Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Although neither season resulted in a blue trophy, the runs through the New Mexico high school state basketball tournament the past two seasons by Santa Fe’s two biggest schools produced remarkable memories: some happy, some glorious, some sad and some tragic.
And to one Santa Fe Prep alum who is now a sophomore film student at the University of New Mexico, it all was worth documenting.
“It’s rare that two Santa Fe basketball teams back to back made it to the finals,” Dillon Tiger Abeyta said of rivals Santa Fe High and Capital. “And in the highest class, as well.”
Abeyta is the nephew of Joe Abeyta, who is one of the owners and operators of Sports Primo, a community sports network streaming company that serves as the northern New Mexico National Federation of High Schools Network affiliate.
Part one of the two-hour, two-part documentary, “Once Upon A Time In … Santa Fe,” will air at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 12, on Sports Primo’s YouTube channel, with the second part airing the following Saturday at the same time.
The genesis for the documentary actually occurred following the Demons’ remarkable run to the state title game against Atrisco Heritage in 2019. Despite missing top player Fedonta “J.B.” White most of the season to an injury, Santa Fe High parlayed its team-first concept into a series of wins that came up one game short of a championship.
“When Santa Fe lost in the state championship game to Atrisco Heritage, Joe and I went out eat with family,” Dillon Abeyta said. “Being a team that was kind of a long shot and taking Atrisco to the end of the game, no one expected that.”
When the up-tempo, pressure-defense Capital Jaguars made a run of their own behind their own star, T.J. Sanchez, this past March, it really started the wheels turning, he said.
“A year later, everybody counted out Capital, just like the previous year with Santa Fe,” Abeyta said. “No one expected them to make it and they took them all the way to the end.”
The capper, however, was when White – a University of New Mexico signee who had finished his senior year over the summer and was prepared to play for the Lobos this fall – was shot and killed during an early-morning fight at a party this summer.
“Once we heard of the tragic news about J.B. White, I didn’t want the tragedy to overlook the accomplishments, and everything he did and everything Santa Fe really did,” Abeyta said. “With everything J.B. had to go through, it all built itself.”
For two years, the teams waged classic battles on the court, but remained close off it as many of the group played together before high school, all of which just added to the grandeur of the two seasons, said Abeyta, himself a basketball player for the Blue Griffins who also played with many of the Demons and Jaguars players while growing up.
“You have all of the excitement happening with Santa Fe, J.B. is the first player in 55 years to be offered a D1 scholarship and T.J. Sanchez, is the all-time scoring leader at Capital and the Jaguars make the finals,” Abeyta said. “It was a great time for both programs. Then, you have the whole tragedy of J.B. happening.”
Dillon Abeyta talked to his uncle about the idea for the documentary and within 24 hours had turned around a script.
“He was inspired,” Joe Abeyta said. “It was truly a Sylvester Stallone writing ‘Rocky’ in two weeks type of thing. I guided him. Techniques, what needed to be done, but he did it all.”
Dillon Abeyta said he had some main themes he wanted to address with the project.
“I wrote down two goals before I even wrote out a script,” he said. “First, I wanted to stay true to the story, and impact and inspire my community. That’s a big thing. I wanted to be inspiring for my generation. I don’t like to see that Santa Fe usually gets overlooked.”
And after what happened to White, Abeyta said he wanted to uplift the community.
“I wanted to give us something, to give us hope,” he said. “And to cope with everything and give us more inspiration going into this next season. This story doesn’t have to end on a tragic note. It can be inspired by, and carry on, JB’s legacy.”
Touching on the relationships of the players was important, as well.
“All the players grew up together and played on the same team together since they were little,” Abeyta said. “Once the game was over, they were all family. Even the coaches were family. That’s a sense of community that I wanted to reinstate.”
With the challenges of COVID, he decided against using new interviews for the project, instead culling footage from the past, particularly a piece Sports Primo did in the spring called “The Facts of White.”
“The whole story is almost like a collage, a neatly done collage,” Abeyta said. “I wanted people to feel like they were with the teams, but at the same time taking a step backward, having a bird’s eye view of what was happening.”
Joe Abeyta said it was an unusual way of putting together a documentary, but it worked.
“He used footage from everything that was put online,” he said. “Sports Primo, anything produced online. It’s like getting a stack of magazines, and going in there and cutting out pictures and articles, and putting them on a blank storyboard. That’s what’s so incredible. It’s an unusual way of putting together a great story by letting the pictures and the audio tell the story.”
In the White piece, he discusses what it meant to be a national-level recruit.
“He was talking about how he wanted younger kids to be on the same level that he was on,” Dillon Abeyta said. “He wanted other kids to experience that feeling of being a top recruited athlete and accomplishing all of those goals. He chose to stay in New Mexico and play UNM.”
And through the process, he said learned some valuable life lessons.
“I learned how important my community is,” Abeyta said. “I knew, but I didn’t realize how much. When it was announced J.B. was killed … Well, you have athletes that say you have to get out of New Mexico. But that’s the easy way out. Why not try to improve our community and use this to inspire the youth to do even better?”