ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The 18,101 of us who wandered over to the Pit on March 2, 1978 had no idea what we were about to witness.
Then again, neither did Marvin Johnson.
His name has resurfaced, thanks to Kendall Williams’ remarkable 46-point effort Saturday in Fort Collins, Colo.
Johnson, you see, owns UNM’s all-time single-game scoring record with 50 points. And everywhere he went on Sunday, people came up to him.
“Were you scared your record was going to be broken?” they wanted to know.
A night to remember
March 2, 1978 was a Thursday. Across the nation, televisions tuned into the debut of the TV soap “Dallas.”
But in Albuquerque, Lobo basketball was all the rage. UNM was 23-3, ranked in the top 10 and would finish second in the nation in attendance with an average of 17,240 fans a game.
Johnson, who had already earned the nickname “Automatic,” showed up at the Pit hoping to help the Lobos clinch a share of the WAC regular season title. Third-place Colorado State, with the talented Barry Young, provided the opposition.
Johnson remembers the day clearly — and there was nothing unusual about it.
“I did everything the same, approached every game the same,” Johnson says. “It was like every other game. Then, once it starts, you feel it.”
That night Johnson was feeling it.
“I had like 27 at halftime,” he says. “The players were saying, ‘We’re going to look for you, Marvin, see what you can do.'”
The school record was 46, which Johnson had set earlier that season. The WAC record was 48, owned by Wyoming’s Flynn Robinson and Utah’s Jerry Chambers.
“It was a team effort,” Johnson says. “Everybody recognized what was going on. I have to credit my teammates. They set better picks, made better passes.”
With the likes of Phil “the Iceman” Abney, Russell Saunders, Mark Felix, and a fellow named Michael Cooper supporting him, Johnson went 21 of 27 from the field and 8 of 10 from the free throw line in 31 minutes.
Many of the shots were from the deep corner, his natural spot.
“I had to get two at a time because there was no 3-pointer then,” Johnson says.
If there had been, he figures he would have scored “65 or 68.”
As it was, the record breaker, point number 50, came from the top of the key.
There were a couple of minutes left when he hit it and coach Norm Ellenberger took him out of the game. The Pit shook.
“He let the fans give me a little standing ovation,” Johnson says.
On Saturday, Johnson was on the road, but tuned into the Lobo game on the radio.
With about a minute left , Johnson figured the Lobos had the victory safely in hand. So he turned the radio off.
Later, he checked in on the postgame show and heard people talking about how close Williams had come to his record. The next day, wherever he went, people asked him about it.
“Records are meant to be broken,” Johnson says. “I’m surprised it’s lasted as long as it has with the 3-pointer. Besides, I’m not getting any royalties for it.”
Johnson says he likes Williams and would have been pleased if he had gotten the record.
“He had one of those nights where you don’t miss,” Johnson says. “He could do no wrong.”
But he admits to being surprised that it was Williams who challenged his mark. Of the current Lobos, he figures Tony Snell might be the guy who does it.
“I was a go-to kind of guy,” says Johnson, who averaged 24.0 points his senior season. “This team doesn’t have that, necessarily. Maybe Kendall has that role now. They needed the points and he got them. But they’ve had other guys, too. That’s a good thing. There’s been no one for a team to target. They’ve got several guys who can step up and get points.”
Johnson, obviously an offensive-minded player, says he would have loved to play for the defensive-minded Steve Alford.
“I think he’s done a brilliant job,” Johnson says.
Johnson came to New Mexico out of Howard Junior College. He was looking for a school where he could play right away. In 1976, some players walked out on the Lobo program, creating openings.
“I knew I’d have an opportunity to show what I can do,” Johnson says. “And it worked.”
Johnson, who was drafted by the Chicago Bulls, has conducted youth basketball camps in the Albuquerque area for years (go to swbbcamp.net for information). He’s planning a TV show for the public access channel next month which will focus on youth sports. But, of course, his own history is likely to come up.
Johnson will probably wander over to the Pit on Wednesday night. He can be there for his nephew, Winston Shepard, a freshman for San Diego State, and at the same time support his Lobos.
They’ve spruced up the place a little since the days Marvin Johnson roamed the Pit. But in many ways it’s still the same.
And there is one night that resonates all these years and all those games later. Many of us had never seen anything like it before. Many of us haven’t seen anything like it since.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal