The stories you’ve heard are true.
The lore of the legendary Pit and what it once was like when more than 18,000 fans squeezed into that arena in southeast Albuquerque that is dug 37-feet into New Mexico soil are all true.
And, arguably, never was the noise as loud or the opponent as daunting as it was for that late-night Jan. 2, 1988, ESPN-televised game against 12-0 Arizona, the nation’s No. 1 team coached by Lute Olson, featuring All-Americans Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr and coming into town fresh off a win over No. 9 Duke (the Wildcats’ fourth win over a Top 10 opponent already that season).
Sure there have been Pit games since, and for many, the hope is there will be again.
But it will be hard to ever match in Lobo history that late winter Saturday night in 1988 — a game the University of New Mexico will re-visit this Saturday at 1 p.m. on a special “Lobo Rewind” online stream of the game on TheMW.com.
The re-“broadcast” will be an online-production of UNM with broadcast rights released by ESPN to stream exclusively via the Mountain West Network, unlike the April “Lobo Rewind” of the 2007 New Mexico Bowl game, which UNM streamed live on YouTube and Facebook Live with new head coach Danny Gonzales and 2007 head coach Rocky Long, now UNM’s defensive coordinator, providing in-game commentary. The hoops version will feature one of the Lobo stars of the game, Hunter Greene, along with Green and his Lobo radio partner Robert Portnoy interviewing former Lobos and Kerr during the re-broadcast.
The announced attendance that night was 18,100 in the Pit and there are probably at least 18,100 stories to tell from that game.
The Journal reached out to a few of the people involved, and dug into our own archives, to bring you just some of those stories:
THE SET UP
Sitting pretty at 12-0 with four top-10 wins under their belts already, No. 1 ranked Arizona, fresh off a Dec. 30 win over No. 9 Duke in Tucson, came calling to the Pit on Jan. 2, 1988.
The Lobos were 10-3 and riding a seven-game win streak of their own, including a road win at Texas three days prior.
While the Wildcats boasted several future NBA players and All-Americans like Kerr and Elliott, the Lobos had some firepower of their own, but star senior Hunter Greene came down with the flu the day before the game.
“When we came back from Texas,” Lobos head coach Gary Colson told the Journal in 1988, “I thought we would beat them. Then when Hunter came down sick, I wasn’t so sure.”
Recalled Greene earlier this week, “I was very sick prior to the game and I remember Tow Diehm telling me I could not play if my fever did not break 100. Dr. (Jerome) Greenblatt, the team doctor, gave me a shot and sure enough 99.7 and I was good to go. I played the game like a huge bubble covered my head.”
Not only did Greene play, he logged 30 minutes in the game, posting 10 points, eight rebounds and one very key block in the final moments (more on that later).
• • •
Were the Wildcats looking past the Lobos, coming in undefeated and coming off a win over No. 9 Duke three days earlier?
“I wouldn’t call it a trap game because we knew how good New Mexico was and we knew how hard it was to play there,” said then Arizona freshman and current Pac-12 Network commentator Matt Muehlebach. “We were living well. We were undefeated at the time — No. 1 in the country. We had just beaten Duke in our Christmas tournament. It was that we looked past them, but … it was the classic game where you get out on the road and it’s just hard to calm down the other team and the fans and they just kept going.”
RICK IS WRIGHT
Rick Wright, Journal columnist who has spent more than four decades covering sports for this newspaper, on the front of the sports section in the Sunday Journal on Jan. 3, 1988:
“… The Lobos had just given the nation’s basketball public a wakeup call. It was 1:15 a.m. in New York City when the No. 1 team fell, but imagine how rude an awakening it was in Tucson at 11:15.
“They’d given 18,100 people at the Pit an experience they’ll remember as long as they live. They’d given themselves a keepsake for a mental scrapbook that’s beginning to get very thick.
“They’d beaten the top-ranked University of Arizona Wildcats.”
Arizona, which was a Final Four team in 1988, averaged 85.1 points per game that season (16th out of 289 Division I teams), shot 54.5% from the field and 48.3% from 3-point range.
But on that night in the Pit, the Lobos held the Wildcats to a season-low 59 points (they were held below 70 only one other time all season), 37.9% shooting and 5-of-21 (23.8%) from the 3-point line.
How the Lobos did it that night depends on who you ask.
From Colson after the game: “We planned to use the zone for one play. We ended up going with it 75 percent of the game.”
From Greene after the game: “On defense, we tried to do what they do, switch up quite a bit.”
From Olson after the game: “Their shots were going in and ours weren’t. There weren’t a whole lot of shots we took that we didn’t want to take.”
Leave it to Rob Robbins, the freshman from Farmington they called “Duke” to remember a different take when he spoke to the Journal earlier this week.
“I remember knocking Steve Kerr down one time and getting a foul and (Arizona’s Tom) Tolbert and (Anthony) Cook wanting to kill me. …
“We were running a gimmick defense at the beginning of the game called ‘Wolf’ and I was the ‘Wolf.’ My job was to be as aggressive as I can and fly out at shooters. Colson said don’t hold back. We need all your aggression. So, that’s what I did.”
THE UNSUNG HERO
Jimmy Rogers was the unsung hero that night for the Lobos.
“The play of Jimmy Rogers off the bench — the reason we won,” Greene said this week.
The reserve guard who averaged 7.6 points for the 1988 season at UNM, scored a team-high 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting in 25 minutes off the bench.
Said Colson to reporters that night: “The way Rogers played was tremendous. That was a complete surprise.”
WAIT, IS THAT GRANDPA MUNSTER?
“You know what else I remember about that game?” Muehlebach said. “I remember Grandpa Munster was there.”
