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."