ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Even before the New Mexico Lobos blew out the Nevada Wolf Pack 90-72 on Saturday afternoon, the sold-out crowd in the Pit already had something to celebrate.
Or better yet, Snell-ebrate.
In a surprise visit back to Albuquerque during the NBA All-Star weekend, former Lobo and current Chicago Bull Tony Snell attended Saturday’s game. He was presented a piece of the old Pit floor in a brief pre-game ceremony at midcourt to a thunderous ovation from the Pit fans.
“Honestly, I miss this crowd,” Snell told the Journal. “The crowd is always loud in here. They get you going every game.”
The 22-year-old, who left UNM after his junior season and was selected by the Bulls in the first round of the 2013 draft, surprised his teammates Friday afternoon at practice. The university decided not to announce to fans he would be at the game, instead surprising them – at least those who didn’t read Saturday’s Journal – by showing him walking down the ramp to the Pit floor alongside coach Craig Neal on the large video display monitors inside the arena.
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By the time Snell, who still had his familiar braids and wore a UNM letter jacket, appeared inside the Pit near the bottom of the ramp, fans were on their feet cheering “Tony! Tony! Tony!”
“I was nervous,” Snell said of his walk down the ramp.
He was all smiles throughout the game, which he watched in a chair behind the team’s bench.
“It’s just good for our guys,” Neal said. “It’s uplifting for our guys because he’s family. He’s meant a lot to our program – not only what he did here as a player, but also how well he’s doing in the pros. It gives our guys some hope that it can be done. There’s not a better kid in the country that I’ve been around since I’ve been in coaching than Tony Snell, and I’m just glad to have him back.”
Snell, who has appeared in 47 games and started 10 this season for the Bulls, spent time Friday and Saturday night with his old teammates before returning to Chicago on Sunday.
“That’s awesome to see him,” said UNM junior center Alex Kirk. “His five-day break, he decided to come see us. That means a lot to us. …
“He’s still Tony, and that’s the best thing about it. I think you see a lot of those guys, and I know a ton of those guys (in the NBA) that if I had a chance to see them in public, they’d just blow me off. But Tony, he won’t change.”
Snell, who still plans to earn his degree from UNM, said he’ll always cherish the bond he has with his Lobo teammates.
“These are my boys for life,” he said.