ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Somehow, he always seems to have a smile on his face.
Don’t get Chris Perez wrong. The four-year walk-on for the UNM men’s basketball team wants to be on the court. In fact for a brief time as a sophomore, the kid from California, who watched games in the Pit with uncles when he visited family in Albuquerque, gave serious thought to transferring to a school where he could play.
Then again, that wouldn’t be Perez.
“Yeah, it’s hard sometimes because I love this game and I want to be playing it, but I wouldn’t trade these four years for the world,” said Perez, an aspiring high school basketball coach. “This fan support and this team’s support – the players and the coaches – it’s been unbelievable. … I realized this is who I am. This is what I wanted.”
So without much fanfare – aside from the occasional student-section chants of “We want Chris!” that pour onto the Pit floor during blowouts – and without much attention paid to him, Perez has simply shown up and worked.
For four years as he’s paid his own way at UNM, endured the same rigorous demands as his teammates on scholarship – the same physically and sometimes mentally draining practices, offseason conditioning drills, study hall requirements and film session obligations.
“He’s a great kid,” UNM head coach Craig Neal said. “He’s done everything we’ve ever asked him to do. He’s a good leader for someone who hasn’t played an important role. … And he’s going to be a great coach one day.”
Maybe one of the most valuable roles Perez has played this season has been for star teammate, and close friend, Kendall Williams.
“This year, having him on the road (as my roommate), it really helps me in terms of taking a step back and seeing the big picture,” Williams said. “He works just as hard as me, if not harder, but also has a different perspective because of his role. He wants to be a coach, and he sees things I don’t sometimes. It’s been really beneficial to me staying focused this season.”
Williams, who said Perez could be playing Division I basketball somewhere else if he wanted, said Perez lifts him up after bad games and keeps him grounded after good ones.
“He’s done a lot for this program that nobody notices,” Williams said.
And to show for it all, Perez says he has much more than a stat line with 14 games and seven points in four years.
“I dreamed of playing in the Pit. I was one of those kids,” said Perez. “Now, I get fans chanting my name in the Pit. That’s unbelievable.”