New Mexico: The Land of Enchantment. Sun, no clouds. Mountains and snow. Desert, sagebrush and old mission churches. Coronado, Kit Carson, Billy the Kid and....
Sorry, but if you're going to New Mexico this winter you'll have to forget all that chamber of commerce stuff. Just cross the state line and you're going to be talking basketball before you can burn your tongue on a taco. No more tales of the "Seven Cities of Gold"; today's tales are about the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State, whose basketball teams are 34-3, and about players like New Mexico's Ron Nelson, who is getting 20 points a game and A's in engineering, and State's Jimmy Collins, who is the son of a Baptist minister and has hit 26 free throws in a row because, he says, "I got started at the foul line early in life."
Basketballs blasting off asphalt courts and backboards nailed to barns, garages, trees and adobe walls are making almost as much noise in New Mexico today as the first atomic bomb did when it was exploded 22 years ago at Trinity Site, south of Albuquerque. And so are the fans, those delightfully nutty fans streaming into New Mexico's magnificent new sunken arena and State's little gymnasium down in Las Cruces. UNM's Lobos are drawing 14,800 at home, and next year the Aggies will be packing 12,200 into a new $3.5 million palace of their own. Basketball has hit New Mexico's fanatic button and divided allegiances geographically. Up north the state's No. 1 folk hero is Nelson. South of Truth or Consequences it is either Collins or Sam Lacey.
Why these sudden asuntos de amor con basketball? Simple. Both New Mexico and New Mexico State have landed pepper-hot coaches who know how and where to get basketball players and what to do with them when they arrive. The result is two very good teams in a state that once was fortunate if it didn't have two that were horrible. New Mexico, under Bob King, ran its unbeaten streak to 17 games last week, beating Arizona State 68-62 before losing on the road to Arizona by one point. The Lobos are now No. 6 in the country, and are still a year or two away from their best. New Mexico State, in its second season under Lou Henson, beat Hardin-Simmons 95-87 to make its record 17-2. The Aggies have lost only to New Mexico (by seven) and Ohio State (by three).
The UNM-NMS rivalry, ancient but relatively calm until now, grows keener by the day. Soon, merely fitting UNM's big Lobo statue with a polka-dot bikini will be a prank of the past for State students. Last January, when New Mexico State fans gave Lou Henson a green Rambler Ambassador to drive, New Mexico rooters presented Bob King with a red Mustang, his second gift car. The Aggies were unimpressed. Next year their staff's fleet expands to four cars.
Not too long ago, in the state capital of Santa Fe, the representative from Bernalillo County, home of Albuquerque and UNM, started rising from his seat in the House every day to deliver "the daily report." It goes something like this. "UNM practices today at 2 p.m. This week the Lobos play at Arizona State Friday night and Arizona Saturday night. Thank you." A few days later the representative from Dona Ana County started making a daily report on New Mexico State.
The Aggies admit they are outnumbered in the legislature ("Albuquerque is bigger than Las Cruces"), but they are undaunted. Last summer a highway sign went up outside Tecolote, a small town along U.S. 85 which connects with Interstate 25 before going through Albuquerque. The sign reads:
GLORIETA 35 MILES
LAS CRUCES 343 MILES
There is no mention of Albuquerque, only 100 miles ahead. "They may have the edge in Santa Fe," says Howard Klein, an Aggie booster, "but we got a guy on the highway commission."
Still, many basketball fans in New Mexico have yet to understand fully the miracles King and Henson are working in their midst. Both coaches are winning at schools where no basketball tradition existed before they arrived. From 1954 to 1961 UNM never won more than seven games in a single year. In 1962, King's first season, the Lobos won 16 games, and the following year they were 23-6. The Aggies experienced brief success in the late '50s and early '60s, but nothing to encourage the construction of a multimillion-dollar arena in a town of less than 45,000. King and Henson both concede they have to get their big men from California or Indiana or New York, but they strive hard to recruit and play local boys whenever possible. At the moment six of King's 13 players are from New Mexico. Two of them, including Nelson, start. At Las Cruces, Henson also has four New Mexico boys and one is a starter.
Last week, before a two-game trip to Arizona, King was sitting in his office in Johnson Gym, where the Lobos used to lose before an audience of janitors, cleaning ladies and dusty windowpanes. A white-haired man of 44, King was preparing for Arizona and Arizona State—but he is always preparing for the future also. He ran a finger down a yellow legal pad that listed the names of some of the more promising high school seniors in the state, then turned to Norm Ellenberger, his assistant, and said, "Norm, the kid's first name is Hugh. His father's name is Floyd." He began thumbing the pages of the Albuquerque telephone directory. "His number is...let's see...ah, here it is: 2984656." As he closed the book he muttered to himself, "Hmmm...same number he had four years ago."
In his first five years at New Mexico, Bob King won 93 games and lost 39 with teams that were tough and aggressive on defense, careful and methodical on offense. Fussy about the shots they took, they were expert at making those they did try. This year, to the surprise of opponents and fans alike, the Lobos came out running like their namesakes while retaining the ability to tell the good chances from the bad ones. They ran with, and defeated, Wyoming and Brigham Young and are currently leading the Western Athletic Conference. Once again, the Lobos are a good defensive team, with Nelson the only star.
Nelson is a blond, good-looking guard who bears a faint resemblance to Ricky, the crooner. He is only 6'2", but a marvelous shooter. Most of his 371 points have come on soft jumpers from about 25 feet, though he is a constant threat to drive. He runs the Lobos both on offense and defense; everybody looks to him when the team is in trouble. Four times Nelson has scored 25 points or more, and his better games, appropriately, have come against the better teams. In New Mexico's important wins over Wyoming and Brigham Young, he led the way with 30 and 25 points. Quiet and reserved off the court, he studies a lot, dates a pompon girl and pushes the team motto: "We're not very good. All we do is win."
The reason for the motto is that New Mexico has acquired a reputation for winning in the second half. Of the Lobos' 17 victories, six were clinched by simple adjustments King and Ellenberger made at half time. In the Creighton game, for example, the Bluejays' 6'5" Bob Portman was killing the Lobos. Portman took 19 shots in the first half and scored 23 points. At intermission King asked Nelson, who was covering the Bluejay guard feeding Portman, to extend his right foot farther in front of him on defense. In the second half the Creighton guard brought the ball up the left side—just as before—but when he tried to pass to Portman, Nelson was always in the way. Creighton was forced to work the right side, and Portman got only five shots and six points in the second half. New Mexico won with ease 82-67.
King, who earned a master's degree in psychology at Drake University, does not hesitate to use it—half time or anytime. When the Lobos traveled to Las Cruces earlier in the season, they had to leave Ron Sanford, their best rebounder, in Albuquerque because of an eye injury. But at breakfast on the day of the game, the team was still hoping Sanford might be well enough to play. Then King stood up and told them that Sanford, ordered into the hospital by doctors in Albuquerque, had gone instead to the airport, where he almost talked his way aboard a plane so he might play that night. The tale was true, but you can imagine how King told it. Says Ellenberger, "When he told them what Ron had done, Steve Shropshire dropped his fork and didn't eat another bite." That night the Lobos beat NMS 71-64 for their 13th straight victory.
Ellenberger also is an example of King's ability to track talent. Handsome, bright and articulate—the perfect recruiter—he was a four-sport star at Butler University, and finished among the NCAA punting leaders in his senior year. After graduation he signed as an infielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates but was beaned in his first year in the Texas League, and decided to devote all his time to coaching. That's what he was doing when King, hospitalized with ulcers, tossed aside 100 applications for the job as his No. 1 assistant and dialed Ellenberger long distance. Ellenberger, King felt, would enhance the cosmopolitan image New Mexico was striving to project. Three weeks later the new assistant rewarded King by recruiting 6'7" Willie Long, the top high school player in Indiana, who is now averaging 37 points a game as a Lobo freshman.
Adding up New Mexico's excellent freshman team, the four good prospects stashed away at Trinidad Junior College in Colorado, King's superior coaching talents, Ellenberger's recruiting and this year's record, it would appear that the Lobos are establishing a small dynasty on Central Avenue in Albuquerque. But if UNM is to accomplish such a feat, it must consistently beat the smaller rival 288 miles to the south. New Mexico State is not a real threat to UNM's progress right now, but then neither was Michigan State to Michigan some years ago. At the moment only the Lobo fans underestimate the Aggies; King and Ellenberger do not. The fans call Aggie players "farmers" and their partisans "bush." They say they would rather beat WAC teams like BYU and Wyoming and UTEP any day. But New Mexico State is not going to fade away. Indeed, it is growing.
State actually has one of the largest campuses in the world (6,250 acres), and the Aggies are putting sleek, modern buildings, $17.5 million worth, all over the place. Sprinklers glittering under the winter sun are turning grass from brown to green, and trees are sprouting up along the sidewalks. Henson, tooling his Ambassador around the campus the other day, got lost in the maze of construction.
The big project is the new basketball arena. The Aggies won't let you forget that theirs will cost $2 million more than New Mexico's, and they refuse to credit rumors that the Lobos may soon enlarge UNM's to seat 20,000. The Aggies now play their games in the 5,300-seat Las Cruces High School gymnasium and, though Henson cannot wait to start showing off the new arena to his prospects, he has done very well without it.
There are few better sophomore guards in the country than Jimmy Collins, who scored 22 points and steered the Aggies through the rough moments of the Hardin-Simmons game. Collins, who gained considerable fame on the playgrounds of Syracuse by battling Dave Bing to standoffs in one-on-one contests, is a superior ball handler and driver and he has a fine shooting touch. Swirling sleepy-eyed through the action, Collins looks as relaxed as he is on his popular campus radio show.
Sam Lacey, 6'9", is the other prize Henson came up with in his first year at State. "I always had contacts in Mississippi," he says, "and when a tall, skinny boy down in Indianola was recommended to me I went down to see him. Well, skinny wasn't the word for Sam. At his height, he was like a flower stem—only 183 pounds. But he was tall and we were just getting started here, so I took him." In one year at State, eating three meals a day for the first time in his life, Lacey put on 50 pounds of muscle. Now he is so strong nobody moves him from under the basket.
Lou Henson, at 35, is getting bald, but he still prefers a crew cut. He is Baptist and he does not smoke or drink. He doesn't really care for Mexican food, either, though he played at New Mexico State and coached Las Cruces High School to three championships after he was graduated. He is often compared to King, primarily because both are winning, and they do coach the same style of basketball. But their differences in personality reflect the contrasting popular images of the two schools.
King has attained the smoothness he feels is demanded by the Albuquerque job, but Henson has remained resolutely small town. He has spent his whole life in places like Las Cruces, and people there feel a kinship with him. Several of his half-time speeches have been recorded and played over the local radio network without his sanction. "I don't mind," he says. "In a big metropolitan area, I wouldn't allow it. But the people down here aren't going to embarrass me or the boys. They're behind us, not against us. I'll always trust them."
New Mexico and New Mexico State are going to have good basketball teams in the future, and if they keep getting better those arenas may someday accommodate 30,000 or even 40,000. Ben Bronstein, who runs the Village Inn Pancake Houses in Albuquerque, sees most UNM prospects before they even enroll on the campus. King and Ellenberger take a lot of prospects there. Ben is a New Mexico lover and a New Mexico State hater, but the state's fans are really alike, north or south, and Ben happens to be typical. Last week he came up to Ellenberger in the Pancake House, wished him and the team luck in Arizona and thanked Ellenberger, too.
"You know, Norm," he said, "we just love all this excitement. We've never had anything like it before. For the longest time we were just sitting around, waiting for something to cheer about."