Feature photo: Courtesy/NMAA
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
So I won’t attempt to list even 1 of them. Not that I could remember that many, anyway. But how about a few? And maybe some future ones?
The week of the New Mexico State high school basketball tournament always has, and always will, be the most special sports week of the year.
The 15 straight years I covered WAC/MWC tournaments in Las Vegas/Denver as New Mexico Lobo beat writer were incredible, and I loved it. But each year, I always felt a bit of emptiness because those tournaments came the same week as the prep state championships.
I wouldn’t trade my college tournament experiences for anything, but there was always something missing by not being part of the Pit those same weeks.
As the week continues for both prep state and the Mountain West tournaments, I thought I’d throw out a few memories, thoughts and tidbits about each.
Feel free to email your best thoughts, and we’ll do our best to get them on the site (see address below).
Even before I was in grade school, my father, Manny Smith, took me to the state tournament each year. By my freshman year of high school, my best friend at Eldorado, Wayne Smith, and I would get out of class — pre-approved by some hoop-loving and great teachers like Ed Bisetti, Mary Ellen Prince, Sam Benia and former Lobo and assistant principal Francis Coffee — and Wayne and I would spend each Thursday and Friday the week of boys state all day and night in the Pit.
Tasker, “Press Eagles, Press,” the tee-shirts — you couldn’t beat it. So we joined it.
We would meet Manny after the Hobbs’ games in the chair backs. Dad was a first-team All-Army basketball sensation in the early 1950s (traveled around the world playing), was a former college hooper and long-time APS teacher and principal. He loved those games.
“This is one the greatest atmospheres and events you will ever witness anywhere in this country,” he used to tell me.
The year before pouring in a mind-boggling 75 points in a game — without a 3-point line –Bubba Jennings led Clovis to the state championship during the 1979-80 season. I sat with my dad while the Wildcats were warming up for their quarterfinal game that season in the Pit. The Cats wore warm-ups, so you couldn’t see numbers, and we were both champing at the bit to see which one was the majestic Bubba. The roster had him as No. 4, but it was long before social media, and we had never seen what Bubba looked like.
Eventually the warm-ups came off.
Dad and I turned to each other with the same stunned look.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking,” I said.
“Probably,” dad said.
“He’s a short white guy,” we echoed.
Remember, it was before social media, so we had never seen him. And it was before social media, so there weren’t any lunatics trying to control our thoughts and speech. I don’t mind admitting what everyone, who had never seen Jennings play, was also thinking.
It wouldn’t be any different today, except folks would first look around for SJW losers, then whisper.
Complaint? Call my editor.
It certainly wasn’t the last time I would ever see Jennings. I followed his career closely after that, and to this day will tell you this:
Bubba Jennings is the greatest basketball player I have ever seen come out of New Mexico. Period!
Dad agreed. And I’m not sure he ever missed a state tournament until he died in 1995. Fortunately, my much younger brother, Lance, got to see plenty of Pit hoop with dad later in life.
Bottom of the Mountain
Let’s mix in a little MW tournament, since the Lobos play in Vegas at 2:30 p.m. our time today (March 13) in the stay-in game against Wyoming.
Those are the two best traveling schools in the league for the event. But with this season’s versions of the Lobos (13-17) and Wyoming (8-23), it’s tough to think it will be rocking like a game between the two would have earlier this decade. At least those of us who aren’t in Vegas can watch on TV.
Or can we?
It all started when the MWC hit the eject button on its ESPN contract some years ago. Who needs to let the network make our schedule, the league boasted?.
Well guys, you did.
Ratings, fans bases and programs have taken big hits since. But to not have national coverage of a tournament game? Or even regional coverage?
If the Mountain West Conference, err, MW, ever wants to be a major player on the college landscape, garbage like today isn’t going to cut it. You want to see the Lobos and Cowboys? Pull out your phone and give it a shot via streaming.
It’s a new low for a league once hoping to give the Power 5 a run for its money. Now it’s just running away from the Power 5, which has all the money.
Back to prep thoughts.
