Dig this: The Pit's on a high
Unusual architecture takes New Mexico hoops underground while raising its profile
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A late December snowstorm has dusted the Sandia Mountains that rise above Albuquerque, leaving a pristine, white backdrop as a canvas for the Duke City's panorama of Southwestern color. Beneath endless blue skies, locals who favor turquoise accessories traverse pastel-colored freeway interchanges and douse three meals a day with green chile.
But to find Albuquerque's true colors, you must burrow your way into a bowl of red that sinks 37 feet into the city's southeast mesa.
It's Sunday afternoon, six days before Christmas, but the shopping malls and networks airing NFL games will have to get along without the 14,640 fans that drop faithfully into The Pit for the day's 1 p.m. matchup between New Mexico's beloved Lobos and The Citadel. A near capacity crowd will create an incomparable din inside The Pit, which has traditionally given the Lobos one of the best home-court advantages in college basketball.
"So loud," says Mike Roberts, radio voice of the Lobos from 1966 to 2008, "you can feel it in your bones."
The mojo is working so far this season, with the Lobos undefeated at The Pit after eight games here and 12-4 overall going into this week's home tilts with Mountain West Conference foes Colorado State and No. 6 San Diego State.
The venue, which became famous for its soaring decibel levels, was officially known as University Arena until 2009, when the school made its down and dirty nickname a formality.
The Pit sits on the corner of Avenida Cesar Chavez and University Boulevard on New Mexico's south campus, which may be far from UNM's Pueblo Revival main campus but is located across the street from University Stadium, the Lobos' home football venue, and Isotopes Park, where the namesake Triple-A baseball team plays.
The Pit feels more like the center of the town than the center of a university, which makes sense since the Lobos are the city's team as much as they are the school's. An estimated 2,000 locals have held season tickets since the facility's inception 44 years ago.
"People might give up their vacations or stop eating out," Roberts said, "but they wouldn't give up their Lobos tickets."
The Lobos belong to everyone, but with school closed for the holidays today's crowd is more town than gown. High behind the south basket, Albuquerque native Rhonda Gomez enjoys a homecoming. Gomez, who lives in Boca Raton, Fla., scheduled her New Mexico holiday visit to coincide with the game.
"The Pit," Gomez said, "is home. When I was planning my trip, the first thing I did was look at the Lobos' schedule. I saw that they had a game today and said, 'That's when I'm going home.'"
Twenty bucks got Gomez a seat near the rafters. But The Pit being, well, a pit, this might be the only place where, after entering the building, you descend your way to the nosebleed seats. The Pit was dug in 1966 when excavators removed 55,000 cubic yards of dirt, replacing it with 28,000 yards of concrete. A roof, constructed before the hole was dug, was built for a cost-effective $1.4 million, and the Lobos had a home.
Chief architect Joe Boehning earned widespread praise for the ingenious design, which simultaneously took the Lobos' basketball program underground and raised its profile. With no supporting beams or pillars, The Pit has no obstructed views in the seating bowl. With no place for the crowd noise to escape, The Pit is so loud it can be heard across the basketball world.
"It's almost as loud as a plane taking off at an airport," said Roberts, the former play-by-play man. "There were a lot of times when I knew I was calling the game because my lips were moving, but I couldn't hear a thing I said. When The Pit is at its loudest, it's probably worth a couple points to the Lobos."
Original capacity was 14,018, with the seats dramatically sinking 37 feet into the city's southeast quadrant. Interest in the Lobos ran deeper, so a $2.2 million expansion was deemed necessary in 1975 to extend a deck above the facility that afforded an additional 2,300 seats.
And earlier this season, on Nov. 1, outgoing Gov. Bill Richardson cut the ribbon on a $60 million upgrade that expanded the facility by 75,000 square feet. The renovations doubled the size of the team store, added 40 new luxury suites that lift the facility's profile and stature and provided for two video boards and a more spacious concourse. The building now includes 27 restrooms and 158 flat screen TVs. New locker room facilities also were added. With the most recent makeover, the moniker The Pit is a bit of a misnomer. With its new contemporary finishes and state-of-the-art amenities, The Pit is no longer a pit at all.
Floor-to-ceiling windows in The Pit's lobby effectively make this hole in the ground open and airy, providing fans with picture-perfect views of downtown Albuquerque to the west and the Sandia Mountains to the east. A glass-and-steel exterior gives The Pit the feel of a carnival glass house. But the place is still more haunted house than fun house to opponents.
The Pit is practically a living monument to NCAA basketball. The floor is named for Bob King, who coached the Lobos to a 175-89 record from 1962 to 1972. In a decade on the Lobos' bench, King never had a losing record. It's King's floor, but you can still see visions of Jim Valvano dancing across it after his NC State Wolfpack upset Houston 54-52 in the 1983 NCAA championship game.
In addition to hosting the '83 Final Four, NCAA Regionals have been held here eight times.
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