Stevens: The Passon of Pit Basketball Started in Johnson Gym
June 9, 2013
A History of Men's Basketball in The Pit: The keys to The Pit have been turned over to Craig Neal, who enters his first season as UNM's head coach in 2013-14. GoLobos.com will look back on the previous eras of Pit basketball in a five-part series: 1- 1966-1972; 2- 1972-1988; 3- 1988-1999; 4- 1999-2007; 5- 2007-2013.
Today: 1966-1972: Wednesday: 1972-1988
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
In looking back at a Bob King era credited with inspiring the vision and the eventual building of The Pit, it also should be noted that King's good deeds on a basketball court also unintentionally fashioned what was to be called "The Fish Bowl."
In building a basketball program that cemented itself into the psyche and imagination of win-starved Lobo fans, he also constructed an invisible microscope of scrutiny, attention, criticism and water-cooler comment that, if anything, has increased along with the love of Lobo basketball.
The true roots of Lobo basketball, the ones that first grew the passion, sprang out of Johnson Gym and grew out of the vision that Bob King brought with him from his country roots in Iowa. The beginning of The Pit was not the removal of 55,000 cubic yards of earth or the pouring of 28,000 yards of concrete or coming up with the then-astronomical price tag of $1.4 million.
The beginning was Ira Harge, Dick "Boo" Ellis, Skip Kruzich, Bill Morgan, Ben Monroe, Mel Daniels and Bob King. The beginning was winning.
When King came to New Mexico in 1962, he knew the job of changing the landscape of Lobo basketball would not be a quick fix. Albuquerque can be called a basketball town today, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s Lobo football was king.
The football team did not suffered a losing season from 1958 to 1964. The basketball team had not seen a winning season from 1954 to 1962 -- the season before King packed up his belongings, clicked his heels, and headed Southwest to New Mexico.
The Lobos in the back-to-back seasons from 1957-58 and 1958-59 went 6-40. There was no vision of The Pit during these days and no real passion for this struggling program. There were plenty of empty seats in Johnson Gym.
King had some building to do. King had some recruiting to do.
King's plan to build Lobo basketball was based on some fundamental principles of this simple game. He wanted to go big. He wanted to play defense. He wanted honest effort on the court. King wasn't really looking for a quick fix, but he did want to find a big man - quickly.
King liked what he saw in a 6-10, street-tough Detroit kid whom King had seen play back in Iowa at Burlington Junior college. He talked Ira Harge into making the journey to Albuquerque and the roots of excellence had their big man and had their beginning. Harge, in two seasons, was the first Lobo to ever reach 1,000 points. UNM's 1,000-Point Club had its first member.
But more than anything, Harge created that much-needed spark of interest. King combined his big man with Claude Williams, Joe McKay, Mike Lucero and the court-savvy Skip Kruzich and in King's first season the Lobos posted a 16-9 record. More than a few heads shifted in the direction of Johnson Gym. But would lightning strike again in King's second year?
The second year was better. King added a hard-nosed slasher named Dick "Boo" Ellis. Ellis played with an edge. He was hard, tough. He was an essential ingredient that helped push New Mexico to a 23-6 mark and the Western Athletic Conference title.
Amazingly, King's second-year team pushed its way into the post season, to the National Invitation Tournament in New York City.
In 1964, the NIT was not small potatoes and was looked upon as the best postseason tournament in men's basketball. New Mexico and 11 other teams journeyed to NYC to determine who had the best team in college basketball. The Lobos beat Drake 65-60, beat New York University 72-65 and was rolled by Bradley in the national title game 86-54.
The margin of the loss was somewhat of a shocker, but the impact of being there was the catalyst for more passion. When the Lobos came back to Albuquerque, cars were lined up down Yale Boulevard all the way to the airport and horns sounded in a make-shift parade for these hoop heroes.
That success and that passion was the downfall of Johnson Gym as a home for Lobos. The talk began of building something bigger and better. The 7,000 seats of Johnson had become premium seats. The place was selling out as Lobo fans discovered this special program.
King was all for a bigger gym. But he had a bigger problem. Harge had used up his eligibility. King needed another monster of the paint and began heavy recruitment of a cowboy-wannabe, who arguably became the greatest Lobo ever - Mel Daniels.
Daniels was the perfect replacement. He had the scoring ability of Harge, but it came out of a personality with the same edge as "Boo" Ellis. Daniels played with a fierce passion. He protected the paint like a junkyard dog protects a stew bone. He was a fist among flowers and probably became the most feared Lobo center to ever patrol the lane.
And the Lobo fans loved him.
Daniels became New Mexico's first All-American and went on to become one of the more decorated of UNM pro athletes with his All-Star accomplishments in the American Basketball Association. He also made the transition from Johnson Gym to The Pit an easy one for Lobo fans.
They were transfixed by this fierce Lobo.
In The Pit's first game on Dec. 1, 1966, Daniels threw in 19 points and hauled down 12 boards in a 62-53 roll over Abilene Christian. Ben Monroe added nine boards and Ron Sanford scored 11 points. Abilene Christian only got off 40 shots and UNM ruled the boards 37-16.
