EDITOR’S NOTE This is the second in a series of stories profiling the coaches of University of New Mexico men’s basketball.
He is coach and ghost.
He came from Gravity, Iowa, where they razed a cornfield to build a town.
His home became Albuquerque, where they dug a hole in the ground big enough to hold a community’s obsession.
Both places served him well.
His name was Bob King — a name as concise and concrete as the man himself. He was born in summer and died in winter, and in his 81 years on this earth, he was father, coach, psychologist and visionary.
His name was Bob King, and he invented Lobo basketball.
“He had a vision for New Mexico,” says Ron Nelson, one of King’s most accomplished students. “He was able to recruit guys like Ira Harge and Mel Daniels. He wanted to get the program up and competitive with anybody in the country.”
“For three years, he taught me how to be prepared on and off the court for as many contingencies as I could handle,” Daniels, an All-American like Nelson, writes in an email. “He expected our team to put as much effort in class as we did on the floor. He treated us like men and we responded in kind.”
During a gathering of University of New Mexico alumni lettermen in 1979, King said: “The greatest years of my life were spent here.”
They played basketball at UNM before King showed up in 1962. But six coaches in the 20 years prior to his arrival could only muster a combined record of 177-302.
Meanwhile, King was building his coaching résumé at the high-school level in Iowa. Then he honed his recruiting skills as a University of Iowa assistant. He knew he could coach, knew he could recruit, and he was about to prove it.
In his first game, on Dec. 1, 1962, at 7,000-seat Johnson Gym, 4,205 fans showed up to watch Ira Harge score 26 points and grab 17 rebounds in a 66-55 win over Fort Hays State.
The 6-foot-8 Harge was King’s first star, and on March 19, 1964, in front of a national television audience, they combined to help New Mexico stun NYU in the semifinals of the NIT. The Lobos, however, were blown out by Bradley in the final of the then-prestigious tournament, and made their weary way home.
It was a blustery day when they returned to Albuquerque. The March winds howled and dust overwhelmed the old airport.
“I couldn’t see because there was so much dirt in my eyes,” Harge recalled later. “But I could hear the voices. There were people everywhere.”
Reports say there were about 3,000 fans waiting for the Lobos at the airport. Another 6,000 lined up along Yale Blvd., and out to Johnson Gym.
In less than two years, King’s program had captured a city’s imagination.
With King’s inspiration, the powers that be decided they could build a 14,831-seat arena, partially underground, for $1.4 million. And they called it the Pit.
“I remember asking one of my teammates if he thought we’d ever fill that Pit,” Nelson says. “And he said maybe the BYU game.”
But fill it, they did. On Dec. 1,1966, King’s Lobos opened the arena, playing in front of 12,020 fans. UNM ranked in the top 10 nationally in attendance every year from 1966-2001.
“I never had any doubt that we’d fill the arena immediately,” King said in a 1994 interview. “Why? Because I knew we had the greatest fans around.”
With the support of the faithful, King’s Lobos won Western Athletic Conference titles in 1964 and ’68. They went to three NITs and made the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1968.
Defense was King’s calling card.
John Whisenant, then a young coach bouncing around the Midwest and Southwest, became enamored of King’s defense. He would call King, seeking tips. “Bob was always very helpful,” says Whisenant, who in 1972 became an assistant at UNM under King’s successor, Norm Ellenberger. King was still around the school as an assistant athletic director, and Whisenant cornered him.
“I didn’t recognize until I got around him how much he thought through everything,” Whisenant says. “I began to see how every movement on the floor, on the ball or the player, dictated the movement of the rest of the team. It was such a thorough defense.”
Whisenant took elements of that defense all the way to WNBA, where he was a head coach.
“His defensive philosophy was so far ahead of the offenses at that time,” Nelson says. “His defense just stifled teams. They didn’t know what to do. We took teams out of their offense. They couldn’t make an entry pass. They couldn’t run their offense the way they wanted to.”
With guys such as Harge (1962-64) and Daniels (1964-67), King centered his offense around his centers.
“(My) being a black teenager 1,500 miles from home, Detroit, Michigan, he represented trust and belief that he would have my best interests at heart,” Daniels writes. “He put me in a role of responsibility by making me the starting center at UNM.”
“His offenses, if we ran them perfect, you could not beat us,” says Howie Grimes, who played for the Lobos from 1966-70.
But Grimes, a retired teacher living in Chama, says King went beyond X’s and O’s.
“He was kind of a disciplinarian,” Grimes says of the coach who lured him from Illinois. “But he was more of a psychologist. He would get you to do things using psychology. I never knew him to yell too much. He let Norm do the yelling. He was a strategist, a traditionalist. Walk down, get the ball to the big man.”
But in 1968, with Nelson leading the Lobos from the guard spot, UNM started 17-0 and was ranked as high as fourth in the nation. And that was a team picked in the preseason to finish last in the conference.
“I think Bob was as surprised as anybody,” Nelson says of that 23-5 team. “I remember, as a senior, I was scared to death. Last in the conference doesn’t sound very good.”
But King got his players to fill roles.
“He’d do it in a quiet way,” Nelson says. “Everybody who played for him had a lot of respect for him.”
But as the 1960s turned into the ’70s, the Lobos were no longer a national figure. And the fans began to grumble. King, after 10 seasons, at the age of 48, turned the program over to Ellenberger.
In 1975, King, having lost a power struggle to become UNM’s athletic director, returned to basketball. He took over the Indiana State program and recruited a kid named Larry Bird.
However, King had a heart attack at age 54. The next year, just prior to the 1978-79 season, he underwent brain surgery. He was forced to step down as coach and could only watch as the Sycamores reached the 1979 NCAA championship game.
King returned to Albuquerque in 1982, and one of the first things he did was buy UNM basketball season tickets.
On Dec. 1, 1992, on the arena’s 26th birthday, UNM named the Pit floor “Bob King Court.”
On Dec. 15, 2004, 38 years after the Pit opened, it held Bob King’s funeral.
Harge, Nelson, Daniels and Bird were there. There were stories and laughter, and somewhere a basketball must have echoed.
“Pre-civil rights, I came here in 1962,” Harge told the 500 or so mourners. “We used to go to southern New Mexico and the panhandle of Texas, and (King) always made sure we all stayed together in one hotel.
“He was concerned about us, he cared, and it showed. … Bob King did more for me than anybody in my life.”
Those who played for him are a little grayer these days, but it hasn’t softened the memories of their coach.
“Bless his heart, he had confidence in me,” Grimes says. “He worked with you. Expected you to be a gentleman.”
“He was just a good guy,” Nelson says. “A quality individual. He was a very serious guy. But he had a good sense of humor. He liked to laugh.”
“He knew we would be there but a short time,” Daniels writes, “but that we would represent UNM and him for the rest of our lives.”
Other coaches have led other Lobos down the Pit ramp. But, whatever they accomplished or will accomplish, whether they acknowledge it or not, they all stand on the shoulders of the guy from Gravity.
UNM’s coach. UNM’s ghost.