#rushthetrip Day One: The Pit DeliversPosted by Bennet Hayes on February 6th, 2014
RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.
New Mexico’s famed stomping grounds “The Pit” marked the first stop on my #rushthetrip. Considering I tacked on some 600 miles to the journey with this eastern loop into New Mexico, getting to Albuquerque was quite clearly a priority. And why wouldn’t it be? The Pit has long been one of college basketball’s most-prized stages, and Sports Illustrated even ranked the Lobos’ home floor as the 13th greatest venue of the 20th century – not just in college basketball, mind you, but in all of sports. I think the relatively obscure location also offers an element of intrigue – The Pit possesses that hidden gem feel to it, what with Albuquerque’s relatively isolated post on New Mexico’s high desert and the wide open spaces all around. End summary: this was a place I had to find a way to get to.
Oh but the weather gods didn’t make it easy. A rare New Mexican snowstorm (or so I heard) turned a seven-and-a-half hour drive into something closer to 10, but I arrived at the arena with a few minutes to spare. Emphasis on few. Honestly, though, the later arrival time probably worked out for the best, as walking down the ramp to the floor into an already-buzzing Pit offered a truly imposing first impression. When Deshawn Delaney led the home team down onto the floor (an odd leader, I agree), I couldn’t help but harken back to a John Feinstein observation after he visited there, when he likened the combatants to Roman gladiators, “emerging into a wall of sound.” The snow may have been falling outside and the opponent was a less-than-intimidating Wyoming team, but the combination of arena noise and the emerging-out-of-nowhere, sharply descending gateway to the floor, created an entrance fit for Spartacus.
Turns out that the snow kept a few folks at home (attendance was 15,077, about 300 under capacity), but this Pit first-timer could hardly notice. The crowd was engaged throughout a close game (New Mexico would survive a game Cowboys’ effort, winning 66-61 in overtime), and a mid-second half Lobos surge provided a small dose of the deafening capability of the building. The decibel level registered at around 107 at its peak last night – well short of record (somewhere around 120) – but still plenty loud, I can tell you that. Not only were fans loud, they were also supportive. Despite the Lobos’ struggles to put away an inferior team, I didn’t hear even the most subtle of groans emanate from the seats. This may sound like a pretty minor point, but it speaks to the cohesion between fan base and team, and it’s something you definitely do not see everywhere. For me, Allen Fieldhouse and Hilton Coliseum are the two other places where this dynamic is most in play – not bad company to join, Pit faithful.
You also got the sense that most of the Lobos knew they were playing somewhere pretty special. In the current era of college basketball, where the sport is often construed as a mere gateway to the NBA, it was refreshing to feel like the guys on the floor were aware of all the tradition surrounding them. Kendall Williams in particular seemed to play off of the emotion and energy of the people in the stands, and despite possibly playing his worst game as a Lobo (2-of-13 FG, zero assists, four turnovers), he did it in a manner that wouldn’t distract from the task of winning a basketball game. Williams’ passion may have been most evident, but you really got the sense that this entire team loved playing basketball on that floor, in front of their vocal and supportive fans. And, really – why wouldn’t they?
With The Pit shimmering in the distance, I was pretty jazzed up for most of my journey on the road yesterday. But I also wondered if I had built it up too much. Had The Pit spent too long on my bucket list for it to actually deliver on my expectations? Would the snow and a non-marquee opponent make for a relatively mundane college basketball experience? The resounding NOs came fast and furious hours later: It did not take long to realize that this place is special. In almost every way, they do it right here at New Mexico, where an arena, fan base, and team has built Albuquerque into one of college basketball’s must-see destinations.
Next stop: Tucson.