Al Lewis, known by many for his role as Grandpa Munster in the TV show, “The Munsters,” was a mentor to Greene and father of two of Greene’s best friends, and Lobo managers on that 1988 team, Ted and Paul Lewis.
Craig McMillan this week also told the Journal, “For some reason I remember seeing the guy from the Addams family there. It was a weird night.”
Colson coached a point guard named Paul Weitman at Valdosta State College in Georgia years before he was the Lobos coach.
Weitman went on to become close friends with Olson in Tucson where Weitman is a prominent business man, Wildcats booster and known for owning numerous Triple-Crown level horses through the years (one even named Midnight Lute).
“The week we played, I get a call from Paul and he said he’s coming up to the game and wanted to know if we could go out to dinner before the game because it was a later game,” Colson recalled of the game that tipped after 9 p.m.
“So he comes and we go out, have a great time at dinner and I was jabbing him a little bit and I say something like, ‘You know, you’re going down tonight. You know that, don’t ya?’ And he said, ‘What are you talking about? We’re the No. 1 team in the country.’ We shook hands and I said maybe I’ll see you after the game and said, ‘Don’t forget what I told you, now.’
“You know, I don’t even remember if I saw him after the game or not.”
“That was probably the loudest gym I’ve ever been in as a player, coach anywhere,” said Arizona’s Craig McMillan.
There were 18,100 announced fans that game, but if you hear stories around Albuquerque told, there were more like 30,000 who claim to have been there that night.
“I remember before the game, like red t-shirts or towels or something on all the seats and, and I remember it was so loud before the game,” McMillan said. “Lute was talking to us moving his lips, we couldn’t hear what he’s saying. And the first like few minutes, you couldn’t hear the whistle blow. They (referees) blew the whistle and you couldn’t hear so they had to flag you down to like let you know the whistle was blowing. It was one of those kind of games.”
Added Colson, who coached 252 games with the Lobos, “I was hyperventilating the whole game.”
The game started out with a 25-9 Lobos lead and the Pit was on fire.
“There’s no question they won the game in the first 10 minutes,” Arizona coach Lute Olson said that night.
But the Wildcats never went away.
And in the closing seconds, with the Wildcats down 61-59, Elliott had a 3-point try that would have put the Cats up one.
Wrote Wright in the next day’s Journal: “Sean Elliott, Arizona’s brilliant junior forward, had the ball on the ‘Cats’ last possession. As he went up for a 3-pointer, Greene launched his fever-weakened body high enough to block the shot cleanly. The ball eventually came to the Wildcats’ Craig McMillan for one last shot.”
McMillan, who graciously took the Journal’s call this week to relive the game but started the conversation with, “I tried to suppress the memory of that night,” remembers those closing seconds, too.
“I remember the last play of the game,” McMillan said. “Sean Elliot took the shot and it got blocked or something. It landed in my lap and I took a buzzer beater that rimmed out.”
Said Elliott in a postgame interview, “It was a good block. It was my mistake. I was supposed to penetrate and dish it off to Steve (Kerr) or Craig (McMillan), but it just didn’t happen.”
After the miss, the court was stormed and the party began.
“I can remember being 6 years old and a ball boy,” said Jeremy Shyatt, son of former Lobo assistant Larry Shyatt and now a college basketball coach himself, most recently on staff at Wyoming.
“At the time I couldn’t believe my parents let me do it — it was such a late ESPN game. The Pit was absolutely rocking and I remember the fans stormed the court so fast, the only way not to get trampled was to hide out on the back of the basket and let the crowd rush past me. I was so happy for my dad and (assistant) Scott Duncan celebrating afterwards and to see Coach Colson carried off on fans’ shoulders was the best.”
CHEER UP, DUKE
In the locker room, Rob Robbins, who scored just five points on 2-of-4 shooting and missed a key late free throw, remembers not feeling as happy as his teammates.
“I remember everybody was very excited about what had just happened and everything and I was actually a little bit down, because I felt that I didn’t play as well as I should have,” Robbins told the Journal this week. “And I had missed the late free throw. So I was upset about that.
“Gary Colson grabbed me by my head and said, ‘Duke, you should be happier, you just beat No. 1!’ And I told him I don’t feel like I played as well as I should have. He’s like, ‘Get over it. You beat number one.'”
So did Robbins take his coach’s advice?
“Yeah, I did. I kind of got my head out of my butt and realized the gravity of the situation and I enjoyed myself and it was a good time.”
HEART OF A FAN
The passion of Lobo fans, especially the ones from yesteryear, is never in question.
They love their Lobos.
“I never saw it, but I remember after the game somebody said there had been a fan that had a heart attack and refused to leave,” Muehlebach said. “What I remember hearing was they had gotten him up to the top somewhere (to the concourse level) and he was on a gurney or something like that. They got him stabilized, but then he didn’t want to leave. He had a heart attack and wanted to see the end of the game.”
True story? Fabricated legend? Does it matter?
THE WALK OFF
“Last thing I remember,” Colson said of that night in 1988, “Was Luc Longley and Rob Loeffel carried me off the floor. I had several big games at Pepperdine, but this was big.”
That night, he told reporters, “This is a huge win for the state of New Mexico. This is the highlight of my coaching career.”
• • •
The Wildcats got back on track, winning their next eight games and finishing the season with a 35-3 record and a loss in the Final Four to Oklahoma.
UNM went on to beat No. 5 Wyoming eight days later and finished the season with a 22-14 record (8-8 in the WAC) and went 2-1 in the NIT.
Colson was fired after the season by athletic director John Koenig, who hired Dave Bliss and later was fired and indicted on 47 counts related to charges he defrauded UNM out of money.
But that’s another story for another day.