When L.J. Jenkins was a pencil-thin sophomore at Texico High School, his basketball coach told him it was time to make a decision.
Back then, Jenkins moonlighted as bull rider and had aspirations of playing hoops at the next level.
Actually, that’s not true.
Since he’d been riding competitively since the age of 6, hoops was a hobby that he hoped turned into something more. His real full-time gig was climbing onto an ornery beast and seeing if he could last all eight seconds in the arena.
“My coach pretty much said I had to choose between this and playing for him,” Jenkins said. “I figured a 5-foot-10 basketball player from Texico wasn’t going to go as far as a bull rider would, so I chose this.”
Now 22 years old, Jenkins is one of the top riders on the Professional Bull Riders tour. He’s 11th in the 2010 Built Ford Tough Series standings, having won one event and placed in the top 10 in three other tour stops.
He has also won more than $900,000 during his career. By his count, that’s about $900,000 more than he would have gotten by pursuing a hoops career.
This weekend he’ll be in the Pit for the annual Ty Murray Invitational, one of the more popular stops on the PBR series. Events are scheduled for Friday and Saturday night, then again Sunday afternoon.
The invite was moved from Tingley Coliseum to the Pit last year. The relocation attracted record crowds and profits.
“There’s a lot of guys on tour who talk about this weekend,” Jenkins said. “This is one of those places you want to be.”
Crews went about the business of transforming the Pit into a riding arena on Wednesday night. Several tons of dirt and rigging were hauled down the ramp, raising the level of the Pit floor by about two feet.
Pens were also being constructed in the parking lot to house the livestock.
By Friday night, the building made famous for its basketball will be the temporary center of the bull riding universe as a national television audience watches on Versus.
Getting there has been a focal point for Jenkins for more than a year. He never got to the Pit as a basketball player. His first shot at the fabled arena would have been last year, but he was scratched from the PBR’s elite list just before the scheduled tour stop in Albuquerque.
“Every five weeks they cut the bottom five guys in the standings and bring in five from the lower tour,” he explained. “I was one of the five kicked out. Man, I really wanted to be here.”
Jenkins, who still calls himself a New Mexican despite the fact he has since taken up residence in Oklahoma, won the Ty Murray Invite two years ago. He enters this weekend as one of the favorites.
“I think everyone on this series thinks he could win it, but L.J. is one of the hottest riders out there right now so, yeah, he’s someone to look out for,” said Estancia’s Travis Briscoe, the PBR’s fifth-ranked rider. “If you ask me who’s going to win, I’d say me. If not, I wouldn’t be out there doing this. Everyone out there this weekend thinks he can win, but those of us from New Mexico want it bad, too.”
The downside to riding in your own backyard? The stay isn’t that long.
Asked how many weeks out of the year he’s on the road, Jenkins pauses.
“Well, how many weeks in a year are there again?” he said. “I’d say I’m traveling about 40 of them. At least I’ll be there this weekend.”