Friday, March 4, 2022

Insight: Full-court presses and triple-doubles

University Arena, also known as 'The Pit,' is located in
Albuquerque, New Mexico and is home to the
University of New Mexico Lobos basketball team.
By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

Since my first day of high school, I have been fascinated by the game of basketball.

On my first tour of the brand-new school building my sophomore year, I discovered that there was just something spectacular about the shiny hardwood flooring, the bleachers, the scoreboard, and scorer’s table. Somehow standing there I knew deep down inside that’s where I wanted to be eventually for a career, although it didn’t quite turn out as I expected. 

I loved everything about basketball and the talent it took to play the sport. Unfortunately, my athletic talent was lacking and so my Rush-Henrietta High School coach, Gene Monje, asked me to serve the team in another way and it was something I was good at, keeping the scorebook.

Sitting at the scorer’s table at midcourt next to the timekeeper gave me the best vantage point in the gym to watch the games and it was an important responsibility to tally points, fouls and minutes played in each contest.

As I would arrive for each game, I would pause in the doorway to the gym and just take in the atmosphere, which included the crowd noise, the sound of team’s bouncing the basketball on the floor while warming up, the cheerleaders, the smell of the popcorn machine and the uncertainty of what was about to unfold.

Moving on to college after high school, I found the gymnasium at my first college, New Mexico Highlands University, to be more of a cavern than my high school was. It was much larger and a less intimate setting. It always seemed to be colder there, and the bleachers were much farther away from the floor than I expected them to be.

Only a few hundred fans would attend each home game unlike my high school’s games where every seat in the gym was occupied no matter the opponent.

After leaving that college to transfer to the larger University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, I quickly became a fan of their legendary basketball facility, University Arena, also known as “The Pit.” It was an amazing place with around 18,000 seats of screaming fans that during games created a decibel level rivaled only by the noise of a Saturn V rocket lifting off.

“The Pit” had been built by digging down into a mesa, or a plateau, with the basketball floor sitting on the bottom. There was not a bad seat in the house, and it was an intimidating a place to play for opponents.

During my first stint attending college there, I became a fan of the team, known as the UNM Lobos, and they were led by one of my American History classmates, a tall fellow who had the longest arms I’ve ever seen, Michael Cooper. He later went on to win five NBA championships in the 1980s as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.

After serving for eight years in the U.S. Air Force and coaching our squadron’s team in Germany, I eventually returned to college at New Mexico and joined the staff of the school newspaper, the New Mexico Daily Lobo, as sports editor in 1986. One of the tasks of the position was to cover college basketball games for the newspaper at “The Pit.”

I found I had come full circle from my high school years. New Mexico was hosting the Western Athletic Conference men’s basketball championship tournament that season and I had a floor seat to some of the best basketball played in the country that year.

Just a few seasons before that in 1983 in "The Pit," Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State Wolfpack team had defeated the Houston Cougars in the last seconds to win the title, 54-52, in a game many remember. Had to pinch myself at times to assure myself that I now stood on the exact same floor interviewing college players who were soon to be drafted for careers in the NBA.

Before the tournament’s title game that year between Wyoming and New Mexico, I recall closing my eyes and just standing there listening to the crowd getting pumped for the big game. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” I thought.

In my professional career in journalism, I have found myself in many different gyms through the years covering basketball games. Each facility is different, and I’ve been blessed to witness and write about many exciting games, outstanding teams, and wonderful people I’ve met along the way.

Last fall during my 50th high school reunion, I got to go back to my high school and tour the school with some of my fellow classmates. The gym where I first fell in love with the game of basketball in 1968 is no longer there, having been replaced in 2013 with a new expanded gymnasium with the walls covered by some of the championship banners my classmates won decades ago.

James Naismith is credited with inventing basketball in 1891 as a way for students to stay active in winter months and on rainy days. For me though, basketball has certainly been one of the mainstays of my life, given me a lifelong career and memorable experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything.  <        

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