!!!!!!!..........Southern wins!!!!!!!!.......Mullins wins it for the Salukis!!!!!!!!"
So glad the Lord did not take me earlier.
"Close you eyes," I asked Mullins, "and take me back to Omaha."
First I had to get the smile off his face.
"Well, it was me against Nate Funk. Great player. We were going back and forth. Fortunately, I made a lucky shot at the end."
I think I saw a wink right there.
But by his junior year, the Saluki world had changed. Jamal Tatum and Tony Young were gone, and Floorburn U went with them. Mullins was again battling injuries. Southern was in trouble, and lost 6 of 7 games early. The writing was on the wall. But we were all there when Creighton and ESPN came calling for Game Day. And we all have that same vivid memory. Less than two minutes left, Southern up a bucket, and the loose ball is heading toward the Dawg Pound. Nine players on the floor stood watching. One player did something about it, and saved the game for the Salukis.
I walked over to the spot where he was when he saw the ball going out of bounds, and then to where he landed.
"It was those summer practices again. Play to the whistle. Play hard. No out of bounds. Do not get outworked. I didn't know if I could get that ball. But I knew I was going to try."
Great win, but it was fools gold, and we all knew it. Southern would lose to UNI in the first round of the Valley tournament. Mullins, clearly limping, would finish with just two points. That night, as I walked the streets of St. Louis, I knew we might never see these days again.
And we haven't. In his final season as a Saluki, Southern would start 0-3. Still dealing with stress fractures, Mullins would play his last game in the middle of the season at Evansville. The page had turned. The future of the Salukis now belonged to players named Dillard, Hare, Booker and Evans.
He had long since left southern Illinois. But like the rest of us, forever this is his university, his uniform, and his blood and sweat on the Arena floor. I wanted to know how he felt when he watched from afar, and saw the tradition he helped build fall off the cliff.
"It hurt. It still hurts. I cheered for coach Lowery and coach Hinson. This is my school. I know it means a lot to the community. This is such a special place. I want it to be like it was back then. I remember the crazy environment there. Those memories will stick with me for the rest of my life."
Mullins paused and looked around the empty Arena. "And now it's my chance to do something about it."
As I prepared to leave, I asked Mullins to walk with me. There was one picture on the concourse wall that always gave me chills. Mullins, front and center leading five Salukis onto the floor against Kansas. Media friends who covered that game told me they had never seen a more heart broken and difficult to cover locker room than the one that night in San Jose. As we stopped to look at that picture, I asked Mullins what he remembered from that game.
"After all these years, I've never been able to go back and watch that game. That's a trough one. We never wavered during that game. We believed to a man we were a final four team. It didn't matter who was in our way. We could play with anyone. And we played well, right down to that last possession......"
Mullins voice drifted away, as we stared at the picture and remembered.
And then I asked about the locker room.
"Yeah, I just remember everyone crying. Jamal, Tony Young, coach Lowery. We were right there. You look back now and realize how special that group was, how much we believed in each other."
It was time to say goodbye. We shook hands, and vowed that we would both be standing right here again someday, in much better times.
When I drove home after that UMSL game, I knew what I saw that night. And the next day I called that friend who had seen Mullins play so often.
"Hey," I said. "I saw your boy play last night."
I heard laughter on the other end.
"Let me guess. He probably didn't score. Hell, he probably didn't shoot. And I'm sure you thought he was slow."
"All of the above," I said.
And then there was a long pause.
"And you also saw something else, didn't you Bob?"
"Yes I did," I said. "Oh yes I did."
And then we both laughed.
After my trip to meet Mullins, I drove home late at night and went straight to my basement. Tucked in a corner is an old cardboard box marked "Dad's Saluki Stuff. DO NOT TOUCH!" There's old school books, barely opened of course. Embarrassing report cards that I need to shred. T-Shirts that are now three sizes too small. Cassettes of my days at WSIU. VHS and DVD's of Western Carolina, Georgia and Holy Cross. Stuff that means everything in the world to me. But I was looking for something else, and I kept digging. Finally, there they were, buried at the bottom of the box.
Game day box scores from the Arena that I collected over time.
I dug and dug, and finally, there it was. Sunday, November 6, 2005, opening night, UMSL at SIU. The box score said the Salukis won 89-64. But that's not what I was looking for. I remember what my eyes saw that night, and now I wanted verification. I scrolled down, and I saw it.
Bryan Mullins, did not start, 0 turnovers, 7 assists.
I knew where we were headed after that night. And I know where we are headed now.
Welcome home, Bryan.
Bob Cyphers is a KMOV Channel 4 journalist of 30 years and lifelong SIU fan.