The Lobos came off a WAC title in 1964, but had trouble defending their title. The Daniel-led Lobos went 19-8, 16-8 and 19-8 in his three seasons, but went 5-5, 4-6 and 5-5 in the league games. The titles in those three seasons went to Brigham Young, Utah and Wyoming. The Lobos had a superstar in Daniels, but needed more balance.
In 1967-68, King had the balance and probably threw out his best "team" ever. He had All-American Ron Nelson and Academic All-American Ron Becker on the edge. He had Ron Sanford and Greg "Stretch" Howard in the paint. Howard was another intimidating presence inside with tremendous athletic ability. Howard Grimes was a perfect complement as a power forward. He was part brawler, part garbage man, and a defensive enforcer.
This talented mix of Lobos threw out a 23-5 mark and won the Western Athletic Conference with an 8-2 mark. This team also gave The Pit one of its top victories and best-ever games when No. 5 ranked Utah came to Albuquerque to play No. 6 ranked New Mexico. The Lobos' fearsome fivesome all scored in double figures and UNM won 72-66. Utah later got even with a 71-64 win in Salt Lake City, but it was Lobos who grabbed the WAC title.
That UNM team handed UNM its first invitation to the NCAA Tournament which had replaced the NIT as the top postseason showcase for men's basketball. There also was good news for the Lobos as they entered the 1968 NCAA Tournament. The Lobos got to play in The Pit.
The bad news as that "Stretch" Howard could not play because JC transfers were not eligible for postseason competition. That was a major blow. UNM met Santa Clara in the first round and got 20 points from Ron Nelson, but UNM was hammered on the boards 43-29 and fell into a losers' bracket to play a consolation game against another team that lost to UCLA in the first round - New Mexico State.
In the regular season, the Lobos had the Aggies' number and beat the Sam Lacy/Jimmy Collins-led Aggies twice including a 72-71 thriller in The Pit when UNM (17-1) was ranked No. 6 and NMSU was No. 10. The lead changed 14 times before "Stretch" Howard hit a free throw with seven ticks to play. Ron Sanford had 21 points for UNM and Collins had 21 for the Cruces group.
The third time was the charm for the Aggies and not having Howard had a lot to do with it. Lacy went 1-of-9 from the floor and finished with only five points in NMSU's 62-58 win. The Lobos got 26 points from Ron Nelson and 23 from Ron Sanford, but only nine points from the rest of the team. UNM ended that season with a loss to Aggies - in The Pit.
The seasons of 1966-67 and 1967-68 might have pushed the frenzy for Lobo basketball to a new high. In January of 1967, the Lobos roared to a No. 3 ranking. That success also help bring out the ugly side of "The Fish Bowl." With Lobo basketball, sometimes it's a question of "What have you done lately?"
In 1968-69, UNM added Willie Long and Petie Gibson to a foundation of "Stretch" Howard, Ron Sanford, Ron Becker and Howie Grimes. It was a talented team expected to challenge for another WAC title and push its way into the national rankings. That team finished 4-6 - last in the WAC.
In 1969-70, The Lobos went 13-13 and 7-7 in league play. In 1970-71, UNM finished two games above .500 at 14-12, but staggered to a 4-10 finish in the WAC - seventh out of eight teams. In 1971-72, UNM went 15-11 overall but posted its fourth consecutive non-winning season in the WAC. It also was King's and UNM's fourth season without an invite to postseason play.
The waters in The Fish Bowl began to churn and King, the architect of Lobo basketball, was not immune to the stormy waters.
There was another reason the waters of discontent began to swirl. King had a promising, young assistant storming the sidelines and seducing The Pit with his energy and personality. He had the looks of a Las Vegas night club singer, wore turquoise around his neck, and promised to add run-and-gun to hard-nosed defense.
They called him "Stormin'" Norm Ellenberger.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SIX PIT STARS FROM 1966 TO 1972
Mel Daniels (1964-67): Daniels was simply frightening the way he patrolled the paint with passion and nasty intent for any opponent who dared into Daniel's domain. He is still considered by many to be the best Lobo center ever - and maybe the best Lobo ever.
Ron Nelson (1966-68): Nelson played the game a little like Steve Alford later played it for Indiana. The All-American was smooth, smart and he could shoot it.
Greg "Stretch" Howard (1967-69): Howard was one of the more mobile big men that ever played for UNM. He had the agility of a small forward wrapped inside a 6-9 frame. He also was Daniels-like in his ability to intimidate and dominate the lane.
Willie Long: (1968-71) Long played inside much like future Lobo Kenny Thomas. Long was not that big at 6-7, but used his wide body and a sweet touch to become the first Lobo to average more than 22 points a game during a season.
Ron Becker (1967-70): Becker never had the athletic ability that would wow you, but you could see why Becker became an Academic All-American. He played smart, hit big shots and was consistent at both ends of the floor.
Ron Sanford (1966-69): The lean Sanford didn't have the intimidation factor brought to the paint by Daniels and Howard, but he was smooth, active and he could score.