E-mail a link to this story to a friend
Sunday, September 19, 1999
The Pit: Basketball Arena Recognized Far and Wide
By Rick Wright
Journal Staff Writer
That ordinary-looking, one-story building on the southwest corner of University and César Chávez boulevards is anything but ordinary.
And anything but one-story.
Journal File Photo A view of the Pit from the ceiling of the arena during a Lobo basketball game. UNM Arena
Ask a sports fan in New York City or Los Angeles about University Arena -- the proper name of that building -- and expect a blank stare.
Ask about the Pit -- by far the more popular name -- and you might well see a smile and hear, "Oh, yeah. Albuquerque. The Lobos."
Arguably, only the balloon fiesta brings more recognition to Albuquerque each year than basketball at the Pit.
Built in 1966 on a budget of $1.3 million, the Pit recently was named the 13th best sports venue of the 20th century by a Sports Illustrated magazine panel. Its subterranean design has won international recognition for chief architect Joe Boehning, who still lives and works in Albuquerque.
It's the Albuquerque fans and the University of New Mexico basketball tradition, however, that brings the building to life.
There never would have been a Pit, in fact, had the popularity of Lobos men's basketball in the early '60s not made expansion necessary. When the Pit opened in '66, Johnson Gymnasium -- UNM's previous hoops home -- was just 9 years old.
Johnson seated around 8,000 people, a capacity that had seemed more than adequate before UNM hired Bob King as men's basketball coach in 1962. Almost immediately, the long-struggling program took off. So did attendance. UNM President Tom Popejoy and athletic director Pete McDavid were quick to realize that Johnson Gym had to be replaced.
Popejoy's and McDavid's vision was equaled by Boehning, who put up the roof and then started digging; all of the Pit's original 48 rows of seating are at or below ground level. Even now, Boehning says, such structures are rare.
The result? A spacious, yet remarkably intimate, arena that seats 18,018 after the addition of a mezzanine in 1975.
Since 1966, the Lobos have finished as high as second and no lower than 11th in average home attendance. They have a 469-105 all-time record at the Pit.
In 1983, North Carolina State upset Houston 54-52 in one of the most memorable and dramatic NCAA men's finals of all time.
Recently, there's been talk of UNM basketball becoming the chief tenant in a proposed 20,000-seat city- or privately owned arena. That would create the possibility of extra income from luxury boxes, something the Pit doesn't provide.
But would a new building provide the same ambience, the same electricity, the same thrills?
The Pit will be a tough act to follow.