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Ordinarily, Coach Norm Ellenberger would have enjoyed the crazy, chaotic scene at Albuquerque International Airport last Friday as the University of New Mexico basketball team prepared to embark on its season-opening trip to the University of Colorado in Boulder. It would have been reasonable to expect the television cameras and the swarm of reporters, photographers and fans that charged the atmosphere. After all, Ellenberger, 48, is a hip fast-lane traveler, adorned with gold chains and turquoise jewelry, long hair and sexy mustache, tailored jeans and open-to-the-navel silk shirts. He is the man who in seven seasons compiled a 134-62 record, won two Western Athletic Conference titles and took his team to four postseason tournaments. He is the man who turned Lobo basketball into a statewide religion, a focus of popular frenzy surpassed by few college basketball teams anywhere.
But this was no ordinary send-off. Nor was it an ordinary day in the ever-expanding, ever-darkening industry of intercollegiate athletics. It was a day when the University of New Mexico found itself—like Arizona State a few weeks earlier—answering difficult questions about a fictitious transcript and misplaced athletic priorities. But there were other, perhaps even darker, clouds over Albuquerque. The New Mexico Organized Crime Strike Force was in on the investigation with local police, amid allegations of illegal gambling activities, possibly involving individuals with ties to the UNM basketball program.
Ellenberger would not show up at the airport, nor would Assistant Coach Manny Goldstein. Also staying home was junior Craig Gilbert, a transfer from Oxnard ( Calif.) College, a ball-handling and defensive gem who had been slated to start for the Lobos at point guard.
Although the other players and Assistant Coach Charlie Harrison were stunned by these absences, they should not have been. That morning, two days after every player and coach had been interrogated at practice by agents of the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's office in Albuquerque released documents that implicated Ellenberger and Goldstein in a morass of unsavory activity. A federal search warrant and an attached Albuquerque Police Department transcription of a tapped telephone conversation between the two coaches indicated that in order to make Gilbert eligible to play for New Mexico, Goldstein had forged a transcript in Gilbert's name from a junior college that Gilbert said he had never heard of and then allegedly paid the dean of admissions at Oxnard to apply the bogus credits to Gilbert's record.
It was a revelation that sent the university and the state of New Mexico reeling, with aftershocks felt wherever there are adults who will do almost anything to convince teen-agers to come play for their colleges. The revelation also startled the NCAA, even though it had been investigating New Mexico closely and in mid-September had charged the school with an undisclosed but substantial number of rules violations. NCAA action apparently is the least of the university's worries; Ellenberger and Goldstein could face federal charges of bribery and wire and mail fraud after a grand jury hears testimony, beginning Dec. 12.
Within hours of the team's departure for Colorado, the university's president, William E. (Bud) Davis, announced that both coaches had been suspended—Ellenberger at his own request, following a 45-minute meeting with Davis, after which he went into seclusion; Goldstein in absentia, because he was nowhere to be found at the time. As for Gilbert, reached in his dorm room, confused and alone, he said, "I didn't know anything about this. I just heard on TV that I'm done for the year. I guess I'll go home soon."
Coming as they did in a public-record document, the startling disclosures provided a unique look at the seamy side of recruiting, in which men like the 30-year-old, Brooklyn-born Goldstein forage for players in ghetto playgrounds and high school gyms, and at relatively obscure junior colleges like Oxnard or Mercer County in New Jersey. At the junior colleges, recruiters find players who didn't go big-time after high school. Maybe they had poor grades. Maybe they got into trouble. Maybe they needed work on their jump shot or needed to grow three inches.
Ellenberger has gone the juco route for the last several years. Maybe he has not had model citizens on his teams, but he has won—and packed the house. And to some that is really all that counts. In the past five months alone, one recent Lobo player has been convicted of misappropriating city funds and a second of credit-card fraud, while a third was charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault but hasn't yet come to trial. A current player, Kenny Page, who played his high school ball in Staten Island, removed a Cadillac from an Albuquerque dealer's showroom last June without permission and drove it to Columbus, Ohio. A stolen-car report was filed with the police but retracted two days later. Page had brought his Triumph TR-7 into Galles Oldsmobile Cadillac Co. for repairs and was given an Olds Cutlass as a "loaner." Page drove the Cutlass away but "just didn't like it." So he brought it back, switched the plates to a Seville, took the keys and headed for Ohio State, where he played his freshman year and was placed on team probation for undisclosed reasons. Page was told to return the car, which he did. Alan Summers, the sales manager, canceled the police report. Summers is a member of the Lobo Club, the local booster organization. Page is one of the Lobos' star players.
Then there is Wil Smiley, a 6'10" center who played for Ellenberger from 1976 to 1978. Smiley, who is from the Bronx, spent time in several New York state reformatories and then enrolled in Scottsdale ( Ariz.) Community College without graduating from high school. While in Scottsdale he was convicted of rape, and immediately after being paroled from the Arizona state prison in Florence. Smiley enrolled at New Mexico. He did not graduate and until recently worked as a laborer in the Albuquerque street department. "The man just used me because I was a tall dude." says Smiley, referring to Ellenberger. "If I ain't 6'10", I'm back in jail, and they throw away the key."
"I went to class for a while," Smiley says now. "But you know how it is. You start to slide more and more, and pretty soon, you just lay around all day, waiting for time to practice." Smiley says he has no regrets about his lack of education: "Hell, no. I'm doing just fine now, making good money and keeping out of trouble. School was just something to pass the time."