SAN DIEGO — Mitch McMullen couldn't have been happier at the start of his senior season at Hart High School in Newhall.
He had already signed a letter of intent with Brigham Young University, and his final season of high school basketball was beginning on a bright note.
It ended in depression midway through.
McMullen was depressed after learning that his brother, Corey, had been stricken with leukemia. His coach and teammates were angry that he had signed early, because they were sure McMullen would become lackadaisical without the pressure of trying to gain attention from Division I schools. The prospect of playing at BYU was beginning to lose its luster. Perhaps more ominously, he had begun some experimentation with alcohol and marijuana.
Basketball had become just another thing cluttering his life. So he quit.
During the period that followed, it may have seemed unlikely that McMullen would end up playing Division I college basketball anywhere. But entering tonight's 7:35 p.m. Western Athletic Conference game against Hawaii at the Sports Arena, McMullen, a junior center, is San Diego State's second-leading scorer, averaging 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds a game.
McMullen says religion stopped his slide and prevented a casual use of alcohol and marijuana from ever becoming more serious. Only occasionally does he think back to the time that almost ended his basketball career.
By midway through his senior season, McMullen said he had reached his limit. His brother was dying, and he was at odds with his friends. Soon after league play began, McMullen, who had been averaging 18 points a game, was told he was no longer needed as a starter.
"He got caught up in a situation where we had nine quality players," said Doug Michaelson, McMullen's coach at Hart. "It was a coach's dream of talent. We had the option of going big or going quick. We opted to go quick."
McMullen, who was 6-feet 9-inches tall and weighed 180 pounds, was relegated to a backup role to Steve Mehr (6-7, 245), now a defensive tackle at UCLA.
"Hart was not in a tough league," McMullen said. "Most of the other guys were no taller than 6-3. I wasn't needed, so I wasn't playing."
When he left the team, the folks at BYU were dismayed, but they didn't give up.
"We were disappointed that he had quit his high school team, but we weren't going to give up on Mitch," recalled Ladell Andersen, the BYU coach.
The school developed a workout schedule and got McMullen involved in summer league play. He participated, but he was looking for an escape, and basketball wasn't it. Neither were the marijuana and alcohol he had begun to use increasingly since he quit the team.
"Using the drugs was my way to release the pain of knowing that my brother would die," McMullen said of Corey, who died last summer. "That was not the right way for me to release my pain. It was only digging deeper into me. I turned to Christ, and things were much better."
With their encouragement, McMullen had decided to follow in the direction of his parents, who were born-again Christians. But there was no way he could attend BYU with his new-found faith.
Three weeks before school was to begin, McMullen told Andersen he would not be coming.
"My decision was based solely on religion," McMullen said. "Because I was a born-again Christian, I decided it would be best not to go there. It was nothing against Mormons; I think they are the nicest people around. It was just a religious thing."
McMullen decided on Point Loma Nazarene College, where Corey had played before moving on to Arizona State.
McMullen had gone from NCAA Division I to the NAIA. But he admitted he needed improvement. He could have used the time during his senior year to sharpen his game and add some weight. He was only 210 pounds and timid under the basket.
At Point Loma, he figured he had a chance. It had a successful program and All-American Deon Richard, considered one of the best players ever to play there.
McMullen's game did improve with the help of Richard. He averaged 10.5 points and 6 rebounds a game and once again had aspirations of playing Division I basketball.
"I had to see if I could make it in Division I," he said. "I didn't want to be 60 years old and look back and wonder what if. I wanted to know and not have any regrets."
But he knew no one would be interested if he continued at Point Loma. He changed schools again, this time choosing College of the Canyons in Valencia.
He improved even more there, averaging 20.4 points and 11 rebounds a game. Division I schools were looking again, even BYU. He chose San Diego State.
In his first season with the Aztecs, McMullen, now 6-10 and 240 pounds, is the team's starting center and biggest threat inside.
And after the Aztecs' 82-80 upset of BYU in overtime last week, McMullen is finally comfortable with his decision of three years ago.