The Pit's on a high (continued)
Indeed, The Pit is fairly brimming with hoops history.
John Wooden took his legendary UCLA team into The Pit in 1968, with Lew Alcindor leading the Bruins to wins over New Mexico State (58-49) and Santa Clara (86-73) for a berth in the Final Four. UCLA went on to beat Houston and North Carolina in Los Angeles to capture the fourth of Wooden's 10 NCAA titles.
Elton John and Mick Jagger played here, too.
Most everyone who experiences The Pit remembers it.
"It's big-time hoops, baby," Dick Vitale said.
"I loved the atmosphere in that arena," echoed former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian.
In its current incarnation, the facility holds 17,126, down from 18,018 before the latest remodel. At The Pit, the Lobos count everyone in the building in attendance figures, including media members and concession workers. In the 45 years of The Pit's existence, the Lobos have averaged 15,477 fans per game -- 95 percent of capacity. The Lobos' record during their time in The Pit is 641-114.
Signage along the concourse helps explain why the Lobos are so tough to beat here.
"Welcome to The Pit, a mile high and louder than ....," reads one billboard above the polished concrete floors.
Lobos coach Steve Alford offers a simple greeting to fans in a pregame video missive that's played on the new message boards: "Be loud and proud."
The noise level at The Pit has been measured at 118 decibels, loudest in the nation. Apparently, at 130 decibels the human ear reaches its threshold for pain.
Another concourse sign reminds visitors the program's alumni includes players who made their marks on the NBA -- Michael Cooper, Luc Longley, Danny Granger and Darington Hobson.
Albuquerque is 5,312 feet above sea level and, as the Lobos take the floor, fans are almost as high.
"New Mexico is a basketball state," said Roberts, who has no trouble tracing the evolution of the city's passion for the program. "The Pit opened, the Lobos started winning and, like everywhere else, people love a winner."
New Mexico's colors are officially cherry and silver, but there are so many longtime loyalists in the crowd that gray is practically an unofficial school color. The typical Lobos fan seems to include all four quadrants -- young and old, men and women. It's a crowd with diverse interests -- ads along the baseline tout green chiles, tortilla chips, an indoor shooting range and an appearance by comedian Carlos Mencia at a local casino -- but today they are all behind the Lobos.
Richardson, the former governor, and actor Val Kilmer are among the famous locals who have dropped in to The Pit. Lute Olson and top-ranked Arizona fell prey to it in a memorable 61-59 upset in 1988.
On this fine afternoon, Alford takes the floor like a heavyweight stepping into the boxing ring and is met with a thunderous applause.
After the obligatory pregame highlight video, the ball is tipped and locals stand until The Citadel hits a 3-pointer for its first basket, an occurrence that does not happen until four minutes have ticked off the clock. The tradition dates back to the opening of The Pit.
High in the stands, up near the low-slung roof, longtime Lobos fan Derrick Gomez of Albuquerque wears a Danny Granger jersey. Granger played for the Lobos from 2003 to 2005, earning AP Honorable Mention All-America recognition. Gomez said he gets to as many games as possible, but today is extra special because UCLA transfer Drew Gordon will make his New Mexico debut.
With 14:55 remaining in the first half, Gomez gets what he came for. Judging by the deafening ovation Gordon receives by merely checking in, Gomez isn't the only person eager to see what the 6-foot-9 sophomore forward can do. Gordon will do plenty, pleasing the crowd with 11 points, one block and three rebounds in 20 minutes of action.
The Lobos enter the game with an 8-1 record and are huge favorites, but The Citadel hangs tough for most of the first half. A late run sends the Lobos to the locker room with a 42-32 halftime lead.
The second half begins with the UNM band playing "Rock and Roll, Part 2," followed by "Hey, Go Lobos!"
Early in the second half, the home team opens up a huge lead. It's going to be another loud and resounding win for the Lobos.
As the building starts to empty, the Lobos keep filling it up. With 2:19 left, New Mexico's Chad Adams delivers a final dagger, hitting a 3-point jumper to make it 84-51.
Minutes later, the Lobos leave the court with an impressive 84-58 win.
And all that sound trapped inside The Pit finally escapes as the crowd spills out into the clear New Mexico air, painting Albuquerque and the surrounding valley a very loud shade of cherry red.
Doug Ward is a Southern California-based freelance writer.