Family ties: They don’t end. From Phil Schroer to his son Shonn to his grandsons Zack and Camren. I’ve covered them all — Phil as a coach and the others as players, and in Shonn’s case, as both.
Man, I’m old.
The father/son tandems are endless; Ron and Victor Garica; David and Manny Otero; Mike, Greg and Danny Brown; I played pick-up games against Roy and Yvonne Sanchez, and covered both as players and coaches. I also played pick-up ball with Cleveland coach Sean Jimenez when he was a team manager at UNM, with Royce Olney (my favorite Lobo) when he was at UNM, and I’m now covering his nephews. I’ve also had the opportunity to get burned in pick-up games by sharp-shooting Wally Salata (amazing fade-away jumper — although I was able to drive-and-dish around his as well on occasion), and years later watched my eyes burn as they swelling up with tears of joy when he led Rio Rancho to the crown a few years back.
It goes on and on and on. And probably will until my time with the sport is over. I have met 4,000 lifetimes worth of friends because of this wonderful game called hoop.
Twice as nice: Watching the aforementioned Greg Brown when he was an Albuquerque Academy star was unforgettable — as was watching Albuquerque High sensation Greg Brown the same couple of years. Getting to see the two play on the same floor in different tournaments was flat-out amazing.
ZZ Top: One of the things that excites me most about this year’s tournament is the chance to watch a kid who rekindles thoughts of guys like Bubba, Ernie D. and Pistol Pete — Los Lunas’ super-smooth guard Zanen Zeller — ZZ-squared or Double-Z. The son of Los Lunas girls coach, Marty Zeller, is worth the price of admission. His peripheral vision is mind-numbing, and his no-look passing, drives to the hole, sweet jumpers and command of the floor gives me hope that the game hasn’t simply become for bruisers.
Man, I love watching the kid. Check him out at 11:30 this morning at the Pit against Taos.
Extending an olive Branch:
I was really looking forward to seeing my longtime buddy, James Branch, head coach at Española Valley, and the wild, loud and tremendous following the Sundevils bring to the Pit for the state tournament.
It didn’t happen. The fifth-ranked Sundevils were upset 81-74 at home on Saturday in the first round of the tournament by 12th-seeded Del Norte.
While it was a gut-shot for thousands of Sundevils fans, it had to be even worse for the players and coaches. Especially Branch.
I was so looking forward to Branch hoisting a couple of trophies this week. A couple?
How cool would it have been for the Devils to have won it on the 25th anniversary of when he coached Questa to a state companionship in 1994. I was working for Journal North that year, and loved that Wildcats team. It was the pride of Northern New Mexico and I will never forget it.
I was even the guest speaker at the team’s postseason banquet.
Each year, the New Mexico Activities Association honors its state champs from 25 years earlier. How cool would it have been to see Branch and the Wildcats get honored while Branch and the Sundevils chased the blue trophy this week in Class 4A?
I’ll still be looking forward to that 25-year presentation — as well as seeing my good friend. You’re the best, James!
Red-hot Cole: I covered a couple of Santa Fe High boys games last year for the Santa Fe New Mexican, and was wildly impressed with the discipline, heart and fundamentals the over-matched Demons team played with.
It didn’t take long. The Demons (22-7) turned plenty of heads this season and grabbed the No. 5 seed in the tournament. The 5A game of the day could very well be at 9:45 this morning in the Pit when Santa Fe faces No. 4 Eldorado (22-6) and fiery coach Roy Sanchez, one of the best in the business.
Two guys, by the way, I also covered during their prep playing days. This one is gonna be fun.
That’s enough for now. I’ll see many of you this week in the Pit and we can exchange many more stories.
In the meantime, this is the week.
It’s passion and sports purity at it’s best. The young high-pitched voices rocking on both sides of the Pit for opposing teams is something to see, hear and feel. If you’ve never been to the tournament, grab the family and get on out there.
You won’t be disappointed. But you best bring some cotton for the ears and tissues for the eyes. You are going to experience a gamut of emotions.
Man, I love this event!
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for more than four decades, and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in state history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.